Samuel Morse’s Reversal of Fortune

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

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)
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Writing under a pen name, “Brutus,” Morse began a series of articles for his brothers’ newspaper, the New York Observer. “The serpent has already commenced his coil about our limbs, and the lethargy of his poison is creeping over us,” he warned darkly. The articles, published as a book, carried the title Foreign Conspiracy against the Liberties of the United States. Monarchy and Catholicism were inseparable and unacceptable, if democracy was to survive, Morse argued. Asked to run as the Nativist candidate for mayor of New York in 1836, Morse accepted. To friends and admirers he seemed to have departed his senses. An editorial in the New York Commercial Advertiser expressed what many felt:

“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.”

On Election Day, he went down to a crushing defeat, last in a field of four.

He kept on with his painting, completing a large, especially beautiful portrait of Susan that received abundant praise. But when word reached Morse from Washington that he had not been chosen to paint one of the historic panels at the Capitol, his world collapsed.

Morse felt sure that John Quincy Adams had done him in. But there is no evidence of this. More likely, Morse himself had inflicted the damage with the unvarnished intolerance of his anti-Catholic newspaper essays and ill-advised dabble in politics.

He “staggered under the blow,” in his words. It was the ultimate defeat of his life as an artist. Sick at heart, he took to bed. Morse was “quite ill,” reported Cooper, greatly concerned. Another of Morse’s friends, Boston publisher Nathaniel Willis,would recall later that Morse told him he was so tired of his life that had he “divine authorization,” he would end it.

Morse gave up painting entirely, relinquishing the whole career he had set his heart on since college days. No one could dissuade him.“Painting has been a smiling mistress to many, but she has been a cruel jilt to me,” he would write bitterly to Cooper. “I did not abandon her, she abandoned me.”

He must attend to one thing at a time, as his father had long ago advised him. The “one thing” henceforth would be his telegraph, the crude apparatus housed in his New York University studio apartment. Later it would be surmised that, had Morse not stopped painting when he did, no successful electromagnetic telegraph would have happened when it did, or at least not a Morse electromagnetic telegraph.

Essential to his idea, as he had set forth earlier in notes written in 1832, were that signals would be sent by the opening and closing of an electrical circuit, that the receiving apparatus would, by electromagnet, record signals as dots and dashes on paper, and that there would be a code whereby the dots and dashes would be translated into numbers and letters.

The apparatus he had devised was an almost ludicrous-looking assembly of wooden clock wheels, wooden drums, levers, cranks, paper rolled on cylinders, a triangular wooden pendulum, an electromagnet, a battery, a variety of copper wires and a wooden frame of the kind used to stretch canvas for paintings (and for which he had no more use). The contraption was “so rude,” Morse wrote, so like some child’s wild invention, that he was reluctant to have it seen.


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