Childhood & Early Life
Samuel Morse was born on April 27, 1791 in Charlestown, Massachusetts to Jedidiah Morse and Elizabeth Ann Finley Breese.
Morse gained his early education from Philips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts before enrolling at the Yale University to study religious philosophy, mathematics and science of horses.
While at Yale, he attended lectures on electricity. To support his living, he took to painting. In 1810, he graduated from Yale with Phi Beta Kappa honors.
His most notable early work includes ‘Landing of the Pilgrims’ which caught the attention of Washington Allston. Impressed by his work of art, he encouraged Morse to move to England.
Continue Reading Below
It was in England that Morse gave finesse to his artwork. He perfected his painting technique so much so that by 1811, he gained admission at the Royal Academy.
Taking inspiration from the works of Renaissance artists, Michelangelo and Raphael, he came up with his masterpiece, ‘Dying Hercules’ that gave an insight into his political view against British and American Federalists.
On August 21, 1815, he left England and moved to United States. In United States, he received commission to paint portraits of former Presidents, John Adams and James Monroe. Additionally, he painted portraits of several wealthy merchants and important political figures.
He moved base to New Haven where he came up with a series of allegorical works that depicted the internal working of the US government. The paintings, though not appreciated much, were later hanged in the Hall of Congress.
Failing to make an impact with his historical canvas, he turned to portraiture yet again. He received the honor of painting the portrait of Marquis de Lafayette, leading French supporter of the American Revolution who helped establish free and independent America.
In 1825, while he was painting the portrait of Lafayette in Washington, DC, a horse messenger delivered a letter from his father that stated about his wife’s ill health. Following day, he received yet another letter which informed him of the sudden demise of his wife. Dejected, he left for New Haven and by the time he arrived, his wife had already been buried.
His wife’s failing health and subsequent death made a deep impression on the mind of Morse who decided to bridge the long-distance gap by coming up with a means of device that allowed distance communication.
In 1832, while journeying back to United States from Europe by ship, he met Charles Thomas Jackson, an American scientist who was an expert in electromagnetism. Jackson described some of the properties of electromagnetism to Morse and Morse conceived the idea of single-wire electric telegraph to transmit messages over long-distance.
Morse quit painting and turned his attention solely to electromagnetism. In 1835, he designed his first telegraph and submitted the findings at the US Patent Office. Morse was facing difficulty getting a telegraphic signal to carry over more than a few hundred yards of wire.
Continue Reading Below
Morse struggle finally ended when he received help from New York University professor, Leonard Gale. Gale introduced extra circuits at frequent intervals which helped transmit message successfully through ten miles. Morse and Gale were later joined by Alfred Vail who contributed both money and mechanical skill.
On January 11, 1838, he along with his partners made first public demonstration of the electric telegraph, in Morristown, New Jersey. The first public transmission message was, ‘A patient waiter is no loser’.
Morse moved to Washington DC to avail federal sponsorship to make the telegraph line a viable technology but he met little success. After much wandering, Morse finally gained financial support.
With a grant of about $30,000 he started the construction of an experimental telegraph line between Washington DC and Baltimore. The line officially opened on May 24, 1844 with the first message ‘What hath God wrought’ sent from basement of the US Capitol building in Washington DC to B&O’s Mount Clare Station in Baltimore.
Following the inaugural session of the telegraph, the Magnetic Telegraph Company was formed in 1845. It overlooked the construction of new telegraph lines from New York City to Philadelphia, Boston, Buffalo, New York, and Mississippi.
In 1847, Morse finally received the patent for his telegraph. Two years later, he was elected as an Associate Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1851, his telegraphic line was adopted as the standard line for European telegraphy.
Though Morse obtained patents and had established telegraphic lines across the countries in the world, he was still bereft of being recognized as the sole inventor of the telegraph. As such, he wasn’t paid the correct royalties due to him.
He appealed in Supreme Court which ruled out any contention that ignored or contested Morse’s telegraphy patent. It said that Morse’s device was the first to make use of a single-circuit, battery powered machine. Following the Supreme Court verdict, the government of United States and European countries finally gave Morse his due credit and recognition.
In 1858, Morse was paid a sum of 400,000 French francs by the governments of France, Austria, Belgium, Netherlands, Piedmont, Russia, Sweden, Tuscany and Turkey. Same year, he was also elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
Continue Reading Below
He offered support to Cyrus West Field’s plans of setting up transoceanic telegraph line and even invested $10,000. After much ado, the first transatlantic telegraph message was sent in 1858
Morse retired from public life in an ostentatious manner. A day long celebration which included unveiling of his statue in New York’s Central Park was followed with a grand finale at the NY Academy of Music where he transmitted his last official message.
During the last months of his life, he indulged in a lot of philanthropic works, giving large sums to charitable institutions. He started to take interest in the relationship of science and religion.