Samuel Finley Breese Morse Biography (1791-1872)

artist and inventor

Samuel Finley Breese Morse was a well-known portrait painter who turned to science in mid-career and pioneered the electric telegraph.

Born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, on April 27, 1791, Morse was the oldest son of Jedidiah Morse, an eminent geographer and Congregational clergyman. Heattended Yale, where he developed an interest in painting miniatures and attending lectures on electricity. After graduation, Morse sailed to England, where he studied painting from 1811 to 1815. On his return to Boston, Massachusetts, Morse opened a studio and soon found that portraiture was the only typeof art that would sell. Within a few years, he developed a distinguished reputation as a portrait painter.

Burdened with financial concerns and mourning the successive deaths of his young wife, his father, and his mother, Morse returned to Europe in 1829 to continue his artistic studies. His return voyage to the United States in 1832 aboard the Sully became the turning point of his life. A conversation with fellow passengers--one of whom was the chemist Charles T. Jackson (1805-1880)--about experiments with electromagnetism piqued Morse's imagination. He immediately thought of sending messages over a wire via electricity, and spent the rest of the voyage sketching preliminary ideas. Morse's interest in developingthe telegraph, coupled with disappointments in his artistic career, promptedhim to give up painting in 1837. Morse built some prototypes of his telegraphin 1835, but his lack of background in science hobbled his efforts. At thistime Morse was Professor of Arts and Design at the University of the City ofNew York. He turned to a fellow professor in the university's chemistry department, Leonard Gale, for help. Gale showed Morse how to improve both his electromagnet and his battery. Gale also introduced Morse to Joseph Henry, who freely shared his impressive knowledge about electromagnetism. Morse was now able to invent an electromagnetic relay system, which renewed the current along a line from relay to relay and made long-distance message transmission possible; he filed an intent to patent it in 1837.

In September of that year Morse met young Alfred Vail while demonstrating histelegraph in New York. The two men became partners, and Vail made many practical improvements to Morse's device and to the code used to transmit messages, which became known as the Morse code. Also in 1837, Morse applied for a grant offered by the United States Congress to construct a telegraph system. Seven long years of discouragement and poverty followed for Morse until finally,in the closing session of the 1843 Congress, he secured a $30,000 appropriation to build a telegraph line between Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. With the aid of Vail and Ezra Cornell, Morse did just that, sending his famous first message "What hath God wrought!" on May 24, 1844.

Morse and Vail had intended to sell all rights in their telegraph to the United States government for $100,000, but Congress rejected their offer. The partners, along with Amos Kendall, then formed the Magnetic Telegraph Company todevelop telegraph lines privately. Most of Morse's attention was taken up byprolonged and contentious litigation over patent rights to the telegraph, one of his opponents being Jackson. During this controversy, Morse unfortunately denied that Henry had ever helped him. Morse's patent rights were upheld bythe United States Supreme Court in 1854.

The success of the telegraph brought Morse fame and wealth. His interests turned to politics; he supported the nativist movement, opposed abolitionism, and ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1854. In 1857-58 Morse was an electrician for Cyrus Field's (1819-1892) attempt to lay a transatlantic telegraph cable. He built an estate near Poughkeepsie, New York, called Locust Grove (a historic landmark today), and enjoyed the company of his second wife, whom he had married in 1848, and his many children and grandchildren. He was a founderand trustee of Vassar College, and served in 1861 as the president of the National Academy of Design, which he had helped found in 1826 and led as president from 1826 until 1845. In his later years, Morse was a noted philanthropist. The telegraph operators of the United States honored Morse with a bronze statue in New York's Central Park in 1871. Morse died in New York on April 2, 1872.

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