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Biography Samuel Morse

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Samuel Finley Breese Morse was born in Charlestown Massachusetts in 1791. He was the first child of Jedidiah Morse a Congregational Minister and geographer and Elizabeth Ann Finley Breese.

During the course of his life and in the subsequent decades he became more renowned for his inventions, the Morse Code telegraph system in particular, but he was also an accomplished artist and aspiring politician.

In 1799 he started at Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts and entered Yale College at only 14-years-old in 1805, where he heard lectures on electricity which was to inform his later inventions.

He graduated from Yale in 1810 and returned to Charlestown where he continued his interest in painting which began at Yale. But despite encouragement from the infamous Washington Allston, he followed his parents' wishes to become a bookseller's apprentice and started as a clerk for Daniel Mallory, his father's Boston book publisher.

By 1811 his parents had conceded defeat and Morse set sail for England with Washington Allston, where he attended the Royal Academy of Arts. Returning to the United States in 1815 he opened an art studio in Boston and a lot of time was taken up with his exceptional paintings and exhibitions.

Morse's first invention in 1817, jointly with his brother Sidney, was a patented flexible-piston man-powered water pump for fire engines which despite their successful demonstration was a commercial failure.

In 1818 he married his first wife Lucretia Pickering Walker who he met while searching for painting commissions two years previously and their first child, Susan Walker Morse was born the following year.

1822 saw Samuel Morse develop his first successful independent invention a marble-cutting machine which could carve three-dimensional sculpture in marble or stone. But he was disappointed to find he couldn't patent it because it infringed on a design by Thomas Blanchard two years before.

By the time he had became the founder and first president of the National Academy of Design in 1826, Morse had fathered two more children: Charles Walker Morse (born 1823) and James Edward Finley Morse (1825). But tragedy struck a month after James was born when his wife died suddenly and was buried before he was able to return from his overseas travels.

He put more efforts into his work and in 1827, he met Professor James Freeman Dana of Columbia College who gave a series of lectures on electricity and electromagnetism at the New York Athenaeum where Morse also lectured. Through their growing friendship, Morse became more familiar with the properties of electricity which would inform his later inventions and successes over the next 45 years.

In the meantime, his painting exploits continued and in 1829 he set sail to Europe to paint, in places like Paris and Rome, including in Rome's Vatican galleries.

A major portion of his life stemmed from the voyage back to New York in 1832. Morse got into a conversation with fellow passenger Charles T. Jackson and dreamed up the idea of an electromagnetic telegraph system and wrote ideas for a prototype dot-and-dash code system in his sketchbook. From here onwards he spent time between his painting and developing the telegraph until his new invention took precedence. Until then, his painting was a huge part of his life and he was appointed professor of painting and sculpture at the University of the City of New York (now New York University).

In 1835 he constructed a recording telegraph system using a moving paper ribbon which he demonstrated to friends and then, a year later, to Dr Leonard Gale, a professor of science at New York University. He was also appointed professor of Literature of the Arts and Design at the University of the City of New York and published Foreign Conspiracies Against the Liberties of the United States (a treatise against the political influence of Catholicism).

An attempted step into politics in 1836 was unsuccessful when he ran for but failed to be elected as the mayor of New York as a member of a nativist (anti-immigration) party. Another attempt to become mayor of New York in 1841 ended when a forged letter printed by a newspaper announced he'd withdrawn meant he ended up with less than a hundred votes. In 1854 he tried again to win office, this time as a Democratic candidate in the Poughkeepsie district of New York but was again unsuccessful. Unsurprisingly this was his last foray into politics.

Work on advancing the telegraph system continued and in 1837 Morse developed the idea to use an electric circuit. By the end of the year he could send a message through 10 miles of wire.

Charles T. Jackson mounted an unsuccessful campaign, one of many Morse was to face in his lifetime, to say he invented the telegraph. But Morse obtained statements from those on board their 1832 voyage to prove he'd invented it. Seeing how quickly his new invention was moving and realising the time he needed to dedicate to it, he left his artistic side behind to concentrate on the promotion of the telegraph after finishing his last paintings in December.

By the end of the decade, Morse had changed from his original telegraphic dictionary, where words are represented by number codes, to using a code for reach letter. He had also secured patent rights for his electromagnetic telegraph in France and the United States.

He had also met Louis Daguerre creator of the daguerreotype (an early type of photograph) and published the first American description of this process of photography, later becoming one of the first Americans to make daguerreotypes in the US. By 1840, he had opened a daguerreotype portrait studio in New York with William Draper where he taught the process to others, most notably Mathew Brady the future Civil War photographer.

Meanwhile, the telegraph system went from strength to strength and an experiment to send underwater signals across New York Harbour was successful in 1842. This was followed a year later by the construction of the first telegraphy line above the ground between Washington D.C. and Baltimore, Maryland with the first message sent successfully on 24 May 1844.

The 1848 marriage to his second cousin, Sarah Elizabeth Griswold, who was 26 years younger than him, brought four more children: Samuel Arthur Breese Morse (1849), Cornelia (Leila) Livingstone Morse (1851), William Goodrich Morse (1853) and Edward Lind Morse (1857).

A decade after his marriage, the governments of France, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Piedmont, Russia, Sweden, Tuscany and Turkey contributed towards a payment of 400,000 French francs (about $80,000 at the time) for the use of his telegraph systems in their countries. Morse was very generous with his money and gave large sums to charity, even ignoring the fortune he could've had if the large corporations using his telegraph system paid him the money they owed. He was also interested in the relationship between science and religion and provided money to establish a lectureship on the relationship of the Bible to the Sciences'.

From 1866-1868 Samuel Morse sailed with his wife and their four children to France where he later served as the United States commissioner at the Paris Universal Exposition.

But the last full decade of his was tempered, if not at the time then certainly in more modern years, by his involvement in the slavery controversy when he became an outspoken supporter in favour of it, believing it to be sanctioned by God.

Samuel Morse died in 1872 in New York City a rich and well-known individual who was to become more widely known for his one invention than a lifetime filled with painting, travelling and politics. He was buried in Greenwood cemetery, Brooklyn.

More about this author: Ben Hughes

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