It’s February 1825, and 34-year-old Samuel Morse, an accomplished painter as well as inventor of the famous code, is in Washington working on a portrait commission. He writes to his beloved wife, “I long to hear from you.” But he never will; in his absence, she had died of a heart attack. Tragically, news reached him too late even to attend her funeral.
Samuel Finley Breese Morse came into the world in April 1792 in Charlestown, Massachusetts. He was the first child of Jedidiah Morse, a minister and geographer, and his wife Elizabeth, née Breese. Morse senior was a Calvinist who believed that this strand of Christianity was best placed to maintain the founding Puritan traditions of America.
The young Samuel Morse was educated at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, a boys’ school founded in 1778 during the Revolutionary War. He was not an outstandingly successful student, although he showed early artistic talent. From Phillips he went on to continue his studies at Yale College.
Morse took courses in math, religious philosophy and, somewhat bizarrely to modern eyes, horse science. But he also attended lectures on electricity, a subject that would be of increasing importance to him in later years. He graduated from Yale in 1810.
Morse had persevered with early artistic promise, but his father was keen that he should have a more conventional career. He arranged an apprenticeship for his son after Yale at a bookseller and publisher in Boston. But this seems not to have suited the young Morse, and his father eventually agreed to support his artistic aspirations.
An established American artist, Washington Allston, invited Morse to travel to England with him in 1811. The 20-year-old Morse was to spend three years in Britain studying and refining his art. Accompanied by Allston, Morse embarked on the Libya in July 1811, bound for England.
Under the supervision of his mentor Allston, who was 12 years his senior, Morse now became a member of the prestigious Royal Academy, an arts institution in London. It was during this period that Morse painted what has been described as his most accomplished work, a study of Hercules in the throes of death.
In 1815 Morse returned to America and continued with his painting from a studio in Boston. In 1818 he married Lucretia Walker, whose tragic death at the age of just 25 we heard of earlier and which we’ll return to shortly. The couple’s seven years of marriage produced three children. The oldest, Susan, was five when her mother died, the youngest, James, just three weeks.
In 1823 Morse painted one of his best-known works, a portrayal of the House of Representatives, a subject no other artists had turned their hands to. But the decade after his return to America was a difficult time for Morse as a painter.
Although his works, many on large canvases, attracted public attention, sales were poor. Morse was forced to take work as a portraitist, travelling to wherever the commissions were. One such commission was to paint the Frenchman Gilbert du Motier, much better known as the Marquis de Lafayette.
Lafayette was a revered character in America because of the part he had played as a military commander in defeating the British during the Revolutionary War. In fact, that 1825 commission might have been a real breakthrough for Morse because of Lafayette’s fame.
The commission came from the city of New York, and the fee was $1,000, a handsome sum in those days. Morse left his home in New Haven, Connecticut, and journeyed the four days it took to reach Washington, where he was to paint Lafayette.
Morse left behind his wife Lucretia in New Haven in the advanced stages of pregnancy with their third child. She wrote affectionately to her husband, “I think now that we can indulge a rational hope that the time is not very far distant when you can be happy in the bosom of your much loved family.”
Morse now received another letter, this time from his father. Jedidiah Morse wrote “My heart is in pain and deeply sorrowful, while I announce to you the sudden and unexpected death of your dear and deservedly loved wife.” That letter must have been as hard to write as it was to read.
And because of the inevitable delays of news traveling from A to B in the 1820s – horse messenger was the quickest method – Morse didn’t get to see his wife before she died. In fact, he didn’t even have the comfort of being present at her funeral.
It’s difficult to make a direct link between the death of Morse’s wife and his later groundbreaking work on the telegraph system and Morse code. But it hardly stretches the bounds of credibility to believe that it was very likely that his wife’s death, and the delay in his getting the news, would later play an important part in his creation of a working technology for instant messaging.
In any case, Morse didn’t start serious work on the telegraph for some years after his wife’s death. Although devastated by the loss of Lucretia, he continued his career as an artist. Once more, he crossed the Atlantic to Europe in 1829. This time his destination was the French capital, Paris.
As well as spending time in Paris, Morse traveled to Switzerland and Italy. But an extraordinary work he painted in Paris and completed on his return to America in 1832 commanded most attention. This was one large canvas, six by nine feet, with miniatures of many of the masterpieces hanging in the Louvre, including the Mona Lisa.
But when he put his Louvre painting up for sale in New York in 1833 for $2,500, a setback was in store. The work only fetched $1,300, yet another disappointment in Morse’s artistic endeavors and one that meant he was perilously short of funds.
But he kept the wolf from the door by securing a job at New York University teaching art. This meant that he was given a studio on Washington Square where he could live and work. His three children were being cared for by others. Now he turned his attention to a new artistic project, a large-scale commission that he hoped to secure.
The commission he had his heart set on was to paint a historic scene for the rotunda that formed part of the United States Capitol building in Washington. Four panels had been set aside there for just such a work. Not only would this cement his reputation as an artist, it would earn him the princely sum of $10,000.
