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Samuel Morse consolidated Louvre masterpieces in an imaginary gallery. (Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre / Macbeth Gallery Records, Archives of American Art, SI; Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection)

Samuel Morse's Reversal of Fortune

It wasn't until after he failed as an artist that Morse revolutionized communications by inventing the telegraph

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In the first week of September, one of the luminaries of French science, the astronomer and physicist Dominique-François-Jean Arago, arrived at the house on the rue Neuve des Mathurins for a private showing. Thoroughly impressed, Arago offered at once to introduce Morse and his invention to the Académie des Sciences at the next meeting, to be held in just six days on September 10. To prepare himself, Morse began jotting down notes on what should be said: “My present instrument is very imperfect in its mechanism, and is only designed to illustrate the principle of my invention....”

The savants of the Académie convened in the great hall of the Institut de France, the magnificent 17th-century landmark on the Left Bank facing the Seine and the Pont des Arts. Just over the river stood the Louvre, where, seven years earlier, Morse the painter had nearly worked himself to death. Now he stood “in the midst of the most celebrated scientific men of the world,” as he wrote to his brother Sidney. There was not a familiar face to be seen, except for Professor Arago and one other, the naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, who, in those other days at the Louvre, had come to watch him at his labors.

At Morse’s request, Arago explained to the audience how the invention worked, and what made it different from and superior to other such devices, while Morse stood by to operate the instrument. Everything worked to perfection. “A buzz of admiration and approbation filled the whole hall,” he wrote to Vail, “and the exclamations, ‘Extraordinaire!’ ‘Très bien!’ ‘Très admirable!’ I heard on all sides.”

The event was acclaimed in the Paris and London papers and in the Académie’s own weekly bulletin, the Comptes Rendus. In a long, prescient letter written two days later, the American patent commissioner, Morse’s friend Henry Ellsworth, who happened to be in Paris at the time, said the occasion had shown Morse’s telegraph “transcends all yet made known,” and that clearly “another revolution is at hand.” Ellsworth continued:

“I do not doubt that, within the next ten years, you will see electric power adopted, between all commercial points of magnitude on both sides of the Atlantic, for purposes of correspondence, and men enabled to send their orders or news of events from one point to another with the speed of lightning itself....The extremities of nations will be literally wired together....In the United States, for instance, you may expect to find, at no very distant day, the Executive messages, and the daily votes of each House of Congress, made known at Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and Portland—at New Orleans, Cincinnati, etc.—as soon as they can be known in Baltimore, or even the opposite extremity of Pennsylvania Avenue!...Abstract imagination is no longer a match for reality in the race that science has instituted on both sides of the Atlantic.”

That he was in Paris made him feel greater pride than ever, Ellsworth conceded. “In being abroad, among strangers and foreigners, one’s nationality of feeling may be somewhat more excusable than at home.”

Acclaim from the savants and the press was one thing, progress with the French government was another. America’s minister to France, Lewis Cass, provided Morse with a “most flattering” letter of introduction to carry on his rounds, but to no effect. After his eighth or ninth call at the office of the Ministre de l’Intérieur, Morse was still able to speak to no one above the level of a secretary, who asked only that he leave his card. “Every thing moves at a snail’s pace here,” he lamented a full two months after his day of glory at the Académie.

Morse, who had intended at midsummer to stay no more than a month in Paris, was still there at the start of the new year, 1839, and with Kirk’s help, still holding his Tuesday levees at the rue Neuve des Mathurins. That there was no decline in interest in his invention made the delays even more maddening.

It would be at home in America that his invention would have much the best chance, Morse decided. “There is more of the ‘go-ahead’ character with us....Here there are old systems long established to interfere, and at least to make them cautious before adopting a new project, however promising. Their railroad operations are a proof in point.” (Railroad construction in France, later starting than in the United States, was moving ahead at a much slower pace.)

By March, fed up with the French bureaucracy, embarrassed by the months wasted in waiting and by his worsening financial situation, Morse decided it was time to go home. But before leaving, he paid a visit to Monsieur Louis Daguerre, a theatrical scenery painter. “I am told every hour,” wrote Morse with a bit of hyperbole, “that the two great wonders of Paris just now, about which everyone is conversing, are Daguerre’s wonderful results in fixing permanently the image of the camera obscura and Morse’s Electro-Magnetic Telegraph.”

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