Text messaging, instant messaging, e-mail, telephone. . . . We can trace each progressive form of long-distance, real-time communication back to the telegraph. Although few people today ever have used the invention that started it all more than a century-and-a-half ago, most know the name of the man who brought it to fruition: Samuel Morse.
Was his telegraphic work the only contribution Samuel Morse made to science and engineering?
Tools for Firefighters & Marble Sculptors
Samuel Finley Breese Morse was born 27 April 1791 in Charlestown, Massachusetts. He graduated from Yale in 1810, then journeyed to England with painter Washington Allston to study art. When he returned at age 24, he was disappointed to find little interest in the stately historic subjects he wanted to paint. Morse eked out a living painting portraits.
Meanwhile, though, the inquisitive Morse began dabbling in machinery and inventions. In 1817, he and his brother Sidney introduced a type of man-powered water pump they had created for firefighting. The apparatus worked—but didn’t sell. Samuel Morse continued to paint, adding such subjects as Noah Webster and Eli Whitney to his portraits.
He did not give up his inventive pursuits. In 1822, he developed a cutting device for use by marble sculptors. Disappointingly, he learned that the design conflicted with an existing patent.
Approaching 40, Samuel Morse became a journalist. Using the pseudonym “Brutus,” Morse—son of a staunch Protestant minister—became known for his anti-Catholic essays.
Success at Last: Morse & the Telegraph
Morse again journeyed to Europe, and on the voyage home he met scientist Thomas Jackson. Jackson was trying to perfect electricity as a means of communication. Morse made similar studies. He conceived what was called an electromagnetic recording telegraph and improved it through experimentation. Morse worked out an alphabetic code of short and long signals (dots and dashes) that could be used to tap out messages.
Morse made several short-distance demonstrations of telegraphy, including signals via a two-mile submarine cable across the floor of New York Harbor. The U.S. government awarded him a patent for his telegraph system.
His great breakthrough came when he oversaw the completion of a line between Baltimore and Washington, DC—with $30,000 in government funding. “What hath God wrought!” was the first message signaled down the wire on 24 May 1844.
By the mid-1850s, the United States was connected by some 23,000 miles of telegraph lines, and the amazing new form of what now is dubbed “messaging” had spread to other parts of the world.
Morse was not the only inventor to claim a telegraph patent, and his patent was contested in court. Although he prevailed, he ultimately received greater recognition for his work in Europe than in the United States.
Samuel Morse’ Diverse Interests
While working to perfect the telegraph during the mid-1800s, Morse pursued other interests. During his time in France, Morse had met photographic pioneer Louis Daguerre and learned to make daguerreotype images. With partner John Draper, he opened one of America’s first daguerreotype studios in New York.
In later life, he was engaged as an electrician by Cyrus Field in 1857-58 in an unsuccessful effort to lay a transatlantic telegraph cable.
Morse died 2 April 1872 in New York City.
Foner, Eric, & John A. Garraty, editors. The Reader’s Companion to American History. Houghton Mifflin Company (1991).
Morris, Richard B. Encyclopedia of American History. Harper & Brothers (1953).