Biography of Samuel Morse 1791 - 1872

1791 - 1827

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On April 27, Samuel Finley Breese Morse is born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, the first child of Jedidiah Morse, a Congregational minister and geographer, and Elizabeth Ann Finley Breese.


Morse enters Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts.


Alessandro Volta of Italy creates the "voltaic pile," a battery that produces a reliable, steady current of electricity.


Samuel Morse enters Yale College at age fourteen. He hears lectures on electricity from Benjamin Silliman and Jeremiah Day. While at Yale, he earns money by painting small portraits of friends, classmates, and teachers. A profile goes for one dollar, and a miniature portrait on ivory sells for five dollars.


Samuel Morse graduates from Yale College and returns to Charlestown, Massachusetts. Despite his wishes to be a painter and encouragement from the famed American painter Washington Allston, Morse's parents plan for him to be a bookseller's apprentice. He becomes a clerk for Daniel Mallory, his father's Boston book publisher.


In July, Morse's parents relent and let him set sail for England with Washington Allston. He attends the Royal Academy of Arts in London and receives instruction from the famed Pennsylvania-born painter Benjamin West. In December, Morse rooms with Charles Leslie of Philadelphia, who is also studying painting. They become friends with the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. While in England, Morse also befriends the American painter Charles Bird King, the American actor John Howard Payne, and the English painter Benjamin Robert Haydon.


Samuel Morse models a plaster statuette of The Dying Hercules, which wins a gold medal at the Adelphi Society of Arts exhibition in London. His subsequent 6' x 8' painting of The Dying Hercules is exhibited at the Royal Academy and receives critical acclaim.


In October, Samuel Morse returns to the United States and Morse opens an art studio in Boston.


In search of portrait commissions to support himself, Morse travels to New Hampshire. In Concord, he meets Lucretia Pickering Walker, aged sixteen, and they are soon engaged to be married.


While in Charlestown, Samuel Morse and his brother Sidney patent a flexible piston man-powered water pump for fire engines. They demonstrate it successfully, but it is a commercial failure.

Morse spends the rest of the year painting in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.


On September 29, Lucretia Pickering Walker and Morse are married in Concord, New Hampshire. Morse spends the winter in Charleston, South Carolina, where he receives many portrait commissions. This is the first of four annual trips to Charleston.


On September 2, Morse's first child, Susan Walker Morse, is born. The city of Charleston commissions Morse to paint a portrait of President James Monroe.


The Danish physicist Hans Christian Oersted discovers that electric current in a wire generates a magnetic field that can deflect a compass needle. This property will eventually be used in the design of some electromagnetic telegraph systems.


While living with his family in New Haven, Morse paints such distinguished individuals as Eli Whitney, Yale president Jeremiah Day, and his neighbor Noah Webster. He also paints in Charleston and Washington, D.C.


Samuel Morse invents the marble-cutting machine that can carve three-dimensional sculpture in marble or stone. He discovers that it is not patentable because it infringes on an 1820 design by Thomas Blanchard.

Morse finishes an eighteen-month project to paint The House of Representatives, an oversize scene of the Rotunda of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. It contains more than eighty portraits of members of Congress and justices of the Supreme Court, but loses money during its public exhibition.


On March 17, a second child, Charles Walker Morse, is born. Morse opens an art studio in New York City.


The Marquis de Lafayette makes his last visit to the United States. The City of New York commissions Morse to paint a portrait of Lafayette for $1,000. On January 7, a third child, James Edward Finley Morse, is born. On February 7, Morse's wife, Lucretia, dies suddenly at age twenty-five. By the time he is notified and returns home to New Haven, she has already been buried. In November, artists in New York City form a drawing cooperative, the New York Drawing Association, and elect Morse president. It is run by and for artists, and its goals include art instruction.

William Sturgeon invents the electromagnet, which will be a key component of the telegraph.


January in New York, Samuel Morse becomes a founder and first president of the National Academy of Design, which has been established in reaction to the conservative American Academy of Fine Arts. Morse is president on and off for nineteen years. On June 9, his father, Jedidiah Morse, dies.


Morse helps launch the New York Journal of Commerce and publishes Academics of Art.

Professor James Freeman Dana of Columbia College gives a series of lectures on electricity and electromagnetism at the New York Athenaeum, where Morse also lectures. Through their friendship, Morse becomes more familiar with the properties of electricity.


His mother, Elizabeth Ann Finley Breese Morse, dies.