Sadly, the result of his lobbying to be chosen for this commission was rejection. When Morse heard this unwelcome news, he was devastated. He seems to have believed that he had been the victim of some kind of political skullduggery. But unfortunately, his own political conduct probably offers a more convincing reason for his failure to secure the commission.
In 1834 Morse had become an advocate for the Nativists, a political group bitterly opposed to immigration from countries such as Italy, Ireland and Germany. The xenophobic Nativists believed that newcomers from those countries, and especially Catholics, would tarnish the ideals of the American state.
Morse fiercely promoted his bigoted views in the New York Observer, a newspaper run by his own brother. A flavor of his writing comes in this quote, “The serpent has already commenced his coil about our limbs, and the lethargy of his poison is creeping over us.” He published his vitriol in a book entitled Foreign Conspiracy against the Liberties of the United States
Then in 1836 Morse stood as the Nativist candidate in the New York mayoral election. Although the views of the Nativists had gained traction in some parts of the country, New York voters gave Morse an emphatic rejection. Of the four candidates standing for mayor, he got the fewest votes.
Many people, including friends and supporters, had been utterly dismayed by Morse’s political foray. One writer expressed this disappointment in the New York Commercial Advertiser. “Mr. Morse is a scholar and a gentleman – an able man – an accomplished artist – and we should like on ninety-nine accounts to support him. But the hundredth forbids it. Somehow or other he has got warped in his politics.”
Whatever caused the failure of Morse’s attempts to get that Capitol commission, he was certainly left distraught by the rejection. One friend in Boston, a publisher called Nathaniel Willis, later recalled that Morse had been suicidal but had stopped short of the act because of his religious beliefs.
And Morse now abandoned his painting altogether. In a letter to another friend, the writer James Fenimore Cooper, Morse wrote, “Painting has been a smiling mistress to many, but she has been a cruel jilt to me. I did not abandon her, she abandoned me.”
With painting out of his life, Morse now decided to devote his attention to the telegraph. Until now, his research into telegraphy and its possibilities had been a part-time enterprise. It had been something that he’d dabbled in as he pursued his main ambition of being a successful artist. Now it became his primary occupation.
As early as 1832, Morse had outlined his concept of the telegraph. In simple terms, he wanted to develop a machine that would send signals down a wire by the opening and closing of an electrical circuit. The receiving machine would use an electromagnet to notate the signals as a series of dots and dashes.
These dot and dashes could then be deciphered with the use of a code key that would transform the simple signals into numbers and letters, which would form a message. In his studio on Washington Square, Morse had built a rudimentary version of his telegraph. By all accounts this was a rough and ready affair constructed with a jumble of cogs, levers and wires.
The main limitation on Morse’s device was that he could only generate a high enough voltage to send a signal some 40 feet along a wire. But he now found a new partner, a chemistry professor at New York University called Leonard Gale.
Gale devised a method of increasing the power of the battery and the magnet Morse was using and the two now successfully sent a message along a third of a mile of wire. Next, Morse himself created electromagnetic relays, which could send signals for an unlimited distance.
But although he had now developed the basics of his telegraph system, Morse faced further battles to get his invention adopted into everyday use. For a start, one man claimed that Morse had stolen the idea of telegraphy from him. This was a Boston doctor called Charles Jackson, whom Morse had met on his seaborne voyage back from France to America in 1832.
Jackson asserted that Morse and he had jointly come up with the idea of the telegraph during their journey across the Atlantic. Morse was enraged by Jackson’s claims as well as other similar ones. He complained bitterly about the time and energy consumed by rebutting these pretensions, which he succeeded in doing.
Then there was the struggle to raise funds to fulfill the potential of Morse’s revolutionary telegraph. Some help came from a new partner, Arthur Vail, and Morse’s brothers also invested. But what Morse really needed was help from the U.S. government. His first approach to congress came in 1838. It failed.
But then in 1842 Morse returned to Washington. This time Morse came armed with a highly persuasive demonstration. He wired up two of the Capitol’s committee rooms and showed how messages could be transmitted between the rooms with his telegraph apparatus. Duly impressed, Congress was won over.
The politicians now awarded $30,000 in 1843 to Morse to build a telegraph system between Washington and Baltimore. The line ran alongside the railroad between the two cities for a distance of 38 miles. At last, Morse had found the success in his life that he’d struggled towards for so many years.
The Washington-Baltimore line opened in 1844, and 17-year-old Annie Ellsworth, the daughter of one of Morse’s staunchest supporters over the years, Henry Ellsworth chose the first message. It was a biblical quotation from the Book of Deuteronomy, “What hath God wrought?”
Thanks to Morse’s determination, the world now had a system of instant communication over long distances for the first time. In the years after that first telegraph message sent in 1844, Morse’s telegraph system and his code would spread around the world. And if Morse was truly inspired by the death of his wife Lucretia, the world had much to thank her for as well. Morse lived on until 1872, dying at the age of 80 a wealthy and revered man.