Morse additionally supported the institution of slavery as well as anti-Catholic and anti-immigration efforts within the United States.
Birth and education
Samuel F.B. Morse was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, the first child of the pastor Jedidiah Morse (1761–1826)—who was also a geographer—and Elizabeth Ann Finley Breese (1766–1828). His father was a great preacher of the Calvinist faith and supporter of the American Federalist party. He thought it helped preserve Puritan traditions (strict observance of Sabbath, among other things), and believed in the Federalist support of an alliance with Britain and a strong central government. Morse strongly believed in education within a Federalist framework, alongside the instillation of Calvinist virtues, morals and prayers for his first son.
After attending Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, Samuel Morse went on to Yale College to receive instruction in the subjects of religious philosophy, mathematics and science of horses. While at Yale, he attended lectures on electricity from Benjamin Silliman and Jeremiah Day. He supported himself by painting. In 1810, he graduated from Yale with Phi Beta Kappa honors.
Morse expressed some of his Calvinist beliefs in his painting Landing of the Pilgrims, through the depiction of simple clothing as well as the people's austere facial features. His image captured the psychology of the Federalists; Calvinists from England brought to North America ideas of religion and government, thus linking the two countries. This work attracted the attention of the notable artist Washington Allston. Allston wanted Morse to accompany him to England to meet the artist Benjamin West. Allston arranged — with Morse's father — a three-year stay for painting study in England, and young Morse set sail with the older artist aboard the Lybia on July 15, 1811.
In England, Morse perfected his painting techniques under Allston's watchful eye; by the end of 1811, he gained admittance to the Royal Academy. At the Academy, he was moved by the Neo-classical art of the Renaissance and paid close attention to the works of Michelangelo and Raphael.
After observing and practicing life drawing and absorbing its anatomical demands, the young artist produced his masterpiece, the Dying Hercules. (He first made a sculpture as a study for the painting.)
To some, the Dying Hercules seemed to represent a political statement against the British and also the American Federalists. The muscles symbolized the strength of the young and vibrant United States versus the British and British-American supporters. During Morse’s time in Britain, the Americans and British were engaged in the War of 1812. Both societies were conflicted over loyalties. Anti-Federalist Americans aligned themselves with the French, abhorred the British, and believed a strong central government to be inherently dangerous to democracy.
As the war raged on, Morse's letters to his parents became more anti-Federalist in tone. In one such letter Morse wrote, "I assert that the Federalists in the Northern States have done more injury to their country by their violent opposition measures than a French alliance could. Their proceedings are copied into the English papers, read before Parliament, and circulated through their country, and what do they say of them... they call them (Federalists) cowards, a base set, say they are traitors to their country and ought to be hanged like traitors."
Although Jedidiah Morse did not change Samuel's political views, he appeared to continue to be an influence. Critics believe that the elder Morse's Calvinist ideas are integral to Morse’s Judgment of Jupiter, another significant work completed in England. Jupiter is shown in a cloud, accompanied by his eagle, with his hand spread above the parties and he is pronouncing judgment. Marpessa, with an expression of compunction and shame, is throwing herself into the arms of her husband. Idas, who tenderly loved Marpessa, is eagerly rushing forward to receive her, while Apollo stares with surprise... at the unexpectedness of her decision...
Critics have suggested that Jupiter represents God’s omnipotence — watching every move that is made. Some call the portrait a moral teaching by Morse on infidelity. Although Marpessa fell victim, she realized that her eternal salvation was important and desisted from her wicked ways. Apollo shows no remorse for what he did, but stands with a puzzled look. Many American paintings throughout the early nineteenth century had religious themes, and Morse was an early exemplar of this. Judgment of Jupiter allowed Morse to express his support of Anti-Federalism while maintaining his strong spiritual convictions. West sought to present the Jupiter at another Royal Academy exhibition, but Morse's time had run out. He left England on August 21, 1815, to return to the United States and begin his full-time career as a painter.
