Samuel Finley Breese Morse
Samuel F. B. Morse was born at the foot of Breed's Hill, Charlestown,
Mass., April 27, 1791. He was the eighth child in a family of eleven
children, all of whom, except three sons, Samuel, Richard, and Sidney,
died in their infancy.
The father, Jedediah Morse, was a doctor of divinity, having
studied under Jonathan Edwards, and was also a journalist and
writer of books. He helped to establish the "Boston
the "Congregationalist," and with others laid the foundations of the
Theological Seminary at Andover, the American Board of Foreign Missions,
the American Bible Society, and the American Tract Society. He was an
impulsive, hopeful man of wonderful energy, and, as Daniel Webster said,
he was "always thinking, always writing, always talking, always acting."
His wife, Elizabeth Ann Breese, was the granddaughter of Samuel Finley,
President of Princeton College, a woman of strong will, excellent
judgment, and extremely pleasant manners. From the one, the boy Finley
inherited energy and hope; from the other, agreeable manners and
[From the Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and Women.]]
At four years of age Finley was sent to a school near the parsonage,
kept by "Old Ma'am Rand." Being an invalid, she governed with a long
rattan which reached from her chair across the schoolroom. Finley, early
developing artistic tastes, sketched the teacher's face with a pin on a
chest of drawers. Probably the picture was not handsome, for the
offender was punished by being pinned to her dress. Breaking away, and
carrying part of the dress with him, the rattan did its appropriate
At seven he was sent to a school at Andover, and fitted for Phillips
Academy. He received helpful letters from his father. At ten, Dr. Morse
writes him: "Your natural disposition, my dear son, renders it proper
for me earnestly to recommend to you to attend to one thing at a time;
it is impossible that you can do two things well at the same time, and I
would therefore never have you attempt it. Never undertake to do what
ought not to be done, and then, whatever you undertake, endeavor to do
it in the best manner. It is said of DeWitt, a celebrated statesman in
Holland, who was torn to pieces in the year 1672, that he did the whole
business of the republic, and yet had time left to go to assemblies in
the evening, and sup in company.
"Being asked how he could possibly find time to go through so much
business, and yet amuse himself in the evenings as he did, he answered:
'There was nothing so easy, for that it was only doing one thing at a
time, and never putting off anything till to-morrow that could be done
to-day.' This steady and undissipated attention to one object is a sure
mark of a superior genius, as hurry, bustle, and agitation are the
never-failing symptoms of a weak and frivolous mind."
At this early age Finley pored over Plutarch's "Lives of Illustrious
Men," and resolved, as many another boy from reading these volumes, to
be somebody. There is scarcely a more important thing for a child than
that parents should put into his or her hands stimulating and helpful
books. When Finley was thirteen, he wrote a sketch of the "Life of
Demosthenes," and sent it to his father.
At fourteen he was admitted to the Freshman class at Yale, but did not
attend college till the following year. He was a good scholar in
geometry and history, but was especially fond of natural philosophy and
chemistry. Under Professor Jeremiah Day he began to study electricity,
and witnessed the following experiments with great interest: "Let the
fluid pass through a chain, or through any metallic bodies placed at
small distances from each other, the fluid in a dark room will be
visible between the links of the chain, or between the metallic
bodies.... If the circuit be interrupted by several folds of paper, a
perforation will be made through it, and each of the leaves will be
protruded by the stroke from the middle to the outward leaves."
Writing upon this subject sixty years afterward, Morse said, "The fact
that the presence of electricity can be made visible in any desired part
of the circuit was the crude seed which took root in my mind, and grew
up into form, and ripened into the invention of the telegraph."
Under Professor Benjamin Silliman, a name greatly honored in science,
Morse found great delight and profit. He wrote to his parents, that he
should bring home "a chemical trough, gun-barrels, retorts, etc."
With this fondness for science, Morse showed a decided ability in art.
He took pictures of his classmates, at one dollar each, and miniatures
on ivory at five dollars each, thus helping to pay his expenses. The
price charged was very low, but possibly it was all the pictures were
worth, for as yet he had never taken a lesson.
Long before his college course was at an end, he had decided to become a
painter, probably much against the unspoken wishes of his parents, who
must have felt that poverty would be his companion, for some years, at
On going home to Charlestown, he attended a course of anatomical and
surgical lectures in Boston. Washington Allston, then at the head of his
profession in America, had spent two years in Boston, and was about to
return to Europe. Morse went with him and took lodgings in London. At
once he wrote home, "I only wish you had this letter now to relieve your
minds from anxiety, for while I am writing I can imagine mother wishing
that she could hear of my arrival, and thinking of thousands of
accidents which may have befallen me. I wish that in an instant I could
communicate the information; but three thousand miles are not passed
over in an instant, and we must wait four long weeks before we can hear
from each other."
On the outside of this letter, yellow with age, he wrote toward the end
of his life, "LONGING FOR A TELEGRAPH EVEN IN THIS LETTER."
In London he soon met Benjamin West, born in Springfield, Penn., then at
the head of the Royal Academy in England. He had been poor and obscure;
now he was distinguished, and courted even by royalty. Morse, ever
ambitious, soon arranged to study under West, and became his devoted
admirer. He wrote home: "Mr. West is in his seventy-fourth year, but to
see him you would suppose him only about five-and-forty.... He expressed
great attachment to his native country, and he told me, as a proof of
it, he presented them with this large picture ('Christ Healing the
Sick'). I walked through his gallery of paintings of his own production.
There were upwards of two hundred, consisting principally of the
original sketches of his large pieces. He has painted in all upward of
six hundred pictures, which is more than any artist ever did, with the
exception of Rubens. Mr. West is so industrious now that it is hard to
get access to him, and then only between the hours of nine and ten in
the morning. He is working on eight or nine different pieces at
present, and seems to be more enthusiastic than he ever was before....
No man, perhaps, ever passed through so much abuse, and I am confident
no one ever bore up against its insolence with more nobleness of spirit.
With a steady perseverance in the pursuit of the sublimest profession,
he has travelled on, heedless of his enemies, till he is sure of
"Excuse my fervor in the praise of this extraordinary man.... I think
there can be no stronger proof that human nature is the same always,
than that men of genius in all ages have been compelled to undergo the
same disappointments, and to pass through the same storms of calumny and
abuse, doomed in their lifetime to endure the ridicule or neglect of the
world, and to wait for justice till they were dead."
