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Samuel Morse and the birth of the telegraph

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January 22nd, 2015
Samuel Morse
Samuel Morse

Although many may not know his face or much about his life, they certainly know his name. Samuel Morse was a nineteenth century da Vinci of sorts, a man who saw the world as a canvas.

He was an artist, an inventor, a philosopher; and his story is as interesting as his contributions to society were momentous.

Born in Charlestown, Mass., April 27, 1791, Samuel Finley Breese Morse was a serious youngster, driven and disciplined. The son of a Calvinist minister, he grew up in a household where prayers and education came first.

Morse went to the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., before enrolling at Yale to study mathematics and religious philosophy. In addition to his core studies, he attended lectures on the little-known field of electricity—a foreshadowing of things to come—and ultimately graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1810. 

But it wasn’t the sciences on which Morse fixed his sights after leaving Yale. Instead, he turned to art.

Accomplished artist

His paintings, which varied from portraiture to historic scenes such as the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth, attracted the attention of an established artist named Washington Allston. Allston immediately took a liking to Morse and invited him to Europe as his protégé.

In July 1811, the two men set sail for England. Over the next four years, Morse studied the works of the Renaissance masters and became a renowned painter himself.

When he returned to the United States in 1815, he embarked on a career as a professional artist. Soon, he was as sought-after as the great American portraitist Charles Wilson Peale.

Morse quickly built an impressive portfolio with commissions to paint Presidents John Adams and James Monroe, as well as the Marquis de Lafayette during the Frenchman’s celebrated American tour in 1825. 

Tragic twist

It was while fulfilling the latter commission that Morse experienced a life-changing twist of fate.

Leaving his wife Lucretia at home in New Haven, Conn., Morse traveled to Washington, D.C., where Lafayette was staying. One day, as the Revolutionary War hero posed for the young artist, a courier barged in with an urgent message from Morse’s father. 

The note read simply, “Your dear wife is convalescent.” Morse rushed home at once, abandoning the unfinished portrait; but by the time he made it to New Haven, Lucretia was dead and buried.

His father’s letter had taken days to reach him—precious hours, minutes, and seconds that he could have spent with his wife. His fascination with electricity came rushing back with his grief. 

Morse vowed to create a form of rapid long-distance communication that would help to avoid such tragic waste in the future.

Shortly thereafter, he began experimenting with electromagnets and developed a design for a single-wire telegraph.

His main difficulty, however, was that he was unable to send a signal more than several hundred yards. With the help of Leonard Gale, a chemistry professor at New York University, Morse solved the problem using a system of relays to prevent the electrical charge from weakening as it traveled.

Acting as amplifiers, each relay in the chain would retransmit the signal, thus maintaining its strength over extended distances. This improvement increased the telegraph’s range from 300 yards to 10 miles.

Dots and dashes

Between 1840 and 1849, Morse filed four patents on his advancements in electromagnetic telegraphy. He further devised a language of dots and dashes that telegraph operators could send as electrical pulses between stations. 

After more than 160 years, Morse code remains an internationally recognized mode of communication.

Morse publicly put his invention to the test on May 1, 1844, when he telegraphed news of Henry Clay’s nomination for the presidency from the Whig Party convention in Baltimore, Md., to the Capitol in Washington, D.C.—roughly 50 miles.

But he sent his best-known message three weeks later. From the Supreme Court’s chamber in Washington, D.C., to a B&O Railroad station in Baltimore, Morse wired the phrase: “What hath God wrought.”

He had no idea just how profound the answer to this question would be. In May 1845, Morse officially started the Magnetic Telegraph Company, which made lightning-fast communication accessible to most any ordinary citizen.

Indeed, his work altered not only the face of technology but the course of human events, leading to the advent of radios and wireless messaging. Suddenly, front-page headlines conveyed a sense of immediacy; generals waged their wars with a new rhythm; and doubtless fewer people failed to capture those treasured last moments with dying loved ones.

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