The years 1815–1825 marked significant growth in Morse’s paintings, as he sought to capture the essence of America’s culture and life. He painted the Federalist former President John Adams (1816). He hoped to become part of grander projects. The Federalists and Anti-Federalists clashed over Dartmouth College. Morse painted portraits of Francis Brown — the college’s president — and Judge Woodward (1817), who was involved in bringing the Dartmouth case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Morse also sought commissions among the elite of Charleston, South Carolina. Morse’s 1818 painting of Mrs. Emma Quash symbolized the opulence of Charleston. The young artist was doing well for himself. Between 1819 and 1821, Morse experienced great changes in his life, and his commissions dropped off because of the Panic of 1819. Unable to stop the rift within Calvinism, his father was forced to resign from his ministerial position, which he had held for three decades. The new branch that formed was the Congregational Unitarians, which Morse as pastor thought were anti-Federalists, as they had a different belief related to religious salvation.
Although Samuel Morse respected his father’s religious opinions, he sympathized with the Unitarians. Among the converts to Unitarianism were the prominent Pickerings of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, whom Morse had painted. Some critics thought his sympathies represented his own anti-Federalism. Morse was commissioned to paint President James Monroe in 1820. He embodied Jeffersonian democracy by favoring the common man over the aristocrat.
Morse had moved to New Haven. His commissions for the Hall of Congress (1821) and a portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette (1825) engaged his sense of democratic nationalism. The Hall of Congress was designed to capitalize on the success of François-Marius Granet's The Capuchin Chapel in Rome, which toured the United States extensively throughout the 1820s, attracting audiences willing to pay the 25-cent admission fee.
The artist chose to paint the House of Representatives, in a similar way, with careful attention to architecture and dramatic lighting. He also wished to select a uniquely American topic that would bring glory to the young nation, and his topic did just that, showing American democracy in action.
He traveled to Washington D.C. to draw the architecture of the new halls, placing eighty individuals within the painting. He chose to portray a night scene, balancing the architecture of the Rotunda with the figures, and using lamplight to highlight the work. Pairs of people, those who stood alone, individuals bent over their desks working, were each painted simply but with faces of character. Morse chose nighttime to convey Congress’ dedication to the principles of democracy transcended day.
The Hall of Congress failed to draw a crowd at an exhibit in New York City. John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence had won popular acclaim in 1820. Viewers may have felt that the architecture of the Hall of Congress overshadows the individuals, making it hard to appreciate the drama of what was happening.
Morse was honored to paint the Marquis de Lafayette, the leading French supporter of the American Revolution. He felt compelled to paint a grand portrait of the man who helped to establish a free and independent America. In his image, he enshrouds Lafayette with a magnificent sunset. He has positioned Lafayette to the right of three pedestals: one has a bust of Benjamin Franklin, another of George Washington, and the third seems reserved for Lafayette. A peaceful woodland landscape below him symbolized American tranquility and prosperity as it approached the age of fifty. The developing friendship between Morse and Lafayette, and their discussions of the Revolutionary War, affected the artist after his return to New York City.
From 1830 to 1832, Morse traveled and studied in Europe to improve his painting skills, visiting Italy, Switzerland and France. During his time in Paris, he developed a friendship with the writer James Fennimore Cooper. As a project, he painted miniature copies of 38 of the Louvre's famous paintings on a single canvas (6 ft. x 9 ft), which he entitled The Gallery of the Louvre. He completed the work upon his return to the United States.
On a subsequent visit to Paris in 1839, Morse met Louis Daguerre and became interested in the latter's daguerreotype — the first practical means of photography. Morse wrote to the New-York Observer a letter describing the invention, a letter which was published widely in the American press and provided a broad awareness.
Some of Morse's paintings and sculptures are on display at his Locust Grove estate in Poughkeepsie, New York.
In 1825, the city of New York commissioned Morse for $1,000 to paint a portrait of Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette, in Washington. While Morse was painting, a horse messenger delivered a letter from his father that read one line, "Your dear wife is convalescent". Morse immediately left Washington for his home at New Haven, leaving the portrait of Lafayette unfinished. By the time he arrived, his wife had already been buried. Heartbroken in the knowledge that for days he was unaware of his wife's failing health and her lonely death, he moved on from painting to pursue a means of rapid long distance communication.
On the sea voyage home in 1832, Morse encountered Charles Thomas Jackson of Boston, a man who was well schooled in electromagnetism. Witnessing various experiments with Jackson's electromagnet, Morse developed the concept of a single-wire telegraph, and The Gallery of the Louvre was set aside. The original Morse telegraph, submitted with his patent application, is part of the collections of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution. In time the Morse code would become the primary language of telegraphy in the world, and is still the standard for rhythmic transmission of data.
Meanwhile, William Cooke and Professor Charles Wheatstone learned of the Wilhelm Weber and Carl Gauss electromagnetic telegraph in 1833, and had reached the stage of launching a commercial telegraph prior to Morse, despite starting later. In England, Cooke became fascinated by electrical telegraphy in 1836, four years after Morse, but with greater financial resources. Cooke abandoned his primary subject of anatomy and built a small electrical telegraph within three weeks. Wheatstone also was experimenting with telegraphy and (most importantly) understood that a single large battery would not carry a telegraphic signal over long distances, and that numerous small batteries were far more successful and efficient in this task (Wheatstone was building on the primary research of Joseph Henry, an American physicist). Cooke and Wheatstone formed a partnership and patented the electrical telegraph in May 1837, and within a short time had provided the Great Western Railway with a 13-mile (21 km) stretch of telegraph. However, Cooke and Wheatstone's multiple-wire signaling method would be overtaken by Morse's cheaper method within a few years.
In a letter to a friend, Morse describes how vigorously he fought to be called the sole inventor of the electromagnetic telegraph despite the previous inventions. (1848).
- I have been so constantly under the necessity of watching the movements of the most unprincipled set of pirates I have ever known, that all my time has been occupied in defense, in putting evidence into something like legal shape that I am the inventor of the Electro-Magnetic Telegraph!! Would you have believed it ten years ago that a question could be raised on that subject?
Morse encountered the problem of getting a telegraphic signal to carry over more than a few hundred yards of wire. His breakthrough came from the insights of Professor Leonard Gale, who taught chemistry at New York University (a personal friend of Joseph Henry). With Gale's help, Morse introduced extra circuits or relays at frequent intervals and was soon able to send a message through ten miles (16 km) of wire. This was the great breakthrough he had been seeking. Morse and Gale were soon joined by an enthusiastic young man, Alfred Vail, who had excellent skills, insights and money. At the Speedwell Ironworks in Morristown, New Jersey on January 11, 1838, Morse and Vail made the first public demonstration of the electric telegraph. Although Morse and Alfred Vail had done most of the research and development in the ironworks facilities, they chose a nearby factory house as the demonstration site. Without the repeater, the range of the telegraph was limited to two miles (3 km), and the inventors had pulled two miles (3 km) of wires inside the factory house through an elaborate scheme. The first public transmission, with the message "A patient waiter is no loser", was witnessed by a mostly local crowd.
In 1838 a trip to Washington, D.C., failed to attract federal sponsorship for a telegraph line. Morse then traveled to Europe seeking both sponsorship and patents, but in London discovered that Cooke and Wheatstone had already established priority. Morse would need the financial backing of Maine congressman Francis Ormand Jonathan Smith.
Morse made one last trip to Washington, D.C., in December 1842, stringing "wires between two committee rooms in the Capitol, and sent messages back and forth" to demonstrate his telegraph system. Congress appropriated $30,000 in 1843 for construction of an experimental 38-mile (61 km) telegraph line between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore along the right-of-way of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. An impressive demonstration occurred on May 1, 1844, when 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.