In November, leaving his children in the care of other family members, Samuel Morse sets sail for Europe. He visits Lafayette in Paris and paints in the Vatican galleries in Rome. During the next three years, he visits numerous art collections to study the work of the Old Masters and other painters. He also paints landscapes. Morse spends much time with his novelist friend James Fenimore Cooper.


The American scientist Joseph Henry announces his discovery of a powerful electromagnet made from many layers of insulated wire. Demonstrating how such a magnet can send electric signals over long distances, he suggests the possibility of the telegraph.


During his voyage home to New York on the Sully, Samuel Morse first conceives the idea of the electromagnetic telegraph during his conversations with another passenger, Dr. Charles T. Jackson of Boston. Jackson describes to him European experiments with electromagnetism. Inspired, Morse writes ideas for a prototype of an electromagnetic recording telegraph and dot-and-dash code system in his sketchbook. Morse is appointed the professor of painting and sculpture at the University of the City of New York (now New York University) and works on developing the telegraph.


Morse completes work on the 6' x 9' painting Gallery of the Louvre. The canvas contains forty-one Old Masters paintings in miniature. The painting loses money during its public exhibition.


Morse is appointed the professor of Literature of the Arts and Design at the University of the City of New York (now New York University). Morse publishes Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States (New York: Leavitt, Lord & Co.), which had been published serially in his brothers' weekly periodical, New York Observer. It is a treatise against the political influence of Catholicism.

In Autumn, Samuel Morse constructs a recording telegraph with a moving paper ribbon and demonstrates it to several friends and acquaintances.


In January, Morse demonstrates his recording telegraph to Dr. Leonard Gale, a professor of science at New York University. In the spring, Morse runs unsuccessfully for mayor of New York for a nativist (anti-immigration) party. He receives 1,496 votes.


In the spring, Morse shows Dr. Gale his plans for "relays," where one electric circuit is used to open and close a switch on another electric circuit further away. For his assistance, the science professor becomes part owner of the telegraph rights.

By November, a message can be sent through ten miles of wire arranged on reels in Dr. Gale's university lecture room. In September, Alfred Vail, an acquaintance of Morse, witnesses a demonstration of the telegraph. He is soon taken on as a partner with Morse and Gale because of his financial resources, mechanical skills, and access to his family's ironworks for building telegraph models.

Dr. Charles T. Jackson, Morse's acquaintance from the 1832 Sully voyage, now claims to be the inventor of the telegraph. Morse obtains statements from those present on the ship at the time, and they credit Morse with the invention. This is the first of many legal battles Morse will face.

On September 28, Morse files a caveat for a patent for the telegraph. After completing his last paintings in December, Morse withdraws from painting to devote his attention to the telegraph. The Englishmen William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone patent their own five-needle telegraph system. The system was inspired by a Russian design of an experimental galvanometer telegraph.


In January, Morse changes from using a telegraphic dictionary, where words are represented by number codes, to using a code for each letter. This eliminates the need to encode and decode each word to be transmitted.

On January 24, Morse demonstrates the telegraph to his friends in his university studio. On February 8, Morse demonstrates the telegraph before a scientific committee at Philadelphia's Franklin Institute. He later exhibits the telegraph before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Commerce, chaired by Representative F. O. J. Smith of Maine. On February 21, Morse demonstrates the telegraph to President Martin Van Buren and his cabinet.

In March, Congressman Smith becomes a partner in the telegraph, along with Morse, Alfred Vail, and Leonard Gale. On April 6, Smith sponsors a bill in Congress to appropriate $30,000 to build a fifty-mile telegraph line, but the bill is not acted upon. Smith conceals his part-interest in the telegraph and serves out his full term of office.

In May, Morse travels to Europe in order to secure patent rights for his electromagnetic telegraph in England, France, and Russia. He is successful in France. In England, Cooke puts his needle telegraph into operation on the London and Blackwall Railway.


In Paris, Morse meets Louis Daguerre, the creator of the daguerreotype, and publishes the first American description of this process of photography. Morse becomes one of the first Americans to make daguerreotypes in the United States.


Samuel Morse is granted a United States patent for his telegraph. Morse opens a daguerreotype portrait studio in New York with John William Draper. Morse teaches the process to several others, including Mathew Brady, the future Civil War photographer.


In the spring, Samuel Morse runs again as a nativist candidate for mayor of New York City. A forged letter appears in a newspaper announcing that Morse has withdrawn from the election. In the confusion, he receives fewer than one hundred votes.


In October, Samuel Morse experiments with underwater transmissions. Two miles of cable is submerged between the Battery and Governor's Island in New York Harbor and signals are sent successfully.


On March 3, Congress votes to appropriate $30,000 for an experimental telegraph line from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore, Maryland. Construction of the telegraph line begins several months later. Initially, the cable is placed in lead pipes underground, using a machine designed by Ezra Cornell; when that fails, above-ground poles are used.


On May 24, Samuel Morse sends the telegraph message "What hath God wrought?" from the Supreme Court chamber in the Capitol in Washington, D.C., to the B & O Railroad Depot in Baltimore, Maryland.


On January 3 in England, John Tawell is arrested for the murder of his mistress. He escapes by train to London, but his description is wired ahead by telegraph police are waiting for him when he arrives. In the spring, Morse selects Amos Kendall, former U.S. Postmaster-General, to be his agent. Vail and Gale agree to take on Kendall as their agent as well. In May, Kendall and F. O. J. Smith create the Magnetic Telegraph Company to extend the telegraph from Baltimore to Philadelphia and New York. By the summer, Morse returns to Europe to promote and secure his telegraph rights.


The telegraph line is extended from Baltimore to Philadelphia. New York is now connected to Washington, D.C., Boston, and Buffalo. Different telegraph companies begin to appear, sometimes building competing lines side by side. Morse's patent claims are threatened, especially by the telegraph companies of Henry O'Reilly.


Samuel Morse buys Locust Grove, an estate overlooking the Hudson River near Poughkeepsie, New York.


On August 10, Samuel Morse marries Sarah Elizabeth Griswold, a second cousin twenty-six years his junior. The Associated Press is formed by six New York City daily newspapers in order to pool the expense of telegraphing foreign news.


On July 25, Morse's fourth child, Samuel Arthur Breese Morse, is born. There are an estimated twelve thousand miles of telegraph lines run by twenty different companies in the United States.


On April 8, a fifth child, Cornelia (Leila) Livingston Morse, is born.


A submarine telegraph cable is successfully laid across the English Channel; direct London to Paris communications begin.


On January 25, his sixth child, William Goodrich Morse, is born.


The U.S. Supreme Court upholds Morse's patent claims for the telegraph. All U.S. companies that use his system begin to pay Morse royalties.

Samuel Morse runs unsuccessfully as a Democratic candidate for Congress in the Poughkeepsie district, New York.

Morse's telegraph patent is extended for seven years. The British and French build telegraph lines to use in the Crimean War. The governments are now able to communicate directly with commanders in the field, and newspaper correspondents are able to wire reports from the front.


The New York and Mississippi Printing Telegraph Company unites with a number of other smaller telegraph companies to form the Western Union Telegraph Company.


On March 29, Morse's seventh and last child, Edward Lind Morse, is born. Samuel Morse serves as an electrician for Cyrus W. Field's company during its attempts to lay the first transatlantic telegraph cable. The first three tries end in failure.


On August 16, the first transatlantic cable message is sent from Queen Victoria to President Buchanan. However, while this fourth attempt to establish an Atlantic cable is successful, it stops working less than a month after its completion. On September 1, the governments of ten European countries award Morse four hundred thousand French francs for his invention of the telegraph.


The Magnetic Telegraph Company becomes a part of Field's American Telegraph Company.


The Civil War begins. The telegraph is used by both the Union and Confederate forces during the war. Stringing up telegraph wires becomes an important part of military operations. On October 24, Western Union completes the first transcontinental telegraph line to California.


The International Telegraph Union is founded to set rules and standards for the telegraph industry. Another attempt at laying the transatlantic cable fails; the cable breaks after two-thirds of it is laid. Morse becomes a charter trustee of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York.


Morse sails with his second wife and their four children to France, where they remain until 1868. The Atlantic Cable is finally successfully laid. The broken cable from the previous year's attempt is raised and repaired; soon two cables are operational. By 1880, an estimated one hundred thousand miles of undersea telegraph cable have been laid. The Western Union merges with the American Telegraph Company and becomes the dominant telegraph company in the United States.


Morse serves as a United States commissioner at the Paris Universal Exposition.


On June 10, a statue of Morse is unveiled in Central Park in New York City. With much fanfare, Morse sends a "farewell" telegraph message around the world from New York.


On April 2, Samuel Morse dies in New York City at eighty-one years of age. He is buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn.