Samuel Finley Breese Morse

Samuel Finley Breese Morse (1791-1872), American artist and inventor, designed and developed the first successful electromagnetic telegraph system.

Samuel F. B. Morse was born in Charlestown, Mass., on April 27, 1791; he was the son of Jedidiah Morse, a clergyman. Samuel graduated from Yale College in 1810. At college he had painted miniatures on ivory and wished to pursue a career in art, but his father was opposed to this. Samuel took a job as a clerk in a Charlestown bookstore. During this time he continued to paint, and his work soon came to the attention of two of America's most respected artists, Gilbert Stuart and Washington Allston, both of whom spoke highly of his abilities. His father reversed his decision and in 1811 allowed Morse to travel to England with Allston. He studied with Allston for 4 years in London. During this time Morse also worked at the Royal Academy with the venerable American artist Benjamin West.

In 1815 Morse returned to America and set up a studio in Boston. He soon discovered that his large canvases attracted favorable comment but few customers. In those days Americans looked to painters primarily for portraits, and Morse found that even these commissions were difficult to secure. He traveled extensively in search of work, finally settling in New York City in 1823. Perhaps his two best-known canvases are his portraits of the Marquis de Lafayette, which he painted in Washington, D.C., in 1825.

In 1826 Morse helped found, and became the first president of, the National Academy of Design, an organization which was intended to help secure commissions for artists and to raise the taste of the public. The previous year Morse's wife had died; in 1826 his father died. The death of his mother in 1828 dealt another severe blow, and the following year Morse left for Europe to recover.

In October 1832 Morse returned to the United States aboard the packet Sully. On the voyage he met Charles Thomas Jackson, an eccentric doctor and inventor, with whom he discussed electromagnetism. Jackson assured Morse that an electric inpulse could be carried along even a very long wire. Morse later recalled that he reacted to this news with the thought that "if this be so, and the presence of electricity can be made visible in any desired part of the circuit, I see no reason why intelligence might not be instantaneously transmitted by electricity to any distance." He immediately made some sketches of a device to accomplish this purpose.

Morse again returned to his artistic career, becoming a professor of painting and sculpture at the University of the City of New York. At the same time he entered politics. Like many Americans, he was intolerant of both immigrants and Catholics, and he became a candidate for mayor of New York on a "nativist" platform. In later life his prejudices softened, and he was better able to tolerate the ethnic diversity of the growing country.

The telegraph was never far from Morse's mind during these years. He had long been interested in gadgetry and had even taken out a patent. He had also attended public lectures on electricity. His knowledge of the subject was rudimentary, however, and outdated by the rapid developments in the field during this period. His shipboard sketches of 1832 had clearly laid out the three major parts of the telegraph: a sender which opened and closed an electric circuit, a receiver which used an electromagnet to record the signal, and a code which translated the signal into letters and numbers. By January 1836 he had a working model of the device which he showed to Leonard Gale, a colleague at the university. Gale advised him of recent developments in the field of electromagnetism and especially of the work of the American physicist Joseph Henry. As a result, Morse was able to greatly improve the efficiency of his device.

In September 1837 Morse formed a partnership with Alfred Vail, who contributed both money and mechanical skill. They applied for a patent, and Morse went to Europe seeking patents there as well. He was rejected in England, where a similar device had already been developed. The American patent remained in doubt until 1843, when Congress voted $30,000 to finance the building of an experimental telegraph line between the national capital and Baltimore, Md. It was over this line, on May 24, 1844, that Morse tapped out his famous message, "What hath God wrought!"

Morse was willing to sell all his rights to the invention to the Federal government for $100,000, but a combination of congressional indifference and private greed frustrated the plan. Instead he turned his business affairs over to Amos Kendall. Morse then settled down to a life of acclaim and wealth. He was generous in his philanthropies and was one of the founders of Vassar College in 1861. His last years were marred, however, by controversies over the priority of his invention and questions as to how much he had been helped by others, especially Joseph Henry. Morse died in New York City on April 2, 1872.


Further Reading on Samuel Finley Breese Morse

The standard biography of Morse is Carleton Mabee, The American Leonardo: A Life of Samuel F. B. Morse (1943). A shorter study is Oliver W. Larkin, Samuel F. B. Morse and American Democratic Art (1954). The development of the telegraph network is described in Robert L. Thompson, Wiring a Continent (1947).