Morse’s Early Life and Education
Samuel Finley Breese Morse (1791–1872) was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, a town located at the confluence of the Mystic and Charles Rivers, across from East Boston. The town was best known as the site of the important early Revolutionary War conflict, the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Morse’s father was an ordained Protestant minister, who served as a pastor for the local Calvinist community.
For his secondary schooling, Morse attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.
Morse then went on to attend Yale College, in New Haven, Connecticut, where he studied mathematics, science, philosophy, and religion.
In chemistry class, Morse witnessed early experiments with electricity conducted by the pioneering American science educator, Benjamin Silliman.
Morse obtained his bachelor’s degree from Yale in 1810.
Morse had long been a gifted, self-taught artist. In order to earn money to help pay for his college tuition, the young man began to apply himself more seriously to his artistic calling.
The most important painting Morse produced at this time was “The Landing of the Pilgrims.” The painting brought him to the attention of the older American artist, Washtington Allston, who invited the younger man to accompany him on a three-year voyage of artistic study and practice in England.
Arriving in London in early 1811, at the age of 20, Morse applied to the Royal Academy of Arts and was admitted as a student at the end of that year. While in England, he also met the distinguished American artist, Benjamin West, who resided there.
In London, Morse painted what many consider to be his masterpiece, “The Dying Hercules,” which was widely interpreted as an allegory of the suffering of the US under British occupation during the War of 1812.
Morse ended up spending the next two decades in Great Britain. Other prominent works painted by him during his English interlude include “The Judgment of Jupiter,” “Portrait of John Adams,” “Eli Whitney, Inventor,” “Portrait of Marquis de Lafayette,” and the “The Gallery of the Louvre.”
In 1832—21 years after setting out from home—Morse returned to the US.
One of the main topics of conversation among the passengers on board the ship that brought Morse back from England to his native shores, was the discovery the year before, in 1831, of electromagnetic induction by the great English experimental physicist, Michael Faraday.
As luck would have it, one of those passengers was Charles Thomas Jackson, a Massachusetts-born physician and amateur chemist and geologist. Jackson was carrying with him a Faraday electromagnetic device and put on several public performances for the edification of the other passengers.
Morse later said it was his chance encounter with Jackson and witnessing an electromagnet at work that inspired him with the basic idea of using electricity to send signals over a long distance.
Morse realized that he needed more knowledge in order to develop his idea. Therefore, he laid aside the painting project he was engaged on at the time and began to study electricity.
Although Morse had been exposed to electrical phenomena during his studies at Yale, not enough had been known at the time to be of much use to him now. He needed to get up to speed with the latest work of Faraday and others.
For this reason, Morse approached an acquaintance by the name of Leonard Gale, a professor of chemistry at the recently founded University of the City of New York (now New York University), and asked him for advice.
Gale was familiar with the pioneering work of the American physicist and chemist, Joseph Henry, who was a competitor of Faraday’s. Indeed, Henry discovered electrical induction independently of Faraday, though the latter got there first.
Already the previous year, in 1831, Henry had had a somewhat similar idea, namely, he had caused a bell to ring at a distance by opening and closing an electrical circuit. In the paper in which he published this work, Henry even gestured vaguely towards the idea of sending messages in the same way.
Gale helped Morse by bringing Henry’s work to his attention and by helping him to understand the technical details. It was Gale who also explained to Morse that the strength of the electrical system would inevitably diminish as a function of distance, but that this problem could be overcome by boosting the strength of the signal at intervals along the way.
Thus, Gale’s assistance was crucial to Morse’s eventually bringing his invention to fruition. However, not only did Morse have the original idea, he also had the persistence to stick with the project through many more difficulties to come.
Morse soon hired a young, technically trained assistant, a machinist name Alfred Vail. Working closely together, Morse and Vail produced a working model of telegraph system in 1837.
The first public demonstration of the new invention occurred in Morristown, New Jersey, in early 1838.
Morse immediately found himself in serious competitors with two other groups. First, in Germany, the physicist Wilhelm Weber and the mathematician and physicist, Carl Friedrich Gauss, had developed a telegraph in 1833.
Second, in England, the inventors William F. Cooke and Charles Wheatstone were developing a telegraphic system of their own. However, the Englishmen were unable to bring their device to maturity until 1837. Eventually, their system was supplanted by Morse’s device, even in England itself.
Two key innovations made this success possible. The first was Morse’s invention of the electromagnetic relay, which boosted the power of the electrical signal at intervals all along the line, effectively enabling telegraph signals to be sent over unlimited distances.
Morse’s second important invention was Morse code, which enabled specific messages to be sent by telegraph.
The first public demonstration of Morse’s telegraph using Morse code occurred in 1844, when the inventor sent his famous message—“What hath God wrought!”—over a telegraph line his company had constructed between Washington, DC, and Baltimore, Maryland.
In only a few years, telegraph lines sprouted all up and down the eastern seaboard of the US, spreading inland from there.
Morse received a patent on his invention in 1847. By 1851, his system had become standard throughout Europe. His company expanded to Latin America beginning in 1858.
While Morse’s company was highly successful, it did not entirely dominate the field. A large number of competitive companies soon sprang up, which simply ignored Morse’s patent rights and replicated his technology without compensation.
The most serious of these competitors was Western Union, founded in 1856 by the American businessman Ezra Cornell. in 1861, Western Union laid the first transcontinental telegraph cable joining the eastern and western seaboards of the US.
The first transatlantic telegraph cable was laid in 1858 by a company founded by the American entrepreneur Cyrus W. Field. Though that first cable soon broke down, a successful attempt soon followed, in 1866.
Morse sued these and other businessmen for breach of his patent rights. However, after many years of litigation, the US Supreme Court severely curtailed the legal protection supplied by his original patent, recognizing that many other people had contributed to the more general features of the telegraph as a concept.
Even so, Morse remained a very wealthy man. Certainly, his name remains the one most closely connected with the telegraph, which must count as one of the most economically significant inventions of the nineteenth century.
Book by Morse
Samuel F.B. Morse, His Letters and Journals (two volumes) (1914);
reprinted as American Jupiter: Letters and Journals of Samuel F.B. Morse (two volumes) (2017).
Selected Books About Morse
Boston City Council, A Memorial of Samuel F.B. Morse, from the City of Boston (1872).
Botjer, George F., Samuel F.B. Morse and the Dawn of the Age of Electricity (2015).
Brownlee, Peter John, ed., Samuel F.B. Morse’s “Gallery of the Louvre” and the Art of Invention (2014).
Kerby, Mona, Samuel Morse (2018).
Kloss, William, Samuel F.B. Morse (1988).
Larkin, Oliver W., Samuel F.B. Morse and American Democratic Art (1954).
Mabee, Carleton, The American Leonardo: A Life of Samuel F.B. Morse (1943).
Prime, Samuel Irenaeus, The Life of Samuel F.B. Morse, LL.D.: Inventor of the Electro-magnetic Recording Telegraph(1875).
Silverman, Kenneth, Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F.B. Morse (2003).
Staiti, Paul J., Samuel F.B. Morse: Educator and Champion of the Arts in America (1982).
Staiti, Paul J., Samuel F.B. Morse (1990).
Staiti, Paul J. and Gary A. Reynolds, Samuel F.B. Morse: Essays by Paul J. Staiti and Gary A. Reynolds (1982).