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Samuel F.B. Morse

"Science and art are not opposed." - Samuel Morse.
Samuel F.B. Morse led a superbly rendered life as a painter, sculptor, professor and photographer. He became best known, however, for his invention of the Telegraph. Morse used the invention of the electromagnet in 1825 to develop a way to communicate virtually instantly over long distances, using his own code. Morse sent his famous first message from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., in 1844.

Samuel Morse Early days Samuel Finley Breese Morse was born on April 27, 1791, in Charlestown, just outside of Boston, Massachusetts. He was the son of Jedidiah Morse, a pastor well known for his knowledge of geography. Samuel showed an interest in electricity, but his love was art. His father opposed art as a career — not realizing how determined Samuel was to paint.


Educated at Phillip’s Academy at Andover, then Yale, Samuel graduated in 1810. After Yale, he moved to England and lived there from 1811 to 1815, managing to exhibit his work at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1813. He spent the following 10 years as an itinerant artist with a particular interest in portraiture.

Then Morse returned to America in 1832, having been appointed Professor of Painting and Sculpture at the University of the City of New York. While on his way back to America, aboard the ship Sullyon, he overheard a conversation about the newly developed electromagnet and conceived the idea of an electric telegraph. This was the starting point from which the electric telegraph would become a reality.

Morse also entered politics when he was at the university. In his writings, he displayed an antipathy for The Roman Catholic Church, due in large measure to the upswing in immigration of Irish Catholics: "It is a fact that popery is opposed in its very nature to democratic republicanism; and it is, therefore, as a political system, as well as religious, opposed to civil and religious liberty, and consequently to our form of government." He unsuccessfully ran for mayor of New York on the Nativist ticket, and ended up rethinking his career options. He then set a new goal for himself: to become an inventor.


In 1837, Morse acquired two partners to help him develop his telegraph. One was Leonard Gale, a professor of science at New York University, and the other, Alfred Vail, a brilliant young man who made available both his mechanical skills and his family's New Jersey iron works to help construct telegraph models.

With the his partners' assistance, Morse applied for a patent for his new telegraph in 1837, which he described as including a dot and dash code to represent numbers, a dictionary to turn the numbers into words and a set of sawtooth type for sending signals.

In 1838, at the age of 47, Samuel F.B. Morse, one of the country's leading portraitists, put aside his palette and brushes to devote all his time to developing the telegraph.

Early telegraph device While displaying his invention at an 1838 exhibition in New York, Morse transmitted 10 words per minute. He had retired his number-word dictionary, using instead the dot-dash code directly for letters. Although other changes would be made, the Morse Code that would become standard throughout the world had been born.

Congress approves the telegraph

Hoping to find the funds to give his telegraph a large-scale test, Morse exhibited his telegraph before savants, businessmen and congressional committees. He persisted in spite of numerous skeptics.

In 1843, lacking significant help from his discouraged partners, Morse finally closed a deal with Congress, in which funds would be awarded to construct the first telegraph line in the U.S., from Baltimore to Washington, D.C.

By May 1844, the first inter-city electromagnetic telegraph line in the world was ready. From the Capitol building in Washington, Morse sent a Biblical quotation as the first formal message on the line to Baltimore, stating, "What hath God wrought!"

Given 12 years in the making, most Americans had ignored Morse's efforts to develop his technological wonder. Morse had finally become an American celebrity.

Success bring riches

By 1846, private companies using Morse's patent had constructed telegraph lines from Washington reaching to Boston and Buffalo, and were extending boundaries even farther.

Samuel Morse's home With handsome revenue from his invention, Morse was able to bring together his family into a huge country home. His new house and ranch, named Locust Grove (now the Samuel Morse Historic Site), included 100 acres of land just outside of Poughkeepsie, New York. Morse married a poor cousin in 1848. At 26 years of age, his newlywed was hearing impaired and could not speak. Morse believed that their compatibility was based on her dependence upon him.

An end to greatness

During the later years of his productive life, Morse, a national figure, attained worldwide recognition as a philanthropist. As a wealthy man, he was generous with his enormous pocket book — giving funds to poor artists, colleges, including Yale and Vassar, and charitable organizations.

The telegraph is the single foundation of modern computer networking and the Morse Code is the foundation for symbolic computer programming. Further, Morse Code is still in use today.

Samuel Finley Breese Morse died of pneumonia in New York City on April 2, 1872, at the age of 80. His remains are in Brooklyn's Greenwood Cemetery.