In May 1845 the Magnetic Telegraph Company was formed in order to radiate telegraph lines from New York City towards Philadelphia, Boston, Buffalo, New York and the Mississippi.
Morse also at one time adopted Wheatstone and Carl August von Steinheil's idea of broadcasting an electrical telegraph signal through a body of water or down steel railroad tracks or anything conductive. He went to great lengths to win a lawsuit for the right to be called "inventor of the telegraph", and promoted himself as being an inventor, but Alfred Vail played an important role in the invention of the Morse Code, which was based on earlier codes for the electromagnetic telegraph.
Samuel Morse received a patent for the telegraph in 1847, at the old Beylerbeyi Palace (the present Beylerbeyi Palace was built in 1861–1865 on the same location) in Istanbul, which was issued by Sultan Abdülmecid who personally tested the new invention. He was elected an Associate Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1849. The original patent went to the Breese side of the family after the death of Samuel Morse.
In the 1850s, Morse went to Copenhagen and visited the Thorvaldsens Museum, where the sculptor's grave is in the inner courtyard. He was received by King Frederick VII, who decorated him with the Order of the Dannebrog. Morse expressed his wish to donate his portrait from 1830 to the king. The Thorvaldsen portrait today belongs to Margrethe II of Denmark.
The Morse telegraphic apparatus was officially adopted as the standard for European telegraphy in 1851. Only the United Kingdom (with its extensive overseas empire) kept the needle telegraph of Cooke and Wheatstone.
In 1858, Morse introduced wired communication to Latin America when he established a telegraph system in Puerto Rico, then a Spanish Colony. Morse's oldest daughter, Susan Walker Morse (1821-1885), would often visit her uncle Charles Pickering Walker who owned the Hacienda Concordia in the town of Guayama. During one of her visits she met and later married Edward Lind, a Danish merchant who worked in the Hacienda La Henriqueta in the town of Arroyo. Lind purchased the Hacienda from his sister when she became a widow. Morse, who often spent his winters at the Hacienda with his daughter and son-in-law, set a two-mile telegraph line connecting his son-in-law's Hacienda to their house in Arroyo. The line was inaugurated on March 1, 1859, in a ceremony flanked by the Spanish and American flags. The first lines transmitted by Samuel Morse that day in Puerto Rico were:
"Puerto Rico, beautiful jewel! When you are linked with the other jewels of the Antilles in the necklace of the world's telegraph, yours will not shine less brilliantly in the crown of your Queen!"There is an argument amongst historians that Morse may have received the idea of a plausible telegraph from Harrison Gray Dyar some eighteen years earlier than his patent.
Slavery, anti-Catholic and anti-immigration efforts
Morse was a leader in the anti-Catholic and anti-immigration movement of the mid-19th century. In 1836, he ran unsuccessfully for mayor of New York under the anti-immigrant Nativist Party's banner, receiving only 1496 votes. When Morse visited Rome, he refused to take his hat off in the presence of the Pope. Upon seeing this, an offended Swiss Guardsman rushed over and knocked the hat off of his head. Morse worked to unite Protestants against Catholic institutions (including schools), wanted to forbid Catholics from holding public office, and promoted changing immigration laws to limit immigration from Catholic countries. On this topic, he wrote, “We must first stop the leak in the ship through which muddy waters from without threaten to sink us.”
Morse was the author of a number of letters to the New York Observer (his brother Sidney was the editor at the time) urging people to fight the perceived Catholic menace. These articles were widely reprinted in other newspapers. Among other claims, he believed that the Austrian government and Catholic aid organizations were subsidizing Catholic immigration to the United States in order to gain control of the country.
