Samuel Finley Breese Morse (April 27, 1791 – April 2, 1872) was an American painter of portraits and historic scenes, the creator of a single wire telegraph system, and co-inventor, with Alfred Vail, of the Morse Code.
Birth and education
Samuel F.B. Morse was born on April 27, 1791 in Charlestown, Massachusetts, the first child of geographer and Pastor Jedidiah Morse and Elizabeth Ann Loose Morse. Jedidiah was a great preacher of the Calvinist faith and supporter of the American Federalist party. He not only saw it as a great preserver of Puritan traditions (strict observance of the Sabbath), but believed in its idea of an alliance with English in regards to a strong central government. Jedidiah strongly believed in education within a Federalist framework alongside the instillation of Calvinist virtues, morals and prayers for his son. After attending Phillips Academy in Andover, Samuel went on to Yale College to receive instruction in the subjects of religious philosophy, mathematics and science of horses. While at Yale, he attended lectures on electricity from Benjamin Silliman and Jeremiah Day. He earned money by painting.
Morse’s Calvinist beliefs are evident in his painting the Landing of the Pilgrims, through the depiction of simplistic clothing as well as the austere facial features. This image captured the psychology of the Federalists; Calvinists from England brought to the United States ideas of religion and government thus forever linking the two countries. More importantly, this particular work attracted the attention of the famous artist, Washington Allston. Allston wanted Morse to accompany him to England to meet the artist Benjamin West. An agreement for a three- year stay was made with Jedidah, and young Morse set sail with Allston aboard the Lydia on July 15, 1811 (1).
Upon his arrival in England, Morse diligently worked at perfecting painting techniques under the watchful eye of Allston; by the end of 1811, he gained admittance to the Royal Academy. At the Academy, he fell in love with the Neo-classical art of the Renaissance and paid close attention to Michelangelo and Raphael. After observing and practicing life drawing and absorbing its anatomical demands, the young artist successfully produced his masterpiece, the Dying Hercules.
To some, the Dying Hercules seemed to represent a political statement against the British and also the American Federalists. The muscles apparently symbolized the strength of the young and vibrant United States versus the British and British-American supporters. During Morse’s time in Britain the Americans and English were engaged in the War of 1812 and division existed within United States society over loyalties. Anti-Federalists Americans aligned themselves with the French, abhorred the British, and believed a strong central government to be inherently dangerous to democracy.(3) As the war raged on his letters to his parents became more anti-Federalist in their tones. In one such letter Morse said, “I assert that the Federalists in the Northern States have done more injury to their country by their violent opposition measures than a French alliance could. Their proceedings are copied into the English papers, read before Parliament, and circulated through their country, and what do they say of them… they call them (Federalists) cowards, a base set, say they are traitors to their country and ought to be hanged like traitors.”Morse in his youth.
Although Jedidah did not change his political views, he did influence Morse’s in another way. It is unmistakably clear that Jedidah’s Calvinist ideas were an integral part of Morse’s other significant English piece Judgment of Jupiter.
Jupiter in the cloud, accompanied by his eagle, with his hand over the parties, is pronouncing judgment. Marpessa with an expression of compunction and shame, imploring forgiveness, is throwing herself into the arms of her husband. Idas, who tenderly loved Marpessa, is eagerly rushing forward to receive her, while Apollo stares with surprise… at the unexpectedness of her decision (5). A case can be made that Jupiter is representative of God’s omnipotence watching every move that is made. One might deem the portrait as a moral teaching by Morse on infidelity. Although Marpessa fell victim she realized that her eternal salvation was important and desisted from her wicked ways. Apollo shows no remorse for what he did, but just stands there with a puzzled look. A lot of the American paintings throughout the early nineteenth century had religious themes and tones and it was Morse who was the forerunner. Judgment of Jupiter allowed Morse to express his support of Anti Federalism while maintaining his strong spiritual convictions. This work represented American nationalism through Calvinism because these individuals expelled from England, contributed to the expulsion of the English (1776 and now in 1812) and established a free democratic society. West sought to present this image at another Royal Academy exhibition; unfortunately his time had run out. He left England on August 21, 1815 and began his full-time career as an American painter (6).
The years 1815-1825 marked significant growth in Morse’s paintings as he sought to capture the essence of America’s culture and life. He had the honor of painting former Federalist President John Adams (1816). He hoped to become part of grander projects and saw his opportunity with the clash between Federalist and Anti-Federalists over Dartmouth College. Morse was able to paint Judge Woodward (1817) who was involved in bringing the Dartmouth case before the Supreme Court and the college’s president, Francis Brown. He sought commissions in Charleston, South Carolina (1818). Morse’s painting of Mrs. Emma Quash symbolized the opulence of Charleston. It seemed for the time being, the young artist was doing well for himself (7).
Between 1819 and 1821, Morse experienced a great change in his’ life. Commissions ceased in Charleston when the city was hit with an economic recession. Jedidah was forced to resign from his ministerial position as he was unsuccessful in stopping the rift within Calvinism. The new branch that formed was the Congregational Unitarians which he deemed as detestable anti-Federalists because these persons took a different approach over salvation. Although he respected his father’s religious opinions, he sympathized with the Unitarians. A prominent family that converted to the new Calvinist faith was the Pickerings of Portsmouth whom Morse had painted. This portrait can then be viewed as a further shift towards anti-Federalism. A person could argue that he made his full transition to anti- Federalism when he was commissioned to paint President James Monroe (1820). Monroe embodied Jeffersonian Democracy by favoring the common man over the aristocrat; later reemphasized upon the ascension of Andrew Jackson (8).
Mrs. Daniel de Saussure Bacot, an example of Morse’s portraiture
There were two defining commissions that shaped Morse’s art career from his return to New Haven until the establishment of the National Academy of Design. The Hall of Congress (1821) and the Marquis de Lafayette (1825) embroiled Morse’s sense of democratic nationalism. The artist chose to paint the House of Representatives, to show American democracy in action. He traveled to Washington D.C. to draw the architecture of the new halls, carefully placing eighty individuals within the painting and believed that a night scene was appropriate. He successfully balanced the architecture of the Rotunda with the figurines and the glow of the lamplight serving as the focal point of the work. Pairs of people, those who stood alone, individuals bent over their desks working were painted simply but had characterized faces. Morse chose nighttime to convey Congress’ dedication to the principles of democracy transcended day. The Hall of Congress however, failed to draw a crowd in New York City. One possible reason for the disappointment was the shadow of John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence that won popular acclaim in 1820. Perhaps some individuals did not appreciate the inner-workings of the American government (9).
Morse felt a great degree of honor of painting the Marquis de Lafayette, leading supporter of the American Revolution. He felt compelled to paint a grandiose portrait of the man who helped to establish a free and independent America. In his image, he enshrouds Lafayette with a magnificent sunset as he stands to the right of three pedestals of which two are Benjamin Franklin and George Washington with the final reserved for him. A peaceful wooden landscape below him symbolized American tranquility and prosperity as it approach the age of fifty. The developing friendship between Morse and Lafayette and the discussion of the Revolutionary War, affected the artist upon returning to New York City (10).
Morse was in Europe for three years improving his painting skills, 1830-1832, travelling in Italy, Switzerland and France. The project he eventually selected was to paint miniature copies of some 38 of the Louvre’s famous paintings on a single canvas (6 ft. x 9 ft) which he entitled “The Gallery of the Louvre”. He planned to complete “The Gallery of the Louvre” when he returned home to Massachusetts and to earn an income by exhibiting his work and charging admission. This was typical of Morse who stumbled haphazardly from one money-making scheme to another in those days.
TelegraphOriginal Samuel Morse telegraph
On the sea voyage home in 1832 Morse encountered Charles Thomas Jackson of Boston who was well schooled in electromagnetism. Witnessing various experiments with Jackson’s electromagnet, Morse developed the concept of a single wire telegraph, and “The Gallery of the Louvre” was set aside. He was devising his telegraph code even before the ship docked.1 In time the Morse code would become the primary language of telegraphy in the world.
In 1836 Morse ran unsuccessfully for mayor of New York under the Nativist banner, gathering only 1496 votes.
