Samuel Finley Breese Morse was born on April 27, 1791 in Charlestown, Massachusetts and died on April 2, 1872. He was the son of Jedidiah Morse, a geographer and Calvinist minister, and Elizabeth Breese. Samuel Morse went to Yale College to study religious philosophy, mathematics, and the science of horses. He made money at college by painting miniatures on ivory, and wanted to pursue a career in art, but his father did not want him to. He graduated from Yale in 1810, and became a clerk in a bookstore, but continued to paint. His abilities attracted the attention of several respected artists, and he went with them to England in 1811 to study painting. When he returned home in 1815, he worked as an itinerant painter, painting historical subjects and portraits. He opened a studio Boston, and in 1826, Morse helped to found the National Academy of Design, an organization that helped secure jobs for artists, taught the art of design, and displayed artists’ work in its gallery.
In 1825, Morse was in Washington D. C. to paint a portrait commissioned by the Marquis de Lafayette, when a horse messenger delivered a letter from his father telling him that his wife was dead. Morse immediately left Washington for his home, but by the time he got there, she had already been buried. The knowledge that he was unaware for days of her sickness and death made him pursue a means of communicating information rapidly over long distances. The following year, his father died. His mother died in 1828, and Morse went on a trip to Europe in 1829 to recover from the shock. He returned in 1832, and on the voyage home, he had discussed electromagnetism with an eccentric inventor and doctor named Charles Jackson. Jackson told Morse that electricity could be carried over a very long wire, which made Morse think that there must be some way to carry messages over long distances using electric impulses instead of the slow methods used in those days. He made some sketches of an apparatus that could be used to accomplish this.
Work on the Telegraph
Morse returned to painting and became a professor of painting and sculpture at the University of the City of New York. He also unsuccessfully ran for mayor of New York twice. He had been working on his telegraph and had even taken out a patent. Morse had a working model of the telegraph by January 1836, and improved it with the help of a colleague, Leonard Gale. In 1837, Morse formed a partnership with Alfred Vail, who contributed money and mechanical skill. They applied for a patent, and Morse went to Europe to get patents there as well.
Morse’s first telegraph printed the message by printing a seismograph-like line on a thin strip of paper. The dips in the line had to be decoded using a dictionary written by Morse, but decoding was hard if the line was not clear. By the following year, he had made a telegraph that used an improved dot-and-dash system of Morse Code that impressed dots and dashes on paper. Different combinations of dots and dashes represented letters and numbers. The paper was decoded later by an operator. This system was better because it was easier to decode, and eventually trained operators could decode it in their heads. In 1838, Morse exhibited his telegraph to the public in New York.
In 1842, Morse got a grant from Congress for $30,000 to build and experimental telegraph between Baltimore and Washington, D. C., a distance of 40 miles. The real first message was sent on this telegraph system when the news of the Whig Party's nomination of Henry Clay for U.S. President was telegraphed from the party's convention in Baltimore to the Capitol Building in Washington. This was the first news ever dispatched by electric telegraph. Morse’s first public message, sent on May 24, 1844, was from Numbers 23:23, “What hath God wrought!” (Numbers 23:23) The verse had been picked out by the daughter of one of his friends who had publicized Morse’s invention and secured funding for it.
Morse had difficulty being recognized as the inventor of the telegraph, as similar devices had been invented by people such as William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone. Cooke and Wheatstone’s device used multiple wires, however, and would be surpassed by Morse’s more superior method. Morse had been the first to combine the battery, electromagnetism, the electromagnet, and the correct battery configuration into a working telegraph. The United States government used Morse’s invention without being officially recognized for it, so Morse was awarded the sum of $80,000 dollars in 1858, in recognition of his invention, by the governments of France, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Russia, Sweden, Tuscany, and Turkey, all of whom used his telegraph. Morse was recognized in 1871 in the United States when a bronze statue of him was unveiled in Central Park in New York City.
Morse was heavily decorated by many countries. His decorations include: the decoration of the Atiq Nishan-i-Iftikhar (English: Order of Glory) [first medal on wearer's right depicted in photo of Morse with medals], set in diamonds, from the Sultan Ahmad I ibn Mustafa of Turkey (c.1847), a golden snuff box containing the Prussian gold medal for scientific merit from the King of Prussia (1851); the Great Gold Medal of Arts and Sciences from the King of Württemberg (1852); and the Great Golden Medal of Science and Arts from Emperor of Austria (1855); a cross of Chevalier in the Légion d'honneur from the Emperor of France; the Cross of a Knight of the Order of the Dannebrog from the King of Denmark (1856); the Cross of Knight Commander of the Order of Isabella the Catholic, from the Queen of Spain, besides being elected member of innumerable scientific and art societies in this [United States] and other countries. Other awards include Order of the Tower and Sword from the kingdom of Portugal (1860); and Italy conferred on him the insignia of chevalier of the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus in 1864.
Work on Photography
Morse was the first American to write an eyewitness account of Daguerre’s new photographic technology. Daguerre was a Frenchman, and the inventor of the Daguerreotype, a type of photograph. Morse had been interested in photography, and had tried without success to take photographs of his own. Daguerre told Morse the secret of his new process, and Morse brought the technology back to the United States with him when he returned.
Morse was a devout Christian who was very generous and gave large sums of money to charity. He was not bitter when other people and companies made lots of money using his inventions, but did not pay him for the use of his patented telegraph. Morse was also interested in the relationship of science and religion, and provided funds to start lectures on “the relation of the Bible to the Sciences.” Before his death, Samuel Morse wrote, “The nearer I approach to the end of my pilgrimage, the clearer is the evidence of the divine origin of the Bible, the grandeur and sublimity of God's remedy for fallen man are more appreciated, and the future is illumined with hope and joy.”
Morse defended the institution of slavery, and was a leader in the anti-Catholic and anti-immigration movement. He thought that the Austrian government and Catholic aid organizations were subsidizing Catholic immigration to the United States in order to gain control of the country.
Contributions to Communication
Morse made it possible to send messages across the world in a matter of seconds instead of the weeks it had taken before. He revolutionized communications and made the Pony Express obsolete. His invention was the first communications system to use electricity, a resource which is still used by all of our communications systems today (see e-mail).