How well, unknowingly, Morse foretold his own career; disappointments,
Stimulated by the industry and renown of West, he worked at his drawing
from half-past seven in the forenoon until five in the afternoon, and
then again in the evening. He learned what all persons learn, sooner or
later, that there is no easy road to fame.
West encouraged the young artist, and this added fuel to the flame of
ambition. Desiring admission to the Royal Academy, he spent two weeks in
making a drawing from a small cast of the Farnese Hercules. Showing it
to Mr. West for his criticism, West said, "Very well, sir, very well;
go on and finish it."
"It is finished," replied Morse.
"Oh, no," said Mr. West; "look here, and here, and here."
Morse drew a week longer, and again presented it. "Very well, indeed,
sir," he said; "go on and finish it."
"Is it not finished?" asked Morse, half discouraged.
"Not yet," said West; "see you have not marked that muscle, nor the
articulations of the finger-joints."
A third time he presented the drawing, and received the same advice as
before. "I cannot finish it," said Morse, despairingly.
"Well," said West, "I have tried you long enough. Now, sir, you have
learned more by this drawing than you would have accomplished in double
the time by a dozen half-finished beginnings. It is not numerous
drawings, but the character of one, which makes a thorough
draughtsman. Finish one picture, sir, and you are a painter."
Morse was now admitted to the Royal Academy, and had visions of becoming
great. He writes home: "I have just finished a model in clay of a figure
('The Dying Hercules'), my first attempt at sculpture. Mr. Allston is
extremely pleased with it; he says it is better than all the things I
have done since I have been in England, put together, and says I must
send a cast of it home to you, and that it will convince you that I
shall make a painter.... Mr. West also was extremely delighted with it.
He said it was not merely an academical figure, but displayed thought.
He could not have paid me a higher compliment.... My passion for my art
is so firmly rooted that I am confident no human power could destroy it.
The more I study, the greater I think is its claim to the appellation of
divine, and I never shall be able sufficiently to show my gratitude to
my parents for enabling me to pursue that profession without which I am
sure I should be miserable. And if it is my destiny to become GREAT, and
worthy of a biographical memoir, my biographer will never be able to
charge upon my parents that bigoted attachment to any individual
profession, the exercise of which spirit by parents toward their
children has been the ruin of some of the greatest geniuses."
The model of the "Dying Hercules" was sent to the Society of Arts at the
Adelphi, and Morse received the gold medal given for the best work
in painting, sculpture, and architecture.
Morse had taken letters of introduction to several prominent persons,
like Wilberforce and Zachary Macaulay, the father of the historian, but
he was too busy to use them. He gives another reason also--poverty. He
says, "With regard to my expenses, I got through the first year with two
hundred pounds, and hope the same sum will carry me through the second.
If you knew the manner in which we live, you would wonder how it was
possible I could have made so great a change in my habits. I am obliged
to screw and pinch myself in a thousand things in which I used to
indulge myself at home.... I breakfast on simple bread and butter, and
two cups of coffee; I dine on either beef, mutton, or pork (veal being
out of the question, as it is one shilling and six pence per pound),
baked, with potatoes, warm perhaps twice a week, all the rest of the
week cold; at tea, bread and butter, with two cups of tea. This is my
"I have had no new clothes for nearly a year; my best are threadbare,
and my shoes are out at the toes; my stockings all want to see my
mother, and my hat is growing hoary with age.... 'But,' you will say,
'what do you do with the money, if you live thus sparingly?' Why, I will
tell you the whole. When I first came to London, I was told, if I meant
to support the character of a gentleman, I must take especial care of my
personal appearance; so I thought it a matter of course that I must
spare no expense in order to appear well. So, this being first in my
mind, I (supposing very wisely that London folks had nothing else to do
but to see how I was dressed) laid out a considerable part of my money
on myself; meanwhile, picture-galleries and collections, with many other
places which I ought constantly to have visited, and which cost some
money, were neglected. And why? Because I could not afford it.
"Well, in process of time, I found no very particular advantage to be
gained by supporting the character of a gentleman, for these reasons: in
the first place, nobody saw me; in the second place, if they had seen
me, they would not have known me; and, thirdly, if they had known
me, they would not have cared a farthing about me. So I thought within
myself what I came to England for, and I found that it was not to please
English folks, but to study painting; and, as I found I must sacrifice
painting to dress and visiting, or dress and visiting to painting, I
determined on the latter, and ever since have lived accordingly, and now
the tables are turned. I visit galleries and collections, purchase
prints, etc.; and when I am asked why I don't pay more attention to my
dress, I reply that I cannot afford it."
Morse had now painted the "Death of Hercules," a large picture, eight
feet by six feet and a half. The painting was received at the exhibition
at Somerset House, though six hundred other works were refused. It was
adjudged by the press to be one of the best nine among a thousand
pictures; many of them by such men as Turner, Lawrence, and Wilkie.
Surely, he had reason to be encouraged.
What little leisure Morse could obtain he spent in reading the old
poets,--Spenser, Chaucer, Dante, and Tasso. He now made the acquaintance
of Rogers, Coleridge, and others. Once, as he was going into the country
with Coleridge, he took in the carriage Irving's "History of New York."
On retiring, Coleridge took the book and began to read. Morse fell
asleep, and in the morning was surprised to find the lights burning, and
his friend still reading. It was now ten o'clock, and Coleridge was so
absorbed that he did not know that the whole night had passed. Later,
Irving and Coleridge became warm friends.
In need of money, Morse repaired to Bristol, where he spent several
months, having had the promise of work; but not a single person called
to look at his pictures, and not one came for a portrait. He had already
been abroad four years, and now stern necessity called him home. He had
just finished a large picture, "The Judgment of Jupiter in the Case of
Apollo, Marpessa, and Ida," to compete for the highest prize offered by
the Royal Academy for historical composition; but as he could not be
present to receive the premium, he was not allowed to enter the picture.
He accordingly brought it home with him, arriving in Boston October 18,
Dr. Morse had engaged a studio for his son in Boston, and the "Judgment
of Jupiter" was opened for exhibition. People came, and saw, and
praised, and went away without leaving any orders for pictures. A year
went by, and not one person offered to buy the "Judgment of Jupiter,"
and not one person ordered a historical work. This was indeed
discouraging to an enthusiastic artist. He began now to turn his mind
toward invention, for which he had a natural tendency; and during the
evenings he thought out an improvement in the common pump, one that
could be adapted to the forcing-pump in the fire-engine. The pump and
the "Judgment of Jupiter" certainly had not very much in common.
