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)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 4)

Morse and Daguerre were of about the same age, but where Morse could be somewhat circumspect, Daguerre was bursting with joie de vivre. Neither spoke the other’s language with any proficiency, but they got on at once—two painters who had turned their hands to invention.

The American was amazed by Daguerre’s breakthrough. Years before, Morse had attempted to fix the image produced with a camera obscura, by using paper dipped in a solution of nitrate of silver, but had given up the effort as hopeless. What Daguerre accomplished with his little daguerreotypes was clearly, Morse saw—and reported without delay in a letter to his brothers—“one of the most beautiful discoveries of the age.” In Daguerre’s images, Morse wrote, “The exquisite minuteness of the delineation cannot be conceived. No painting or engraving ever approached it....The effect of the lens upon the picture was in a great degree like that of a telescope in Nature.”

Morse’s account of his visit with Daguerre, published by his brothers in the New York Observer on April 20, 1839, was the first news of the daguerreotype to appear in the United States, picked up by newspapers all over the country. Once Morse arrived in New York, having crossed by steamship for the first time, aboard the Great Western, he wrote to Daguerre to assure him that “throughout the United States your name alone will be associated with the brilliant discovery which justly bears your name.” He also saw to it that Daguerre was made an honorary member of the National Academy, the first honor Daguerre received outside France.

Four years later, in July of 1844, news reached Paris and the rest of Europe that Professor Morse had opened a telegraph line, built with Congressional appropriation, between Washington and Baltimore, and that the telegraph was in full operation between the two cities, a distance of 34 miles. From a committee room at the Capitol, Morse had tapped out a message from the Bible to his partner Alfred Vail in Baltimore: “What hath God wrought?” Afterward others were given a chance to send their own greetings.

A few days later, interest in Morse’s device became greater by far at both ends when the Democratic National Convention being held at Baltimore became deadlocked and hundreds gathered about the telegraph in Washington for instantaneous news from the floor of the convention itself. Martin Van Buren was tied for the nomination with the former minister to France, Lewis Cass. On the eighth ballot, the convention chose a compromise candidate, a little-known former governor of Tennessee, James K. Polk.

In Paris, the English-language newspaper, Galignani’s Messenger, reported that newspapers in Baltimore were now able to provide their readers with the latest information from Washington up to the very hour of going to press. “This is indeed the annihilation of space.”

In 1867, Samuel Morse, internationally renowned as the inventor of the telegraph, returned to Paris once more, to witness the wonders displayed at the Exposition Universelle, the glittering world’s fair. At age 76, Morse was accompanied by his wife Sarah, whom he had married in 1848, and the couple’s four children. So indispensable had the telegraph become to daily life that 50,000 miles of Western Union wire carried more than two million news dispatches annually, including, in 1867, the latest from the Paris exposition.

More than a century later, in 1982, the Terra Foundation for American Art, in Chicago, purchased Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre for $3.25 million, the highest sum paid until then for a work by an American painter.

Historian David McCullough spent four years on both sides of the Atlantic as he researched and wrote The Greater Journey.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus