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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His chief problem was that the magnet had insufficient voltage to send a message more than about 40 feet. But with help from a New York University colleague, a professor of chemistry, Leonard Gale, the obstacle was overcome. By increasing the power of the battery and magnet, Morse and Gale were able to send messages one-third of a mile on electrical wire strung back and forth in Gale’s lecture hall. Morse then devised a system of electromagnetic relays, and this was the key element, in that it put no limit to the distance a message could be sent.

A physician from Boston, Charles Jackson, charged Morse with stealing his idea. Jackson had been a fellow passenger on Morse’s return voyage from France in 1832. He now claimed they had worked together on the ship, and that the telegraph, as he said in a letter to Morse, was their “mutual discovery.” Morse was outraged. Responding to Jackson, as well as to other charges arising from Jackson’s claim, would consume hours upon hours of Morse’s time and play havoc with his nervous system. “I cannot conceive of such infatuation as has possessed this man,” he wrote privately. And for this reason, Cooper and painter Richard Habersham spoke out unequivocally in Morse’s defense, attesting to the fact that he had talked frequently with them of his telegraph in Paris, well before ever sailing for home.

Morse sent a preliminary request for a patent to Henry L. Ellsworth, the nation’s first commissioner of patents, who had been a classmate at Yale, and in 1837, with the country in one of the worst financial depressions to date, Morse took on another partner, young Alfred Vail, who was in a position to invest some of his father’s money. Additional financial help came from Morse’s brothers. Most important, Morse worked out his own system for transmitting the alphabet in dots and dashes, in what was to be known as the Morse code.

In a larger space in which to string their wires, a vacant factory in New Jersey, he and Vail were soon sending messages over a distance of ten miles. Demonstrations were staged successfully elsewhere in New Jersey and in Philadelphia.

There were continuing reports of others at work on a similar invention, both in the United States and abroad, but by mid-February 1838, Morse and Vail were at the Capitol in Washington ready to demonstrate the machine that could “write at a distance.” They set up their apparatus and strung ten miles of wire on big spools around a room reserved for the House Committee on Commerce. For several days, members of the House and Senate crowded into the room to watch “the Professor” put on his show. On February 21, President Martin Van Buren and his cabinet came to see.

The wonder of Morse’s invention was thus established almost overnight in Washington. The Committee on Commerce moved quickly to recommend an appropriation for a 50-mile test of the telegraph.

Yet Morse felt he must have government support in Europe as well, and thus was soon on his way over the Atlantic, only to confront in official London the antithesis of the response at Washington. His request for a British patent was subjected to one aggravating delay after another. When finally, after seven weeks, he was granted a hearing, the request was denied. “The ground of objection,” he reported to Susan, “was not that my invention was not original, and better than others, but that it had been published in England from the American journals, and therefore belonged to the public.”

Paris was to treat him better, up to a point. The response of scientists, scholars, engineers, indeed the whole of academic Paris and the press, was to be expansive and highly flattering. Recognition of the kind he had so long craved for his painting came now in Paris in resounding fashion.

For the sake of economy, Morse had moved from the rue de Rivoli to modest quarters on the rue Neuve des Mathurins, which he shared with a new acquaintance, an American clergyman of equally limited means, Edward Kirk. Morse’s French had never been anything but barely passable, nothing close to what he knew was needed to present his invention before any serious gathering. But Kirk, proficient in French, volunteered to serve as his spokesman and, in addition, tried to rally Morse’s frequently sagging spirits by reminding him of the “great inventors who are generally permitted to starve when living, and are canonized after death.”

They arranged Morse’s apparatus in their cramped quarters and made every Tuesday “levee day” for anyone willing to climb the stairs to witness a demonstration. “I explained the principles and operation of the telegraph,” Kirk would later recall. “The visitors would agree upon a word themselves, which I was not to hear. Then the Professor would receive it at the writing end of the wires, while it devolved upon me to interpret the characters which recorded it at the other end. As I explained the hieroglyphics, the announcement of the word which they saw could have come to me only through the wire, would often create a deep sensation of delighted wonder.” Kirk would regret he had failed to keep notes on what was said. “Yet,” he recalled, “I never heard a remark which indicated that the result obtained by Mr. Morse was not NEW, wonderful, and promising immense practical results.”


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