William Cooke and Professor Charles Wheatstone reached the stage of launching a commercial telegraph prior to Morse, despite starting later. In England Cooke became fascinated by electrical telegraph in 1836, four years after Morse, but with greater financial resources. Cooke abandoned his primary subject of anatomy and built a small electrical telegraph within three weeks. Wheatstone also was experimenting with telegraphy and (most importantly) understood that a single large battery would not carry a telegraphic signal over long distances, and that numerous small batteries were far more successful and efficient in this task (Wheatstone was building on the primary research of Joseph Henry, an American physicist). Cooke and Wheatstone formed a partnership and patented the electrical telegraph in May 1837, and within a short time had provided the Great Western Railway with a 13-mile (21 km) stretch of telegraph. However, Cooke and Wheatstone’s multiple wire signaling method would be overtaken by Morse’s superior code within a few years.
Morse encountered the problem of getting a telegraphic signal to carry over more than a few hundred yards of wire. His breakthrough came from the insights of Professor Leonard Gale, who taught chemistry at New York University (a personal friend of Joseph Henry). With Gale’s help, Morse soon was able to send a message through ten miles (16 km) of wire. This was the great breakthrough Morse had been seeking.
Morse and Gale were soon joined by a young enthusiastic man, Alfred Vail, who had excellent skills, insights and money. Morse’s telegraph now began to be developed very rapidly.
In 1838 a trip to Washington, D.C. failed to attract federal sponsorship for a telegraph line. Morse then traveled to Europe seeking both sponsorship and patents, but in London discovered Cooke and Wheatstone had already established priority. Morse would need the financial backing of Maine congressman Francis Ornand Jonathan Smith.
In 1839, while in Paris, Morse wrote a letter to the New-York Observer describing his visit with Louis J. M. Daguerre. The letter was published widely in the American press and provided a broad awareness regarding the daguerreotype, the first practical means of photography. (See external link below.)
Morse made one last trip to Washington, D.C., in December 1842, stringing “wires between two committee rooms in the Capitol, and sent messages back and forth — and, for some reason, this time some people believed him, and a bill was finally proposed allocating $30,000 towards building an experimental line”.³
The general public was highly skeptical, and there were also a great many skeptics in Congress. A thirty-eight-mile (61-km) line was constructed between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. The most convincing demonstration was when the results of the Whig National Convention at Baltimore in the spring of 1844 reached Washington via telegraph prior to the arrival of the first train. On 24 May 1844 the line (which ran along the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad between the Capitol and Baltimore) was officially opened as Morse sent his famous words “What hath God wrought” along the wire.
The first telegraph office
In May 1845 the Magnetic Telegraph Company was formed in order to radiate telegraph lines from New York City towards Philadelphia, Boston, Buffalo, New York and the Mississippi.4
Morse also at one time adopted Wheatstone and Carl August von Steinheil’s idea of broadcasting an electrical telegraph signal through a body of water or down steel railroad tracks or anything conductive. He went to great lengths to win a lawsuit for the right to be called “inventor of the telegraph”, and promoted himself as being an inventor, but Alfred Vail played an important role in the invention of the Morse Code, which was based on earlier codes for the electromagnetic telegraph.
Samuel Morse received a patent for the telegraph in 1847, at the old Beylerbeyi Palace (the present Beylerbeyi Palace was built in 1861-1865 on the same location) in Istanbul, which was issued by Sultan Abdülmecid who personally tested the new invention.
In the 1850s, Morse went to Copenhagen and visited the Thorvaldsens Museum, where the sculptor’s grave is in the inner courtyard. He was received by King Frederick VII, who decorated him with the Order of the Dannebrog. Morse expressed his wish to donate his portrait from 1830 to the king. The Thorvaldsen portrait today belongs to Margaret II of Denmark.
The Morse telegraphic apparatus was officially adopted as the standard for European telegraphy in 1851. Britain (with its British Empire) remained the only notable part of the world where other forms of electrical telegraph were in widespread use (they continued to use the needle telegraph invention of Cooke and Wheatstone).
Anti-Catholic and Anti-Immigration Efforts
Morse was a leader in the anti-Catholic and anti-immigration movement of the mid-19th century. He worked to unite Protestants against Catholic institutions (including schools), wanted to forbid Catholics from holding public office, and promoted changing immigration laws to limit immigration from Catholic countries. On this topic, he wrote, “We must first stop the leak in the ship through which muddy waters from without threaten to sink us.”
