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Biography Samuel Morse

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Samuel Morse was a man of his time, a time of seismic changes in scientific understanding and in human attitudes. He was an artist, an inventor, a photographer, a writer of polemical pamphlets and a holder of extreme opinions. He was xenophobic, anti-Catholic and pro-slavery. He was also generous, charitable and honest. Samuel Morse was, in short, a man of contradictions. Nowadays we would call him a Renaissance man.

He was born on April 27th, 1791, in Charlestown, Massachusetts, the eldest son of Jedidiah Morse, a minister, teacher and geographer, and Elizabeth Ann Finlay Breese. His opinions and attitudes throughout his life would owe a great deal to his father's orthodox and unbending Calvinist faith.

Morse's life essentially consisted of two distinct periods: his life as an artist, and his life as perfecter and promoter of both a system of electric telegraph and the transmitting code that bears his name.

1) Morse the artist

Art was his first love. Throughout his childhood and youth he drew and painted furiously, earning money here and there from the miniature portraits he painted of friends, fellow students and teachers, first at Phillips Academy in Andover then later at Yale College.

After leaving Yale in 1810 he worked briefly as a clerk for a Boston bookseller (at the insistence of his cash-concerned father) before becoming a pupil of the influential poet and artist, Washington Allston, whom he accompanied on a trip to Europe in 1811. In London, he enrolled at the Royal Academy (of Art), where he met some of the most influential artists of the day, artists such as the Academy's co-founder (and fellow American) Benjamin West. He also became friendly with the poet Coleridge.

He returned home in 1815, fired with enthusiasm, but quickly found himself forced to earn a living as an itinerant portrait-painter. He married a New-Hampshire girl, Lucretia Walker, in 1818 (she would bear three children before her death in 1825) and the following year he was commissioned to paint President Monroe. His most lucrative commission ($1,000) came in 1825 when the City of New York invited him to paint the Marquis de Lafayette, hero of the Revolution. Morse also spent much of that decade championing the efforts of young artists to overthrow the conservative and moribund American-artistic-establishment.

In 1829 he embarked on a three-year tour of Europe to study and copy the works of the old masters hoping that his resulting composite-work would galvanize cultural opinion back home. However, throughout the 1830's Morse slowly grew more and more disillusioned with his lack of success and found an outlet for his frustrations through politics, penning a number of xenophobic and anti-Catholic diatribes (he would twice run unsuccessfully for Mayor of New York and once for Congress). In the late 1830's he gave up painting altogether to concentrate fully on his other interests.

2) Morse the inventor

*In the early 19th century one subject above all others obsessed the scientific community; that subject was 'electricity'. Two discoveries made at that time would open the way for the creation of a system of communication that could send signals quickly and over long distances. The first was Alessandro Volta's invention of the 'Voltaic pile', a device that could produce a continuous electrical-current; it was the first DC battery. The second was the electromagnet, invented in 1825 by an Englishman, William Sturgeon.

It had been discovered that an electric current generated a magnetic field. Sturgeon found that if a wire carrying an electric current was coiled the magnetic field was concentrated and strengthened. He then found that when the wire was coiled round an iron core, that core was magnetized. When the electric current ceased to flow along the wire the core was demagnetized.

Therefore, a battery, some wire, an electromagnet with a means of deflecting a needle or (in Samuel Morse's case) directing a stylus and a device to constantly break and complete the electrical circuit were the fundamental components of the electric telegraph.*

Samuel Morse was undoubtedly familiar with 'electricity' from an early age. At Yale he attended lectures on the subject and described his first 'shock' gleefully. It was in 1832, while sailing back from a European trip, that he first sketched out plans for an electric telegraph and a code to use on it. He discussed the subject at length with a fellow passenger, the scientist and geologist, Dr. Charles T. Jackson, who would later (unsuccessfully) sue Morse and claim the invention was his own.

Within three years, Morse had constructed his first telegraph-apparatus. It utilized a moving strip of paper (ticker tape) and he demonstrated it at New York (City) University. One of the witnesses was a wealthy inventor and machinist, Alfred Vail, who quickly introduced himself to Morse and offered to make available his father's iron works and his own technical expertize. The two men became partners and a patent application was filed. (It is generally accepted that Vail made significant improvement to Morse's crude design.)

By 1838 a successful message had been transmitted by the system (it read: "A patient waiter is no loser") and Morse continued to work on his code. Instead of a system to codify whole words - a system that would require constant decoding at the receiving end - Morse's code gave a series of dots and dashes to individual letters, ensuring a far simpler means of transmission. Morse code would soon become standard.

Morse's electric telegraph was demonstrated before a Congressional committee and before President Van Buren and his Cabinet. Government money was vaguely promised but not immediately forthcoming, so, leaving things in the air, Morse traveled to Europe in an attempt to secure patent rights and financial backing for his system; however, while he was there the first commercial electric-telegraph-system (using a deflecting needle) was launched in England and it secured both.

In Paris, Morse developed another interest. He visited the French pioneer-photographer, Louis Daguerre, and familiarized himself with Daguerre's process. On his return to the United States he opened a photographic studio in New York City with Professor John Draper, a scientist and chemist who had already studied Daguerre's process and made improvements. In that year (1840) Morse was also granted his patent.

By 1843 Congressional money ($30,000) was finally released to build the first telegraph-line. It connected Washington DC and Baltimore and was completed the following year. The first message was sent (by Morse himself) from the Capitol Building in Washington to the depot of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in Baltimore; it read: "What hath God wrought".

Morse's commercial agent set up the Magnetic Telegraph Company and soon telegraph-mania set in. Companies and lines sprang up all over, and, like the Railroads, some were slowly devoured by others until a single giant remained. By the late 1860's that giant was Western Union.

By the late 1840's Morse began to wind down his life. He bought an estate near Poughkeepsie, NY, and married for the second time. His new wife was also his cousin and twenty six years his junior. She would bear him four children.

Within a few years the Morse telegraph system would become the global standard and in 1854 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Morse's patent claims (this was a mixed blessing as patent infringements were rife). The United States Government still, however, failed to 'recognize' Samuel Morse in more 'practical' ways. The European countries that used his system were more forthcoming and in 1858 they banded together to award him 400,000 French francs (about $80,000), a considerable sum in those days.

In 1866 he made a final trip to Europe, this time accompanied by his second wife and their children, where they stayed for two years. In 1871, at the age of 80, he sent a farewell message to the world and in the following year he died in New York City. He is buried in the Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn.


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