The patent pump was put on exhibition on Gray's Wharf in Charlestown,
but it did not cause money to flow into the pockets of its inventor.
Disappointed in his art work, Morse took letters of introduction from
his father to several ministers in the neighboring towns, and started
out to paint portraits at fifteen dollars apiece. This was not very much
better than the five-dollar miniatures on ivory while in college,
especially as he had been to the expense of four years in Europe.
At Concord, N. H., he had good success, writing home that he had
"painted five portraits, had two more engaged, and many more talked of."
While in London he had written to his parents, "I came very near being
at my old game of falling in love; but I find that love and painting
are quarrelsome companions, and that the house of my heart was too small
for both of them, so I have turned Mrs. Love out-of-doors. 'Time
enough,' thought I (with true old-bachelor complacency), 'time enough
for you these ten years to come.'"
But Morse did not wait ten years, for at twenty-four he fell in love
with Lucretia P. Walker of Concord, and was engaged to her. She was not
only beautiful, but of the same lovable and intellectual type as Grace
Webster, who held the heart of Daniel Webster while he lived. She
combined sound judgment with much tenderness of feeling. Morse was a
tall, graceful, handsome young man, with blue eyes and winsome manners.
Dr. Morse and his wife at once sent for their prospective daughter to
visit them. She came, and, as she pleased a mother who idolized Finley,
it is safe to conclude that she was indeed lovely.
In January, 1818, having been assured that he would find work in
Charleston, S. C., he sailed from New York, and met with a pleasant
reception in the home of his uncle, Dr. Finley. He found the society
agreeable, but month after month passed, and there was not a single
request for a portrait. At last, as he was about to return to New
England, he begged his uncle to sit for a painting, as a small return
for his kindness. He did so, and an admirable picture resulted.
Friends came to see it. At once Charleston perceived that a real artist
was in the city. He soon had one hundred and fifty orders at sixty
dollars each! Hope came again to his heart; after a few months he
returned to Boston, and October 1, 1818, he married Lucretia Walker.
At the request of the Common Council of Charleston, he now painted the
portrait of James Monroe, then President of the United States, and a
year later went again to South Carolina, leaving his wife and an infant
daughter in Concord, with her parents. On his return, Dr. Morse having
resigned his pastorate at Charlestown, and moved to New Haven, Ct.,
Finley also moved thither. Here he found delight in renewing his studies
of galvanism and electricity under Professor Silliman.
Tiring of portraits, and longing for preeminence in art, he conceived
the idea of a historical piece, the "House of Representatives," with
eighty portraits of individual members. For this purpose he went to
Washington, and began his work in earnest. He writes to his young wife:
"I am up at daylight, have my breakfast and prayers over, and commence
the labors of the day long before the workmen are called to work on the
Capitol by the bell. This I continue unremittingly till one o'clock,
when I dine in about fifteen minutes, and then pursue my labors until
tea, which scarcely interrupts me, as I often have my cup of tea in one
hand and pencil in the other. Between ten and eleven o'clock I retire to
rest. This has been my course every day (Sundays, of course, excepted)
since I have been here, making about fourteen hours study out of the
twenty-four. This, you will say, is too hard, and that I shall injure my
health. I can say that I never enjoyed better health, and my body, by
the simple fare I live on, is disciplined to this course.... I have had
a great deal of difficulty with the perspective of my picture. But I
have conquered, and have accomplished my purpose. After having drawn in
the greater part three times, I have as many times rubbed it all out
again. I have been, several times, from daylight until eleven o'clock
at night, solving a simple problem.
"How I do long to see that dear little girl of mine, and to hear her
sweet prattle! Instruct her early, my dear wife, in the most important
of all concerns; teach her that there is a great Father above, her
obligations to him and to her Saviour. Kiss her often for papa, and tell
her he will come back one of these days."
So absorbed did he become in this picture, that once he arose in the
night, mistaking the light of the moon for the day, and went to his
work, and another time attempted to enter the hall on Sunday, forgetting
even the days of the week. When the work was finished and exhibited,
everybody was too much interested in his own affairs to care about
congressmen, and the picture failed to attract the public. It proved a
loss pecuniarily, and was purchased by an Englishman and taken to
England. Twenty-five years afterward, it was found in the third story of
a store in New York, nailed against a board partition, and covered with
dust. It had been sent over from London by a house which had advanced a
sum of money upon it while in England. The picture afterward became the
property of the artist Daniel Huntington.
Morse now went to Albany, hoping to obtain some patronage from public
men. After long waiting, he writes to his wife: "I have not as yet
received any application for a portrait. Many tell me I have come at the
wrong time--the same tune that has been rung in my ears so long! I hope
the right time will come by and by. The winter, it is said, is the
proper season; but, as it is better in the South in that season, and it
will be more profitable to be there, I shall give Albany a thorough
trial and do my best. If I should not find enough to employ me here, I
think I shall return to New York and settle there. This I had rather not
do at present, but it may be the best that I can do. Roaming becomes
more and more irksome. Imperious necessity alone drives me to this
course. Don't think by this I am faint-hearted. I shall persevere in
this course, painful as is the separation from my family, until
Providence clearly points out my duty to return."
Morse now turned his attention to the invention of a machine for carving
marble, from which he hoped for pecuniary success, but success did not
result from it. He now went to New York to try his fortune. But things
were no brighter.
He wrote to Lucretia: "My last two letters have held out to you some
encouraging prospects of success here, but now they seem darkened again.
I have had nothing to do this week thus far but to wait patiently. I
have advertised in both of the city papers that I should remain one week
to receive applications, but as yet it has produced no effect.... I
sleep in my room on the floor, and put my bed out of sight during the
day, as at Washington.... I have been active in calling on my friends
and inviting them to my room; they have promised to come, but as yet
few have called. As far as human foresight can perceive, my prospects
seem gloomy indeed. The only gleam of hope--and I cannot underrate
it--is from confidence in God. When I look upward, it calms my
apprehensions for the future, and I seem to hear a voice saying: 'If I
clothe the lilies of the field, shall I not also clothe you?' Here is my
strong confidence, and I will wait patiently for the direction of
Again he writes to his wife: "My cash is almost gone, and I begin to
feel some anxiety and perplexity to know what to do. I have advertised,
and visited, and hinted, and pleaded, and even asked one man to sit, but
all to no purpose.... My expenses, with the most rigid economy too, are
necessarily great; my rent to-morrow will amount to thirty-three
dollars, and I have nothing to pay it with. What can I do? I have been
here five weeks, and there is not the smallest prospect now of any
difference as to business."
