Samuel Finley Breeze Morse was born in Charlestown, Mass. on 27th April 1791. He was not a scientist - he was a professional artist. Educated at Phillip’s Academy at Andover, he graduated from Yale in 1810 and he lived in England from 1811 to 1815, exhibiting at the Royal Academy in 1813. He spent the next ten years as an itinerant artist with a particular interest in portraiture. He returned to America in 1832 having been appointed Professor of Painting and Sculpture at the University of the City of New York. It was on this homeward voyage that he overheard a shipboard discussion on electromagnets. This was the seed out of which the electric telegraph grew. Morse is remembered for his Code, still used, and less for the invention that enabled it to be used, probably since landline telegraphy eventually gave way to wireless telegraphy.
The electric telegraph:
From 1837 Morse gave the telegraph his full attention, having set up in partnership with Alfred Vail, Professor Leonard Gail, and congressman F O J Smith. Vail provided funds and facilities at the family ironworks, and Smith legal expertise. There’s an irony, therefore, that disagreements with Vail led to litigation; Vail provided funds for lawyers, too. The telgraph was eventually patented in Morse’s name alone, an event granted by the US Supreme Court in 1854. Morse’s decision to abandon painting was possibly due in part to his failure in 1836 to secure a commission to paint the Rotunda of the Capitol building, a commission he had expected. He did not entirely lose contact with his art, being President of the National Academy of Designfrom 1826 to 1845.
The first message sent by the electric telegraph was "What hath God wrought", from the Supreme Court Room in the Capitol to the railway depot at Baltimore on May 24th 1844. There is a website on this topic. The words were chosen by Annie Ellsworth; in one letter Morse wrote this phrase with ‘God’ capitalised and underlined twice.
In 1847 Morse bought Locust Grove, Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and built there an Italianate mansion. This is now a Morse museum, and annually hosts the Poughkeepsie Amateur Radio Society for its Morse Day. In old age Morse became philanthropic.
For his 80th birthday in 1871 a statue was unveiled in Central Park on June 10th, with two thousand telegraphists present. Morse was not, but was that evening at the Academy of Music for an emotional acclamation of his work.
Although most people nowadays would think of Morse code being used for long-distance radiotelegraphy, the land-line telegraph was standard until about 1880 for short-distance metropolitan communication. Over longer distances the telegraph tended to follow the line of the railways because there were no difficulties over rights-of-way. The lines were mostly overhead, since the problems of insulating underground lines proved insuperable for many years - indeed the development of the original line was hampered owing to this problem.
The telegraph of course came to be important for the military, being used first at Varna during the Crimean War in 1854. It was widely used in the American Civil War, where rapid deployment techniques for land-lines were developed; the Spanish-American War found the first use of telegraphy for newspaper correspondents (1898). The first military use for radio telegraphy was during the Russo-Japanes War in 1904 - 5.
Telegraphists were, no doubt, a special elite; perhaps one of the first documented to suffer from repetitive strain injury. ‘Brasspounding’, that is telegraphy on a straight (up and down) key gave rise to telegrapher’s ‘glass arm’; it was this that motivated the invention of the ‘side-swiper’ or ‘bug’ key, the most famous maker of which is Vibroplex.
The code itself is discussed more in my Morse Code pages.
The papers and correspondence of SFB Morse are in the Library of Congress; visit the Samuel F.B.Morse homepage for more details.
- Mabee: The American Leonardo, Samuel F B Morse (1943).
- Kloss: S F B Morse (1988).
- Staiti PJ: S F B Morse (1989).
- Smith A: The Origins of Morse, ‘Practical Wireless’, Feb 1986. This article is available on the Ultimate CW website.
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