Beginning his career as a painter and later becoming a founder of American nativism, he achieved enduring, worldwide renown with his invention of the electric telegraph.
On this day in history, January 6:
Samuel Morse demonstrated his telegraph for the first time in Morristown, New Jersey, in 1838. The device utilized electric impulses to transmit encoded messages over a single wire, and went on to revolutionize long-distance communications around the world.
Born in 1791 in Massachusetts to a prominent Calvinist minister, Morse graduated from Yale University, where he studied religious philosophy, mathematics, art and electricity, which was still in its infancy. After college, he studied painting in London, working at the Royal Academy with the well-known American artist Benjamin West.
Morse returned home to paint portraits in New York, where he founded the National Academy of Design, and Boston, where he completed his first history painting, the Landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth.
Although Morse’s paintings, such as The Old House of Representatives, showing American democracy in action, are recognized as some of the most accomplished of his time, he often lived close to poverty as an artist. He eventually became associated with the Hudson River school, and his portraits, such as those of Presidents John Adams and James Monroe, as well as the Marquis de Lafayette, still rank among the finest in the United States.
The Electric Telegraph
While sailing home from Europe in 1832, Morse heard about the new electromagnet, and said, “If this be so, and the presence of electricity can be made visible in any desired part of the circuit, I see no reason why intelligence might not be instantaneously transmitted by electricity to any distance.” He made some sketches of a device to accomplish this purpose.
His sketches clearly laid out the three major parts of the single-wire, electric telegraph: a sender, which opened and closed an electric circuit; a receiver, which used an electromagnet to record the signal; and a code, which translated the signal into numbers and letters.
Morse developed a prototype and took on two partners, chemist Leonard Gale and machinist Alfred Vail, who contributed money and mechanical skill. He unveiled his invention in 1838, using Morse code, a dot-and-dash alphabet that he based on earlier codes.
Five years later, Morse convinced Congress to fund the construction of the first telegraph line in the United States, running 36 miles from Washington to Baltimore along the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. On May 24, 1844, he sent the first official telegraph message over the line: “What hath God wrought!”
Western Union Founded
Using Morse’s 1847 patent, private companies in the Northeast set up telegraph lines, and soon 23,000 miles of cable crisscrossed the country. Quick communications made railroad travel safer and businesses more efficient and profitable. Few inventions changed life as rapidly as the telegraph.
In 1851, the New York and Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company was founded, later changing its name to Western Union. In 1861, Western Union completed the first transcontinental line across the United States. Five years later, the first line across the Atlantic Ocean was installed and, by the turn of the century, telegraph systems were in place in Australia, Asia and Africa.
Telegraph companies typically charged by the word, so telegrams became known for their terse prose. The word “stop,” which was free, was used instead of a period, for which there was a charge.
Telegrams reached the peak of their popularity in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1933, Western Union introduced singing telegrams. During World War II, American families dreaded the sight of Western Union couriers because the Army used telegrams to inform them about the death of soldiers.
Morse and Politics
Morse was a leader of the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant movement in the United States. In the 1830s, he expressed his anti-Catholic prejudices in a series of newspaper articles under the pen name Brutus. He accused the monarchies of Europe of enlisting the aid of the Catholic Church to subvert American democracy by sending Catholic immigrants to take over the American West.
By linking immigration to Catholicism, Morse’s articles, which were republished in 1835 as a book, Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States, helped spawn an anti-immigrant movement that persisted for generations. Morse was recognized by his contemporaries as a founder of American nativism when he became an unsuccessful candidate for mayor of New York on the Nativist Party ticket in 1836.
In his book, 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.”
Despite such controversial political views, nobody can deny the power and influence of Morse’s telegraph, which today is part of the collection of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution. Over time, telegraph messages were replaced by cheap, long-distance telephone service, faxes and email. Western Union delivered its last telegram in 2006.
Morse was a generous philanthropist and one of the founders of Vassar College. But his final years were marred by controversy over the priority of his invention and questions about how much help he received from others. In 1871, a bronze statue of Samuel Morse was unveiled in New York’s Central Park. He died wealthy and famous the following year at age 80. “Science and art,” he once said, “are not opposed.”
- Kloss, William, Samuel F. B. Morse (1988)
- Larkin, Oliver W., Samuel F. B. Morse and American Democratic Art (1954)
- Mabee, Carleton, American Leonardo: A Life of Samuel F. B. Morse (1943)