He now attempted to obtain a situation in the legation about to be sent
to Mexico. The place was promised, and Morse went to Washington, only to
find that the expedition had been abandoned.
There was an occasional rift in the clouds, as when the corporation of
the city of New York commissioned Morse to paint for them a portrait of
General Lafayette, then in Washington, the price to be about one
thousand dollars. As Sully, Peale, Inman, and other prominent artists
were competitors in the application for this picture, to receive the
commission was indeed an honor.
Morse now wrote cheerfully to his wife: "When I consider how wonderfully
things are working for the promotion of the great and long desired
event,--that of being constantly with my dear family,--all unpleasant
feelings are absorbed in this joyful anticipation, and I look forward to
the spring of the year with delightful prospects of seeing my dear
family permanently settled with me in our own hired house here."
February 8, 1825, he wrote his wife that he had met Lafayette, "the man
whose beloved name has rung from one end of this continent to the other,
whom all flock to see, whom all delight to honor."
That very day a letter was penned him, not this time by the wife, but by
his father. "My affectionately beloved son: Mysterious are the ways of
Providence. 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. Her death proved to be an affection of the heart, incurable had
it been known.... I wrote you yesterday that she was convalescent. So
she then appeared and so the doctor pronounced. She was up about five
o'clock yesterday afternoon, to have her bed made, as usual; was
unusually cheerful and social; spoke of the pleasure of being with her
dear husband in New York ere long; stepped into bed herself, fell back,
with a momentary struggle, on her pillow; her eyes were immediately
fixed, the paleness of death overspread her countenance, and in five
minutes more, without the slightest motion, her mortal life terminated.
"It happened that, just at this moment, I was entering her chamber-door,
with Charles in my arms, to pay her my usual visit, and to pray with
her. The nurse met me affrighted, calling for help. Your mother, the
family, and neighbors, full of the tenderest sympathy and kindness, and
the doctor, thronged the house in a few minutes; everything was done
that could be done, to save her life. But her appointed time had come,
and no earthly skill or power could stay the hand of death. It was the
Lord who gave her to you, the chiefest of all your earthly blessings,
and it is he that has taken her away; and may you be enabled, my son,
from the heart to say, 'Blessed be the name of the Lord!'"
The heart of Morse was well nigh broken. The woman he had idolized had
gone from him in a moment. He wrote back to his father: "Oh, is it
possible? is it possible? Shall I never see my dear wife again? But I
cannot trust myself to write on the subject. I need your prayers, and
those of Christian friends, to God for support. I fear I shall sink
"Oh, take good care of her dear children!
"Your agonized son,
Travelling by stage, he did not reach New Haven till his wife had been
buried a week. A month later he wrote to a friend: "I dare not yet give
myself up to the full survey of its desolating effects; every day brings
to my mind a thousand new and fond connections with dear Lucretia, all
now ruptured. I feel a dreadful void, a heart-sickness, which time does
not seem to heal, but rather to aggravate. You know the intensity of the
attachment which existed between dear L. and me, never for a moment
interrupted by the smallest cloud; an attachment founded, I trust, in
the purest love, and daily strengthening by all the motives which the
ties of nature and more especially of religion furnish.
"I found in dear L. everything that I could wish. Such ardor of
affection, so uniform, so unaffected, I never saw nor read of, but in
her. My fear with regard to the measure of my affection toward her, was
not that I might fail of 'loving her as my own flesh,' but that I should
put her in the place of Him who has said, 'Thou shalt have no other gods
but me.' I felt this to be my greatest danger, and to be saved from this
idolatry was often the subject of my earnest prayers. If I had desired
anything in my dear L. different from what she was, it would have been
that she had been less lovely. My whole soul seemed wrapped up in her;
with her was connected all that I expected of happiness on earth."
She was but twenty-five, and had shared only the sorrows and privations
of her young husband. How pitiful it seemed that she could not live to
share his grand success. Whatever may come into a man's life afterwards,
he never forgets an affection like this. It blossoms in the warm
sunlight of his youth; it never withers, even though other flowers take
root in the heart.
Truly says George Eliot: "There is no despair so absolute as that which
comes with the first moments of our first great sorrow, when we have not
yet known what it is to have suffered and be healed, to have despaired
and to have recovered hope."
This despair seemed to have settled upon Morse. He went back to New
York, and now had plenty of work, but he said, "After being fatigued at
night, and having my thoughts turned to my irreparable loss, I am ready
almost to give up. The thought of seeing my dear Lucretia, and returning
home to her, served always to give me fresh courage and spirits whenever
I felt worn down by the labors of the day, and now I hardly know what to
substitute in her place."
Hard, indeed, it seemed, that this "plenty of work" did not come in
Lucretia's life-time. Why are so many of the best and sweetest things in
this world a little too late in their coming? Is it because perfection
attained is not best for mortals?
About this time the National Academy of Design was organized, and Morse
was made president, holding this position for eighteen years, till his
work on the telegraph required his whole attention. These years were
extremely busy years. So numerous were his sitters, that he was obliged
to send many to his artist friends. In his evenings he prepared a series
of lectures on the Fine Arts, which he delivered to large and
fashionable audiences at the New York Athenaeum. He also wrote at this
time a life of Lucretia Maria Davidson, a young poet who died at
Plattsburg, N. Y., when she was seventeen, and several pamphlets against
the growing power of the Romish Church.
Four years after the death of his wife he sailed for Italy, still
further to study his beloved art. In London he again met Rogers, the
poet,--"he has not the proverbial lot of the poet,--he is not poor, for
he is one of the wealthiest bankers, and lives in splendid style," said
Morse,--Turner, "the best landscape-painter living," Irving, our
secretary of legation, and other distinguished men.
For three years Morse remained in Europe, in Rome becoming the friend of
Thorwaldsen, whose portrait he painted; in Florence, of Horatio
Greenough, the sculptor, of James Fenimore Cooper, and many others. In
Paris, Morse painted the "Gallery of the Louvre," working from nine till
four daily, meeting Baron Humboldt, and receiving the cordial
hospitality of General Lafayette.
October 1, 1832, he sailed from Havre, on the packet ship Sully, for New
York. That passage marked an epoch not only in the life of S. F. B.
Morse, but an epoch in American progress. At the dinner-table the
conversation turned upon recent discoveries in electro-magnetism, and
the experiments of Ampere with the electro-magnet. Morse said, "If the
presence of electricity can be made visible in any part of the circuit,"
and he had seen that it could years before in the class-room at Yale
College, "I see no reason why intelligence may not be transmitted
instantaneously by electricity."
He thought the subject over as he walked upon the deck, and as he lay in
his berth, too deeply interested to sleep. If intelligence could be
transmitted, it could be recorded. He took from his pocket a note-book,
and thought out his alphabet of dots and lines. He showed his sketches
to his fellow-passengers,--not a wise thing, as it proved, when, later,
one of the persons on board laid claim to the invention, causing some
years of litigation.
When the vessel reached New York, Morse said, "Well, captain, should you
hear of the telegraph one of these days as the wonder of the world,
remember the discovery was made on board the good ship Sully."
Electricity had been known and studied since early times. It had been
ascertained that the electric force could be stored up, as in the Leyden
jar, and that it could be conducted through long metallic wires. The
discovery of the Voltaic pile, or battery, in 1800, gave a great impetus
to the study. Oersted of Copenhagen found that the position of the
magnetic needle may be changed by the electric current, and that a
magnet will induce electricity in a coil of wire. Schweigger of Halle
discovered that "the deflection of the needle may be increased by
coiling an insulated wire in a series of ovals or flat rings, compactly
disposed, in a loop, and conducting the current around the needle from
end to end." Ampere developed the theory of electro-magnetism, and
proposed to the French Academy in 1820 a plan for a telegraph, in which
there was to be a needle for each letter.
In 1827 Morse had listened to a course of lectures, given by Prof. James
Freeman Dana, upon these matters, so that the subject was still fresh in
his mind when he crossed the ocean in the Sully. Prof. Joseph Henry's
important discoveries were also well known.
Says Prof. E. N. Horsford of Cambridge, Mass., in the admirable life of
Morse written by Dr. Samuel Irenaeus Prime: "He knew generally, when he
stepped on board the Sully, in 1832, that a soft-iron horseshoe-shaped
bar of iron could be rendered magnetic while a current of galvanic
electricity was passing through a wire wound round it; and he knew that
electricity had been transmitted, apparently instantaneously, through
wires of great length, by Franklin and others.... In the leisure of
ship-life the idea of a recording electric telegraph seized Professor
Morse's mind, and he gave expression to his conviction that it was
possible. As it was possible to dispatch and to arrest the
current, he conceived that some device could be found for compelling it
to manifest itself by this intermittent action, and produce a record.
"He knew, for he had witnessed it years before, that by means of a
battery and an electro-magnet reciprocal motion could be produced. He
knew that the force which produced it could be transmitted along a wire.
He believed that the battery current could be made, through an
electro-magnet, to produce physical effects at a distance. He saw in
his mind's eye the existence of an agent and a medium by which
reciprocal motion could be not only produced, but controlled, at a
distance. The question that addressed itself to him at the outset was
naturally this: 'How can I make use of the simple up-and-down motion of
opening and closing a circuit to write an intelligible message at one
end of a wire, and at the same time print it at the other?'...
"Like many a kindred work of genius, it was in nothing more wonderful
than in its simplicity. First, he caused a continuous ribbon or strip of
paper to move under a pencil by clock-work, that could be wound up. The
paper moved horizontally. The pencil moved only up and down; when
resting on the paper it made a mark--if for an instant only, a dot; if
for a longer time, a line. When lifted from the paper it left a
blank.... The grandeur of this wonderful alphabet of dots, lines, and
spaces has not been fully appreciated....
"Not one of all the brilliant scientific men who have attached their
names to the history of electro-magnetism had brought the means to
produce the practical registering telegraph. Some of them had ascended
the tower that looked out on the field of conquest. Some of them brought
keener vision than others. Some of them stood higher than others; but
the genius of invention had not recognized them. There was needed an
As soon as Morse left the ship Sully, and met his brothers Richard and
Sidney, he told them that he had made an important invention, "one that
would astonish the world, and of the success of which he was perfectly
sanguine." He became an inmate of Richard's house, living there several
From this time onward for twelve years he labored to give his telegraph
to mankind; labored in the midst of distressing poverty, the ridicule of
acquaintances, and the indifference of the world. Three motherless
children were dependent upon him, but he could do little for them.
On the corner of Nassau and Beekman Streets, in the newspaper building
erected by his brothers,--they were the editors and proprietors of the
"New York Observer,"--in the fifth story, a room was assigned to him
which he used for studio, sleeping-room, kitchen, and workshop. On one
side was his cot, on the other his tools and crude machine. He whittled
the models, and then made the moulds and castings. Here, from day to
day, the simplest food was brought him, he preparing his own tea.
In the year 1835, having been appointed professor of the Literature of
the Arts of Design in the New York City University, he took rooms in the
third story of the university building. "There," he says, "I immediately
commenced, with very limited means, to experiment upon my invention. My
first instrument was made up of an old picture or canvas frame fastened
to a table; the wheels of an old wooden clock, moved by a weight to
carry the paper forward; three wooden drums, upon one of which the paper
was wound and passed over the other two; a wooden pendulum suspended to
the top piece of the picture or stretching-frame, and vibrating across
the paper as it passes over the centre wooden drum; a pencil at the
lower end of the pendulum, in contact with the paper; an electro-magnet
fastened to a shelf across the picture or stretching-frame, opposite to
an armature made fast to the pendulum; a type rule, and type for
breaking the circuit, resting on an endless band, composed of
carpet-binding, which passed over two wooden rollers, moved by a wooden
crank, and carried forward by points projecting from the bottom of the
rule downward into the carpet-binding; a lever, with a small weight on
the upper side; and a tooth, projecting downward at one end, operated on
by the type; and a metallic fork, also projecting downward over two
mercury-cups; and a short circuit of wire, embracing the helices of the
electro-magnet connected with the positive and negative poles of the
battery, and terminating in the mercury-cups."
Morse was now so poor that he bought his food in small quantities from
some grocery, and prepared it himself. He says, "To conceal from my
friends the stinted manner in which I lived, I was in the habit of
bringing my food to my room in the evenings, and this was my mode of
life for many years."
In this year, 1835, says Professor Horsford, "Morse made his discovery
of the relay, the most brilliant of all the achievements to which his
name must be forever attached. It was the discovery of a means by which
the current, which through distance from its source had become feeble,
could be reenforced or renewed. This discovery, according to the
different objects for which it is employed, is variously known as the
registering magnet, the local circuit, the marginal circuit, the
repeater, etc. It made transmission from one point on a main line
through indefinitely great distances, and through an indefinite number
of branch lines, and to an indefinite number of way-stations, and
registration at all, possible and practicable, from a single act of a
Poor, longing for money to carry forward his plans, despondent lest some
one think out a kindred machine and supplant him, Morse was also
suffering from injustice in his art work. Our government having offered
to American artists commissions to paint pictures for the panels in the
Rotunda of the Capitol, the friends of Morse urged that he, as the
president of the National Academy of Design, be one of the artists
chosen by the committee. John Quincy Adams, ex-President of the United
States, and one of the committee, urged that foreign artists be allowed
to compete, stating that no American artists were competent for the
work. This, of course, gave offence, and James Fenimore Cooper wrote a
severe article, in the "New York Evening Post," upon Mr. Adams's
remarks. The article was attributed to Morse, and his name was rejected
by the committee. This was a great disappointment.
He said, years afterward, "The blow I received from Congress ... has
almost destroyed my enthusiasm for my art.... I have not painted a
picture since that decision.... When I applied to paint one of the
Rotunda pictures, I was in my full vigor. I had just returned from three
years' hard study in Italy, ... and felt a consciousness of ability to
execute a work creditable to my country. I hazarded everything almost
for this single object. When so unexpectedly I was repelled, I staggered
under the blow. I have endeavored in every way to prevent its effects
upon my mind; but it is a thorn which perpetually obtrudes its point,
and would goad me to death were it not for its aspect in the light of
God's overruling providence. Then all is right."
From time to time prominent men came to the university, to see the
telegraph. They saw, thought it wonderful, doubted its practicability,
and did not offer to invest any money in the enterprise. Finally, in
1837, Mr. Alfred Vail, a young graduate of the University of the City of
New York, became interested, helped to construct an improved machine at
his father's brass-works at Speedwell, N. J., for Morse to take to
Washington for exhibition, and provided the means for his going.
After five long years, Morse had finally found some one ready to help.
Arriving at Washington, he obtained the use of the room of the Committee
on Commerce, to show his telegraph. Congressmen came, wondered, and went
He now caused a respectful memorial to be presented to Congress, asking
an appropriation of thirty thousand dollars, to test the telegraph
between two cities. The petition was referred to a committee, quietly
ignored, and Morse heard no more concerning it.
He sailed for Europe in 1838, to take out a patent for his work, but
could obtain none in England, as Wheatstone and Cooke had already
patented a magnetic-needle telegraph, entirely unlike that of Morse,
invented four years later, says Professor Horsford, but brought before
the public about the same time, 1837. In point of active use,
Wheatstone's preceded Morse's telegraph by six years, on account of the
indifference of Congress in helping the inventor.
In Paris, Morse submitted his telegraph to the Institute, and Arago,
Humboldt, and others were delighted with it. As Morse was sending a word
from one room to the other, Robert Walsh said to him, "The next word you
may write is 'IMMORTALITY,' for the sublimity of this invention is of
surpassing grandeur. I see now that all physical obstacles, which may
for a while hinder, will inevitably be overcome. The problem is solved;
MAN MAY INSTANTLY CONVERSE WITH HIS FELLOW-MAN IN ANY PART OF THE
Morse returned to New York after eleven months, disappointed that
Congress had done nothing, "without," as he said, "a farthing in my
pocket, and have to borrow even for my meals." In Paris, having learned
from M. Daguerre, the inventor of the daguerreotype, the process, Morse
introduced it in this country, and earned enough by taking pictures to
reimburse him for his European journey. Many crowded to his rooms to be
taught, and he cheerfully imparted the knowledge he possessed.
As the months went by and Congress did nothing, Morse became despondent.
He had not the means even to pay postage on letters. He said, "I am sick
at heart.... I feel at times almost ready to cast the whole matter to
the winds, and turn my attention forever from the subject." The Vails
were unable to help the enterprise further, at present. Morse was still
teaching a few pupils at the university. Gen. Strother, of Virginia,
"Porte Crayon," thus tells of Morse's pecuniary condition: "He was very
poor. I remember that when my second quarter's pay was due, my
remittance from home did not come as expected; and one day the professor
came in, and said, courteously:
"'Well, Strother, my boy, how are we off for money?'
"'Why, professor,' I answered, 'I am sorry to say I have been
disappointed; but I expect a remittance next week.'
"'Next week,' he repeated, sadly; 'I shall be dead by that time.'
"'Yes, dead by starvation!'
"I was distressed and astonished. I said, hurriedly: 'Would ten dollars
be of any service?'
"'Ten dollars would save my life; that is all it would do.'
"I paid the money, all that I had, and we dined together. It was a
modest meal, but good, and, after he had finished, he said: 'This is my
first meal in twenty-four hours. Strother, don't be an artist. It means
beggary. Your life depends upon people who know nothing of your art, and
care nothing for you. A house-dog lives better, and the very
sensitiveness that stimulates an artist to work keeps him alive to
Even the janitor of the University building said to a young man who was
looking for a studio for himself: "You will have an artist for your
neighbor, though he is not here much of late; he seems to be getting
rather shiftless, he is wasting his time over some silly invention, a
machine by which he expects to send messages from one place to another.
He is a very good painter, and might do well if he would only stick to
his business; but, Lord!" he added, with a sneer of contempt, "the idea
of telling by a little streak of lightning what a body is saying at the
other end of it!"
"Judge of my astonishment," says the young man, "when he informed me
that the 'shiftless individual,' whose foolish waste of time so much
excited his commiseration, was none other than the president of the
National Academy of Design,--the most exalted position, in my youthful
artistic fancy, it was possible for mortal to attain."
