Samuel Morse and the Invention of the Telegraph

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Samuel Morse is famous for inventing the telegraph, but he was also an accomplished painter. He also invented the Code that bears his name.

Morse was born in Charlestown, Mass., in 1791, to the family of a minister, Jedidiah Morse. Samuel's mother was Elizabeth Ann Finley Breese. Samuel's full name at birth was Samuel Finlay Breese Morse.

A curious child, Samuel at age 8 entered Phillips Academy and at age 14 entered Yale College. He was particularly interested in the sciences and had a special interest in electricity. To help with his college expenses, he painted portraits of friends, classmates, and teachers, for a dollar a portrait.

Samuel wanted to paint professionally, but his parents wanted him to be a bookseller's apprentice and so he began work for a Boston book publisher, Daniel Mallory, in 1810, shortly after graduating from Yale College. Mallory was Jedidiah Morse's publisher and a friend of the family.

Samuel persisted in his pursuit of painting, and his parents agreed in 1811 to let him go to England with Washington Allston, a well-known American artist. Morse attended the Royal Academy of Arts; one of his teachers was the famous American painter Benjamin West. Just a year into his studies, Morse molded a plaster statue called The Dying Hercules, which won top prize at a London art exhibition. Morse's painting of the statue, with the same name, won him wide acclaim and a spot in a top exhibition at the Royal Academy.

Flush with success, Morse returned to the U.S. and opened an art studio in Boston. In 1816, he met Lucretia Walker, who was then 16; Morse himself was 25. They were soon engaged and married two years later. By this time, Morse had a successful portrait business. In fact, in 1819, he won a commission to paint a portrait of then-President James Monroe. He also later painted a portrait of former Presidents George Washington and John Adams and of cotton gin inventor Eli Whitney.

Morse's painting of American icons continued in 1822, when he finished an 18-month project that resulted in an oversize painting of the Rotunda of the Capitol, in Washington, D.C. Not long after that, Morse painted a portrait of Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette.

Samuel and Lucretia Morse had three children and had a family home in New Haven, Conn. Susan was born in 1819, Charles was born in 1823, and James was born in 1825. Just a month after James was born, Lucretia died, suddenly. By this time, Samuel Morse had a studio in New York City. He found out about his wife's death by letter in New York; by the time he returned home, she had already been buried. It was this time gap in communication that inspired Morse, in part, to pursue a more immediate form of communication.

Morse did not stop painting, however. He founded and served as the first president of the National Academy of design. He embarked on a three-year tour of Europe, painting and also studying art collections across the Continent. Other of his more well-known paintings were Landing of the Pilgrims, Judgment of Jupiter, and The Gallery of the Louvre.

It was on the way home in 1832 that Morse first hit on the idea for a electromagnetic telegraph. Morse struck up a conversation with another ship passenger, Charles Jackson, about European experiments with electromagnetism. When Morse took up his new job, as professor of painting and sculpture at the University of the City of New York, he also began to develop the telegraph.

In 1835, Morse first demonstrated a prototype of the telegraph to a group of friends. The following year, having refined his design, Morse showed a newer prototype to a colleague, a professor of science, Leonard Gale. The two professors worked together extensively in the next few years. They continually refined their invention, including the breakthrough addition of a set of extra circuits, or relays, at regular intervals. They submitted their invention to rigorous testing and then demonstrating it for a widening circle of observers, including a House of Representatives committee and even then-President Martin van Buren and the Cabinet.

The U.S. Patent Office granted Morse a patent for the telegraph in 1840. In that same year, Morse broadened his horizons yet again by opening a portrait studio in which the method of portraiture was not painting but the use of a daguerreotype, an early form of photography. Morse had, on his European travels, met Louis Daguerre, who created the photographic prototype. One of the people to whom Morse taught the daguerreotype process in New York was Mathew Brady, who went on to fame as a Civil War photographer.

Morse in 1842 turned his attention to underwater transmissions, dropping two miles of cable beneath the water in New York Harbor and successfully sending signals between points on either side of the cable. Morse expanded this idea the following year with a line from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore. The cable wouldn't stay, however, and Morse turned to poles above ground instead.

It was on May 24, 1844, that Morse sent his famous message "What hath God wrought?" from the Supreme Court chamber to the railroad depot of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

Construction of telegraph lines accelerated rapidly across the country; more than 12,000 miles of wire were laid by 1850. Confusingly, many different companies lay their own telegraph lines. A Supreme Court decision in 1854 upheld Morse's patent claims for the telegraph; this cemented Morse as the inventor of the telegraph and ensured that he would receive royalties from all companies that used his invention.

Morse extended his dominance of the telegraph system abroad, helping lay a cable under the Atlantic ocean in 1857; the following year, England's Queen Victoria sent the first transatlantic telegraphic message to then-President James Buchanan. Both sides made use of the telegraph during theĀ Crimean War. And Morse himself introduced telegraphic system to Puerto Rico.

Both the Union and the Confederacy made extensive use of the telegraph during the Civil War. As well, Western Union in 1861 completed a transcontinental telegraph line.

Morse had, in 1848, married again, this time to Sarah Griswold, a second cousin. They had four children, Samuel, Cornelia, William, and Edward.

Samuel Morse died in 1872 in New York City. He was 81.

His legacy is as the inventor of the telegraph and as the co-inventor (along with a business partner and fellow inventor, Alfred Vail) of Morse Code, the dashes-and-dots means of communication that he invented in 1838, after early experiments with a telegraphic dictionary (using number codes for words instead of individual letters) proved too difficult to manage.

Morse was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1975. He also received medals of recognition from many other countries.

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