Biography of Samuel F.B. Morse, Inventor of the Telegraph

Samuel F.B. Morse

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Samuel Finley Breese Morse (April 27, 1791–April 2, 1872) is famous as the inventor of the telegraph and Morse Code, but what he really wanted to do was paint. He was a well-established artist when his youthful interest in electronics resurfaced, leading to the communications invention that changed humanity until it was overshadowed by the telephone, radio, television, and, finally, the internet.

Fast Facts: Samuel F.B. Morse

  • Known For: Inventor of the telegraph
  • Born: April 27, 1791 in Charlestown, Massachusetts
  • Parents: Jedidiah Morse, Elizabeth Ann Finley Breese
  • Died: April 2, 1872 in New York, New York
  • Education: Yale College (now Yale University)
  • Spouse(s): Lucretia Pickering Walker, Sarah Elizabeth Griswold
  • Children: Susan, Charles, James, Samuel, Cornelia, William, Edward
  • Notable Quote: "What hath God wrought?"

Early Life and Education

Samuel F.B. Morse was born on April 27, 1791, in Charlestown, Massachusetts, the first child of noted geographer and Congregational minister Jedidiah Morse and Elizabeth Ann Finley Breese. His parents were committed to his schooling and the Calvinist faith. His early education at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, was undistinguished, except for his interest in art.

He next enrolled in Yale College (now Yale University) at age 14, where he focused on art but found a new interest in the little-studied subject of electricity. He earned money by painting small portraits of friends, classmates, and teachers before graduating in 1810 with Phi Beta Kappa honors.

He returned to Charlestown after college. Despite his wishes to be a painter and encouragement from famed American painter Washington Allston, Morse's parents wanted him to be a bookseller's apprentice. He became a clerk for Daniel Mallory, his father's Boston book publisher.

Trip to England

A year later, Morse's parents relented and let him sail to England with Allston. He attended the Royal Academy of Arts in London and received instruction from Pennsylvania-born painter Benjamin West. Morse became friends with poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, several accomplished painters, and American actor John Howard Payne.

He adopted a “romantic” painting style featuring heroic characters and epic events. In 1812, his plaster statuette "The Dying Hercules" won a gold medal at the Adelphi Society of Arts exhibition in London, and his painting of the same subject received critical acclaim at the Royal Academy.

Family

Morse returned to the U.S. in 1815 and opened an art studio in Boston. The next year, seeking portrait commissions to earn a living, he traveled to New Hampshire and met Lucretia Pickering Walker, 16, in Concord. They soon became engaged. Morse painted some of his most notable work at this time, including portraits of military leader Marquis de Lafayette and President George Washington

On Sept. 29, 1818, Lucretia Walker and Morse were married in Concord. Morse spent the winter in Charleston, South Carolina, and received many portrait commissions there. The couple spent the rest of the year painting in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. A year later, Morse's first child was born.

While living with his family in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1821, Morse painted more distinguished individuals, including cotton gin inventor Eli Whitney and dictionary compiler Noah Webster.

Morse's second child was born in 1823 and his third child arrived two years later, but tragedy followed. One month after the birth of his third child, Lucretia Morse died suddenly at age 25 and was buried in New Haven before he could return.

Interest in Electricity Resurfaces

In 1827, Columbia College Professor James Freeman Dana presented a series of lectures on electricity and electromagnetism at the New York Athenaeum, where Morse also lectured. Through their friendship, Morse became more familiar with the properties of his earlier interest.

In November 1829, leaving his children in the care of relatives, Morse left for a three-year tour of Europe, where he visited friends Lafayette and novelist James Fenimore Cooper, studied art collections, and painted.

While raising his family, painting, lecturing on art, and viewing works by the old masters, Morse's fascination with electronics and inventions never disappeared. In 1817, he and his brother Sidney patented a human-powered water pump for fire engines that worked but was a commercial failure. Five years later, Morse invented a marble-cutting machine that could carve three-dimensional sculptures, but it couldn't be patented because it infringed on an earlier design.

Meanwhile, advances in electronics had been moving the world closer to a device that could send messages over vast distances. In 1825, British physicist and inventor William Sturgeon invented the electromagnet, which would be a key component of the telegraph. Six years later, American scientist Joseph Henry developed a more powerful electromagnet and demonstrated how it could send electric signals over long distances, suggesting the possibility of a device such as the telegraph.

In 1832, on his voyage home from Europe, Morse conceived the idea of an electromagnetic telegraph during conversations with another passenger, a doctor who described to Morse European experiments with electromagnetism. Inspired, Morse wrote in his sketchbook ideas for a prototype of an electromagnetic recording telegraph and a dot-and-dash code system that would bear his name.

Later that year, Morse was appointed professor of painting and sculpture at the University of the City of New York (now New York University), but he continued to work on the telegraph.

Developing the Telegraph

In the fall of 1835, Morse built a recording telegraph with a moving paper ribbon and demonstrated it to friends and acquaintances. The next year he demonstrated his prototype to a professor of science at the university. Over the next several years, Morse demonstrated his invention to friends, professors, a House of Representatives committee, President Martin Van Buren, and his cabinet. He took on several partners who helped with the science and financing, but his work also began to attract competitors.

On Sept. 28, 1837, Morse began the patent process for the telegraph. By November he was able to send a message through 10 miles of wire arranged on reels in a university lecture room. The next month, after completing the paintings he was working on, Morse set aside his art to devote his full attention to the telegraph.

At this point, other men—including the doctor on Morse's 1832 return voyage from Europe and several European inventors—were claiming credit for the telegraph. The claims were resolved and in 1840 Morse was granted a U.S. patent for his device. Lines were strung between many cities, and on May 24, 1844, Morse sent his famous message—"What hath God wrought?"—from the Supreme Court chamber in Washington, D.C., to the B & O Railroad Depot in Baltimore, Maryland.

By 1849, an estimated 12,000 miles of telegraph lines were being run by 20 American companies in the United States. In 1854, the Supreme Court upheld Morse's patent claims, meaning that all U.S. companies using his system had to pay him royalties. On Oct. 24, 1861, Western Union completed the first transcontinental telegraph line to California. After several breaks, a permanent undersea Atlantic Cable was finally laid in 1866.

New Family

Back in 1847 Morse, already a wealthy man, had bought Locust Grove, an estate overlooking the Hudson River near Poughkeepsie, New York. The next year he married Sarah Elizabeth Griswold, a second cousin 26 years his junior. The couple had four children together. In the 1850s, he built an Italian villa-style mansion on the Locust Grove property and spent his summers there with his large family of children and grandchildren, returning each winter to his brownstone in New York.

Death

On April 2, 1872, Samuel Morse died in New York. He was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

Legacy

Morse's invention changed the world, as it was used by the military during engagements, newspaper reporters filing stories from the field, far-flung businesses, and others. After his death, his fame as the inventor of the telegraph was obscured by other communication devices—the telephone, radio, television, and the internet—while his reputation as an artist grew. At one time he didn't want to be remembered as a portrait painter, but his powerful, sensitive portraits have been exhibited throughout the United States.

His 1837 telegraph instrument is in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. His Locust Grove estate is a national historic landmark.

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