Once more, in some way, Morse obtained the money to go to Washington,
and make another effort. December 30, 1842, a bill was at last
submitted, asking for the thirty-thousand-dollar appropriation. It
received much ridicule from some of the members. One suggested that
there should be an appropriation for mesmeric experiments; another
suggested the same for Millerism. At last the vote was taken in the
House, Morse sitting in the gallery watching the result with feverish
anxiety. The vote stood 89 yeas to 83 nays. IT WAS CARRIED.
Would it pass the Senate? The amount of business to be transacted made
its coming up improbable. The last day of the session came. Morse sat
all the day and evening in the gallery, and finally went to his hotel,
nearly prostrated from disappointment.
In the morning, as he came down to breakfast, Annie G. Ellsworth, the
daughter of his old friend, the Commissioner of Patents, came toward him
with a bright smile, saying: "I have come to congratulate you!"
"For what, my dear friend?"
"On the passage of your bill."
Morse could scarcely believe the good news, that the bill had passed, in
the last moments of the session, without opposition. He was nearly
overcome with joy, and told the young lady that she should send the
first message over the first line.
He at once proceeded to construct the first line of his electric
telegraph between Washington and Baltimore. Ezra Cornell, later one of
the most successful constructors and largest proprietors of telegraphs,
and the founder of Cornell University, was employed at a salary of one
thousand dollars a year.
After many perplexities, the line was completed. On May 24, 1844, Morse
invited his friends to assemble in the chamber of the United States
Supreme Court, where he had his instrument in connection with Baltimore.
Annie Ellsworth's mother had suggested to her these words from the
Bible, for the first message: "What hath God wrought!" No words could
have been more in accordance with Morse's feelings. Taking his seat at
the instrument, he spelled out the words, and instantly they were
received by Mr. Vail in Baltimore, who resent them the same moment to
Washington. The strip of paper on which this message is printed is now
in the Athenaeum at Hartford, Conn.
What must have been Professor Morse's feelings at that moment. The day
of triumph had come--the twelve weary years of poverty were over.
Hereafter he was to be like one of the princes of the world.
A telegraph company was formed which offered to sell the telegraph to
the government for one hundred thousand dollars. Congress refused to
buy, much to the subsequent profit of the Morse company. In less than
thirty years, the Morse telegraph was used in America upon two hundred
and fifty thousand miles of wire, and in foreign countries upon six
hundred thousand miles of wire, while the telegraph receipts throughout
the world were about forty million dollars yearly.
There were many amusing incidents in connection with this early
telegraph. "A pretty little girl tripped into the Washington City
termination, and, after a great deal of hesitation and blushing, asked
how long it would take to send to Baltimore. The interesting appearance
of the little questioner attracted Mr. Morse's attention, and he very
blandly replied, 'One second!'
"'Oh, how delightful, how delightful!' ejaculated the little beauty, her
eyes glistening with delight. 'One second only; here, send this even
quicker if you can.' And Mr. Morse found in his hand a neatly folded,
gilt-edged note, the very perfume and shape of which told a volume of
"'I cannot send this note,' said Mr. Morse, with some feeling; 'it is
"'Oh, do, do!' implored the distracted girl. 'William and I have had a
quarrel, and I shall die if he don't know that I forgive him in a
second. I know I shall.'
"Mr. Morse still objected to sending the note, when the fair one,
brightening up, asked, 'You will, then, send me on, won't you?'
"'Perhaps,' said one of the clerks, 'it would take your breath away to
travel forty miles in a second.'
"'Oh, no, it won't! no, it won't, if it carries me to William! The cars
in the morning go so slow I can't wait for them.'
"Mr. Morse now comprehended the mistake which the petitioner was
laboring under, and attempted to explain the process of conveying
important information along the wires. The letter-writer listened a few
moments, impatiently, and then rolled her burning epistle into a ball,
in the excitement under which she labored, and thrust it into her bosom.
"'It's too slow!' she finally exclaimed; 'it's too slow! and my heart
will break before William knows I forgive him; and you are a cruel man,
Mr. Morse,' said the fair creature, the tears coming into her eyes,
'that you won't let me travel by the telegraph to see William.' And,
full of emotion, she left the office."
All these years Morse was longing for a home. In 1845 he wrote his
daughter, who was now married and living in Porto Rico, in the West
Indies, "I do long for the time, if it shall be permitted, to have you,
with your husband and little Charles, around me; I feel my loneliness
more and more keenly every day. Fame and money are, in themselves, a
poor substitute for domestic happiness: as means to that end, I value
them. Yesterday was the sad anniversary (the twentieth) of your dear
mother's death, and I spent the most of it in thinking of her."
Two years later he purchased two hundred acres on the Hudson River, near
Poughkeepsie, calling it "Locust Grove," and built a handsome and
spacious Italian villa for his residence. With the telegraph in his
library, he could now converse with men in all parts of the world. Here
he gathered his children and grandchildren around him. He was now
fifty-six years old. Fame and money had come late in life. The next year
he married Miss Sarah E. Griswold, the daughter of his cousin, a lady
thirty years his junior.
His life here was peaceful and happy, most of the day being spent in
reading and writing. He was very fond of nature. One of his daughters
writes: "He loved flowers. He would take one in his hand, and talk for
hours about its beauty, its wonderful construction, and the wisdom and
love of God in making so many varied forms of life and color to please
our eyes. In his later years he became deeply interested in the
microscope, and purchased one of great excellence and power. For whole
hours, all the afternoon or evening, he would sit over it, examining
flowers, or the animalcula in different fluids. Then he would gather his
children about him, and give us a sort of extempore lecture on the
wonders of creation, invisible to the naked eye, but so clearly brought
to view by the magnifying power of the microscope.
"He was very fond of animals, cats and birds in particular. He tamed a
little flying-squirrel, and it became so fond of him that it would sit
on his shoulder while he was at his studies, and would eat out of his
hand, and sleep in his pocket. To this little animal he became so much
attached that we took it with us to Europe, where it came to an untimely
end, in Paris, by running into an open fire."
In New York he bought a large house, No. 5 West Twenty-second Street,
for his winter residence, and, on a vacant lot adjoining, erected an
elegant building for his library and study. What a contrast between this
and the time when "Porte Crayon" gave him ten dollars, which Morse said
would save his life!