Morse was the author of a number of letters to the New York Observer (his brother Sidney was the editor at the time) urging people to fight the perceived Catholic menace. These articles were widely reprinted in other newspapers. Among other claims, he believed that the Austrian government and Catholic aid organizations were subsidizing Catholic immigration to the United States in order to gain control of the country.
In his Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States, Morse wrote: “Surely American Protestants, freemen, have discernment enough to discover beneath them the cloven foot of this subtle foreign heresy. They will see that Popery is now, what it has ever been, a system of the darkest political intrigue and despotism, cloaking itself to avoid attack under the sacred name of religion. They will be deeply impressed with the truth, that Popery is a political as well as a religious system; that in this respect it differs totally from all other sects, from all other forms of religion in the country.”
Portrait of Samuel F. B. Morse by Mathew Brady, between 1855 and 1865
In the United States, Morse had his patent for many years, but it was both ignored and contested. In 1853 the case of the patent came before the Supreme Court where, after very lengthy investigation, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney ruled that Morse had been the first to combine the battery, electromagnetism, the electromagnet and the correct battery configuration into a workable practical telegraph.6 Nevertheless, in spite of this clear ruling, Morse still received no official recognition from the United States government. Assisted by the American Ambassador in Paris, the governments of Europe were approached regarding how they had long neglected Morse while using his invention. There was then a widespread recognition that something must be done, and “in 1858 Morse was awarded the sum of 400,000 French francs (equivalent to about $80,000 at the time) by the governments of France, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Piedmont, Russia, Sweden, Tuscany and Turkey, each of which contributed a share according to the number of Morse instruments in use in each country.”7
There was still no such recognition in the USA. This remained the case until 10 June 1871, when a bronze statue of Samuel Morse was unveiled in Central Park, New York City.
In the 1850s, Morse became well known as a defender of America’s institution of slavery, considering it to be divinely sanctioned. In his treatise “An Argument on the Ethical Position of Slavery,” he wrote:
My creed on the subject of slavery is short. Slavery per se is not sin. It is a social condition ordained from the beginning of the world for the wisest purposes, benevolent and disciplinary, by Divine Wisdom. The mere holding of slaves, therefore, is a condition having per se nothing of moral character in it, any more than the being a parent, or employer, or ruler.
Samuel Morse was a generous man who gave large sums to charity. He also became interested in the relationship of science and religion and provided the funds to establish a lectureship on ‘the relation of the Bible to the Sciences’.9 Morse was not a selfish man. Other people and corporations made millions using his inventions, yet most rarely paid him for the use of his patented telegraph. He was not bitter about this, though he would have appreciated more rewards for his labors. Morse was comfortable; by the time of his death, his estate was valued at some $500,000.
Morse married Lucretia Pickering Walker on 29 September 1819, in Concord, New Hampshire. She died on 7 February 1825, shortly after the birth of their third child. His second wife was Sarah Elizabeth Griswold. They were married on 10 August 1848 in Utica, New York.
Morse died on 2 April 1872 at his home at 5 West 22nd Street, New York City, at the age of 81, and was buried in the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.
U.S. Patent 6,420 Telegraph, May 1, 1849
An engraved portrait of Morse appears on the reverse side of U.S. paper money, silver certificate series of 1896, 2.00 denomination. He is depicted along with Robert Fulton. An example can be seen on the website of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s website in their “American Currency Exhibit”: http://www.frbsf.org/currency/metal/silvercerts/581.html
Morse invented a marble-cutting machine that could carve three dimensional sculptures in marble or stone. Morse couldn’t patent it, however, because of an existing 1820 Thomas Blanchard design.
New York University’s core curriculum and list of requirements is known as the Morse Academic Plan (MAP).
A letter to a friend describing the challenge of defending his patent on the electromagnetic telegraph, although he had no part in its invention since his friend Alfred Vail imported this invention by Carl Friedrich Gauss from Europe, and Morse is even suspected to have received the Morse Code from Vail. (1848).
I have been so constantly under the necessity of watching the movements of the most unprincipled set of pirates I have ever known, that all my time has been occupied in defense, in putting evidence into something like legal shape that I am the inventor of the Electro-Magnetic Telegraph!! Would you have believed it ten years ago that a question could be raised on that subject?