In his Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States, Morse wrote: “Surely American Protestants, freemen, have discernment enough to discover beneath them the cloven foot of this subtle foreign heresy. They will see that Popery is now, what it has ever been, a system of the darkest political intrigue and despotism, cloaking itself to avoid attack under the sacred name of religion. They will be deeply impressed with the truth, that Popery is a political as well as a religious system; that in this respect it differs totally from all other sects, from all other forms of religion in the country.”
In the 1850s, Morse became well known as a defender of America's institution of slavery, considering it to be sanctioned by God. In his treatise "An Argument on the Ethical Position of Slavery," he wrote:
My creed on the subject of slavery is short. Slavery per se is not sin. It is a social condition ordained from the beginning of the world for the wisest purposes, benevolent and disciplinary, by Divine Wisdom. The mere holding of slaves, therefore, is a condition having per se nothing of moral character in it, any more than the being a parent, or employer, or ruler.Marriages
Morse married Lucretia Pickering Walker on September 29, 1818, in Concord, New Hampshire. She died on February 7, 1825, shortly after the birth of their third child (Susan b. 1819, Charles b. 1823, James b. 1825). He married his second wife, Sarah Elizabeth Griswold on August 10, 1848 in Utica, New York and had four children (Samuel b. 1849, Cornelia b. 1851, William b. 1853, Edward b. 1857).
In the United States, Morse held his telegraph patent for many years, but it was both ignored and contested. In 1853 the case of the patent came before the U.S. Supreme Court where, after very lengthy investigation, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney ruled that Morse had been the first to combine the battery, electromagnetism, the electromagnet and the correct battery configuration into a workable practical telegraph. However, in spite of this clear ruling, Morse still received no official recognition from the United States government.
The Supreme Court did not accept all of Morse's claims. The O'Reilly v. Morse case has become known among patent lawyers because the Supreme Court explicitly denied Morse's claim for any future application of his code system. The decision has been cited as relevant to the patent eligibility of software.
Assisted by the American ambassador in Paris, the governments of Europe were approached about their long neglect of Morse while their countries were using his invention. There was a widespread recognition that something must be done, and "in 1858 Morse was awarded the sum of 400,000 French francs (equivalent to about $80,000 at the time) by the governments of France, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Piedmont, Russia, Sweden, Tuscany and Turkey, each of which contributed a share according to the number of Morse instruments in use in each country." In 1858, he was also elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
In addition to the telegraph, Morse invented a marble-cutting machine that could carve three dimensional sculptures in marble or stone. He could not patent it, however, because of an existing 1820 Thomas Blanchard design.
Samuel Morse was a generous man who gave large sums to charity. He also became interested in the relationship of science and religion and provided the funds to establish a lectureship on 'the relation of the Bible to the Sciences'. Morse was not a selfish man. Other people and corporations made millions using his inventions, yet most rarely paid him for the use of his patented telegraph. He was not bitter about this, though he would have appreciated more rewards for his labors. Morse was comfortable; by the time of his death, his estate was valued at some $500,000 ($9.58 million today).
Honors and awards
Despite honors and financial awards received from foreign countries there was no such recognition in the U.S. until he neared the end of his life, when on June 10, 1871 a bronze statue of Samuel Morse was unveiled in Central Park, New York City. An engraved portrait of Morse appeared on the reverse side of the United States two-dollar bill silver certificate series of 1896. He was depicted along with Robert Fulton. An example can be seen on the website of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco's website in their "American Currency Exhibit".
A blue plaque was erected to commemorate him at 141 Cleveland Street, London, where he lived from 1812 to 1815.
According to his The New York Times obituary published on April 3, 1872, Morse received respectively 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.
Morse's telegraph was recognized as an IEEE Milestone in 1988
On April 1, 2012, Google announced the release of "Gmail Tap", an April Fools' Day joke that allowed users to use Morse Code to send text from their mobile phones. Morse's great-great-grandnephew Reed Morse—a Google engineer—was instrumental in the prank, which became a real product.