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Samuel F. B. Morse


Samuel F. B. Morse

Samuel Finley Breese Morse was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, on April 27, 1791. He was the eldest son of Jedidiah Morse, a controversial minister and author of some of the first American books on geography, and Elizabeth Ann Breese. He showed artistic talent from an early age, and had aspirations of becoming an artist. He attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and graduated from Yale College in 1810, and then managed to convince his parents to allow him to study at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, beginning in 1811. Told he would have to submit work before being admitted to the Academy, Morse executed a clay statue of Hercules that won him a gold medal from the Adelphia Society of Arts in 1812. His painting The Dying Hercules was accepted for the annual Academy art exhibit in 1813, and was rated by at least one critic as one of the nine best among the thousands of paintings exhibited. Finally accepted into the Academy, Morse studied there until 1815.

Returning home in 1815, Morse hoped to make his career as a painter but found Americans more desirous of portraits than works of art and found it difficult to make a decent living, despite gaining a reputation for being a talented portrait painter. When not painting, he spent his time working on mechanical pursuits. In 1817 he and his brother Sidney Edwards Morse took out a patent for a flexible piston pump for fire engines, and in 1822 he built a marble cutting machine. Neither invention proved financially successful, however.

Morse moved to New York City in 1825 hoping to better his artistic career. Although his portraits gained him much recognition there, they still failed to make him a decent living. In 1829 he learned that the government would be commissioning four huge paintings for the U.S. Capitol rotunda, so he decided to further his studies in Europe in order to better his chances of winning the commission. He returned to the U.S. in 1832, but the committee charged with hiring the artist for the Capitol paintings didn't think any American painter had enough talent for the job and Morse's artistic career was again stymied.

Morse became interested in the telegraph while sailing home from Europe in 1832, when he learned during a dinner conversation that electricity could be sent instantly over any length of wire. Almost penniless upon his return, he moved into a room on the top floor of his brothers' newspaper building, where he lived, cooked his own meals, and worked on improving the telegraph. His only income was a small salary from teaching painting and sculpting to students at the University of the City of New York. Unable to afford insulated wire on reels, Morse bought wire in pieces, soldered the pieces together, and wrapped it bit by bit with cotton thread. He was aided in his work by UCNY science professor Leonard Dunnell Gale. The basic elements of a relay system had been worked out by late 1835, and in 1837 Morse demonstrated his telegraph to potential investors. Those investors found the telegraph interesting, but were not willing to spend money on what they saw as little more than an amusing contraption.

patent drawing for Morse's telegraph
patent drawing

Fortunately for Morse, one of the persons who saw the demonstration was Alfred Vail, a student at UCNY. Vail offered to help Morse and Gale build a sturdier model of the telegraph, and secured the use of his father's iron and brass works in Morristown, New Jersey, to make better components. In return, Morse made Vail a partner with one-fourth interest in any future profits. The Morse Code was developed by 1838. Morse demonstrated the telegraph to Congress that same year, but the government was not interested in funding more work. He then tried to solicit financial support in England and France, and again met with rejection. In 1842, Morse waterproofed two miles of wire with pitch, tar, and rubber, and laid it underwater from the Battery to Governors Island. Local newspapers carried news that a great demonstration would be taking place, but just prior to the appointed time a ship's anchor caught the wire, which was brought up by the sailors and cut; the assembled crowds went away convinced that the announced demonstration was a hoax.

In 1843, Morse once again demonstrated the telegraph before Congress. On the last day of that year's session, Congress passed a bill appropriating $30,000 to test the device. A line was strung from the Supreme Court room in the Capitol to the Mount Clair train depot in Baltimore, and, on May 24, 1844, Morse tapped out the message "What hath God wrought" before a large group of spectators, and another group of spectators watched as the message was successfully received in Baltimore. Morse filed for a patent on the printing telegraph that same year, but the patent was not granted until 1849.

Having endured years of financial instability and relative obscurity, Morse finally began getting the recognition he had long hoped for. By 1846 private companies were using Morse's patent to build telegraph lines across the northeast, and by 1847 he was able to buy a nice country home just outside of Poughkeepsie, New York, which he called Locust Grove. Within twelve years of Morse's historic demonstration telegraph lines had been strung across much of the country, and by 1858 Morse was a wealthy man.

Samuel F. B. Morse died in New York City on April 2, 1872.

Yale University

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The Robinson Library >> Telecommunication

This page was last updated on June 19, 2018.