Honors now poured in upon him. In 1835 he had been elected a member of
the Historical Institute of France.
In 1837, a member of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of Belgium.
In 1839 the Great Silver Medal of the Academy of Industry of Paris was
In 1841, a corresponding member of the National Institution for the
Promotion of Science at Washington.
In 1842, the gold medal of the American Institute.
In 1845, a corresponding member of the Archaeological Society of Belgium.
In 1846, Doctor of Laws by Yale College.
In 1848, the first decoration ever bestowed by the Sultan of Turkey upon
a citizen of the United States, Nishan Iftikar, in diamonds; he was
also made a member of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia.
In 1849, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Boston.
In 1851, a golden snuff-box containing the Prussian golden medal for
In 1852, the Great Gold Medal of Arts and Sciences from the King of
In 1855, the Great Gold Medal of Science and Art from the Emperor of
In 1856, the brevet and decoration as Chevalier of the Imperial Order of
the Legion of Honor, from the Emperor of France.
In 1856, the Cross of the Order of Dannebrog from the King of Denmark.
In 1858, a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences in Sweden.
In 1859, the order of knighthood and Commander of the First Class of the
Royal Order of Isabella the Catholic, from Isabella II. of Spain.
In 1860, Knight of the Tower and Sword, from the King of Portugal.
In 1864, Chevalier of the Royal Order of Saints Lazaro and Mauritio,
from Victor Emmanuel II., King of Italy.
In 1866, honorary member of the Societe de Physique et d'Histoire
Naturelle of Geneva, Switzerland.
In 1857, Morse aided in the attempt to lay the Atlantic cable, being
made electrician of the company. This was eminently fitting, as he had
laid the first submarine cable, in 1842, October 18; one moonlight night
in the harbor of New York City, between Castle Garden and Governor's
In 1858, France, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Piedmont, Russia,
the Holy See, Sweden, Tuscany, and Turkey presented Mr. Morse with an
honorary gratuity of four hundred thousand francs, "as a reward,
altogether personal, of your useful labors."
During an extended trip in Europe, he was presented at the Court of
Alexander III. in Russia, and met Baron Humboldt at Potsdam, from whom
he received a large photograph of himself, on which he wrote in French:
"To Mr. S. F. B. Morse, whose philosophic and useful labors have
rendered his name illustrious in two worlds. The homage of the high and
affectionate esteem of Alexander Humboldt." After also visiting his
daughter in the West Indies, his return to Poughkeepsie in 1859 was made
by the people a time of rejoicing. Crowds flocked to the station to
welcome him. The children of the public schools joined in the
procession, while bells rung, flags waved, and bands played, as they
followed the carriage of Professor Morse to the gateway of his
residence, which had been festooned with flowers and evergreens. Was
ever a man more honored? The world loves heroes, though it takes very
little pains to help men or women to achieve greatness.
In 1866, Morse crossed the ocean again to give his children the
opportunity of study abroad. He was now seventy-five years old, yet
seemingly as vigorous as ever. At the Paris Exposition he was one of the
committee upon telegraphic instruments. At Duesseldorf, he was received
with great enthusiasm by the artists of the city. He purchased there
five valuable pictures, as he was now in circumstances to be a patron of
art. He also purchased Allston's celebrated painting of "Jeremiah," for
seven thousand dollars, and gave it to Yale College; a portrait of
Allston, at five hundred dollars, he presented to the Academy of Design.
Thus did he remember the man who had been his friend in his young
Morse also gave to the Union Theological Seminary, in the city of New
York, ten thousand dollars, endowing a lectureship on the "Relation of
the Bible to the Sciences," named in honor of his father.
In 1868, a public dinner was given Professor Morse in New York, by the
distinguished men of the day. Chief Justice Chase presided, and made an
able address. After recounting the discoveries of others in electricity,
"not least illustrious among these illustrious men, our countryman
Henry," he said: "And it is the providential distinction and splendid
honor of the eminent American who is our guest to-night that, happily
prepared by previous acquirements and pursuits, he was quick to seize
the opportunity, and give to the world the first recording telegraph.
Fortunate man! thus to link his name forever with the greatest wonder
and the greatest benefit of the age!" Other addresses were made by
Bryant, Evarts, and many prominent men.
In 1871, June 10, a bronze statue of Professor Morse was unveiled in
Central Park, the money for it being raised, in small amounts, from
telegraphic operatives all over the country. In the evening, a brilliant
reception was tendered him in the Academy of Music, the following
despatch being sent on his ORIGINAL register: "GREETING AND THANKS TO
THE TELEGRAPHIC FRATERNITY THROUGHOUT THE LAND. GLORY TO GOD IN THE
HIGHEST, ON EARTH PEACE, GOOD-WILL TO MEN."
And then the white-haired Morse, now eighty years old, took his seat at
the instrument, and signed his name to his message--"S. F. B. Morse."
The entire audience rose and cheered, and many eyes filled with tears,
as he gave his farewell address.
The last time Mr. Morse appeared in public was when he unveiled the
statue of Benjamin Franklin in Printing-House Square, in front of the
City Hall, January 17, 1872.
Death came in a few weeks. To his pastor, Rev. Dr. Adams, he said in
response to a remark concerning the goodness of God to him in the past,
"The best is yet to come."
Near the last, when the physicians were inspecting his lungs, and
tapping upon his breast, one said, "This is the way we doctors
"Very good," said the dying man, and passed away, April 2, 1872.
He was buried with distinguished honors from Madison Square Presbyterian
Church, New York. Scientific, philanthropic, and religious institutions
everywhere adopted resolutions of respect for his memory. A solemn
service was held in the hall of the House of the Representatives at
Washington, April 16, with appropriate addresses from Garfield and
others. An oil painting of Professor Morse hung in front of the main
gallery, surrounded by the historic words, "What hath God wrought!"
Telegraphic messages were sent from Europe, Asia, and Africa, to this
memorial meeting. Did any of those present remember how Congress allowed
him nearly to die of despair and want, only a few years before? Truly a
life that reads like a romance, in its misfortunes and its fortunes!
Through all the days of poverty, as well as prosperity, Morse preserved
his earnest Christian character, and his childlike, tender, loving
nature. Trials did not embitter him, as they sometimes do, and honors
did not exalt him above his fellows. American history does not furnish a
more sublime illustration of faith in God and indomitable perseverance.