There is a blue plaque commemorating him at 141 Cleveland Street, London, where he lived from 1812 to 15.
Statue of Samuel F. B. Morse by Byron M. Picket, New York’s Central Park, dedicated 1871
References and notes
1. ^ Morse, Edward Lind. “Defends His Father’s Claim to Paternity of the Telegraph.”, New York Times, June 21, 1904, Tuesday. Retrieved on 2007-07-21. “My attention has been called to a communication in The New York Times of June 7 headed “Vail, Father of the Telegraph,” and signed Stephen Vail. While I have no desire to enter into a newspaper controversy with Mr. Vail, and while I am sure that you have no desire to encourage one, I trust in justice to my father, Samuel F.B. Morse, you will allow me a few words in reply.”
2. ^ Samuel F. B. Morse. Retrieved on 2007-02-14.
3. ^ One of Yale’s twelve residential places, Morse College, was subsequently named after Morse in 1961
4. ^ Istanbul City Guide: Beylerbeyi Palace
5. ^ “Franklin and his Electric Kite-Prosecution and Progress of Electrical researches–Historical Sketch of the Electric Telegraph–Claims of Morse and others–Uses of Electricity–Telegraphic Statistics.”, New York Times, November 11, 1852, Wednesday. Retrieved on 2007-07-21. “It was in the month of June, 1752, a century ago, that Franklin made his celebrated experiment with the Electric Kite, by means of which he demonstrated the identity of electricity and lightning.”
6. ^ Billington, Ray A. ‘Anti-Catholic Propaganda and the Home Missionary Movement, 1800-1860′ The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 22, No. 3, (Dec., 1935), pp. 361-384. Published by Organization of American Historians. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1892624]
7. ^ Curran, Thomas J. International Migration Digest, Vol. 3, No. 1, (Spring, 1966), pp. 15-25 Published by The Center for Migration Studies of New York, Inc. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3002916
8. ^ America | The National Catholic Weekly – Return of the Know-Nothings
9. ^ From An Argument on the Ethical Position of Slavery in the social system, and its relation to the politics of the day (New York, Papers from the Society for the Diffusion of Political Knowledge, no. 12, 1863) in Slavery Pamphlets # 60, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript library, Yale University. Quoted in “Yale, Slavery, & Abolition,” an online report on Yale honorees, at http://www.yaleslavery.org/WhoYaleHonors/morse.htm
10. ^ “Prof. Samuel Finley Breese Morse.”, New York Times, April 3, 1872, Wednesday. Retrieved on 2007-07-21. “Prof. Morse died last evening at 8 o’clock, his condition having become very low soon after surprise. Though expected, the death of this distinguished man will be received with regret by thousands to whom he was only known by fame.”
Samuel Finley Breeze Morse
Reinhardt, Joachim, “Samuel F. B. Morse (1791-1872) Congo, 1988”.
Mabee, Carleton, The American Leonardo: A Life of Samuel F. B. Morse (Knopf, 1944) (Pulitzer Prize winner for biography for 1944]
Samuel F. B. Morse, Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States: The Numbers Under the Signature (Harvard University Press 1835,1855)
Kenneth Silverman, Lightning Man – The Accursed Life of Samuel F.B. Morse (De Capo Press 2004)
Paul J. Staiti, Samuel F. B. Morse (Cambridge 1989).
Lauretta Dimmick, Mythic Proportion: Bertel Thorvaldsen’s Influence in America, Thorvaldsen: l’ambiente, l’influsso, il mito, ed. P. Kragelund and M. Nykjær, Rome 1991 (Analecta Romana Instituti Danici, Supplementum 18.), pp. 169-191.
Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet, (London:Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1998) pp. 21-40.
Prime, Life of S. F. B. Morse (New York, 1875)
E. L. Morse (editor), his son, Samuel Finley Breese Morse, his Letters and Journals’ (two volumes, Boston, 1914)
“THE DAGUERROTIPE” Morse’s well-published letter of 1839 regarding the daguerreotype
Speech of Morse given at the National Academy of Design, 1840, regarding the daguerreotype