Samuel Morse

Alex Rover | October 18, 2022


Samuel Finley Breese Morse († April 2, 1872 in New York) was an American inventor and professor of painting, sculpture, and draftsmanship. Morse developed a simple writing telegraph (Morse apparatus) beginning in 1837 and, together with his collaborator Alfred Vail, an early Morse code in what later became known as the Land Line Code or American Morse Code. Morse thus created the practical prerequisites for electric telegraphy.

Origin and study

Samuel Morse was the eldest son of Jedidiah Morse, a Calvinist clergyman and geographer, and Elizabeth Ann Finley Breese. After attending Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, he graduated from Yale College (now Yale University). While at Yale, he also heard lectures on electricity from Benjamin Silliman, Sr. and Jeremiah Day. He earned part of his college tuition by painting miniatures, which he sold for five dollars each. Here he also met some of the best and brightest minds in America, such as John C. Calhoun, Washington Irving, and James Fenimore Cooper. He graduated from Yale College in 1810.

Life as a painter

Soon after he graduated, he met Washington Allston, an artist then living in Boston who wanted to return to England. Allston had noticed Morse”s talent through the painting “Landing of the Pilgrims,” and he made a contract with Samuel”s father, assuring his son”s financial support for three years. On July 15, 1811, they sailed for England on the “Lydia.” Morse studied not only under Allston, but also under John Singleton Copley and Benjamin West, who was head of the Royal Academy of Arts. He remained closely associated with Allston, whom he revered as a master throughout his life. At the end of 1811 he was admitted to the Royal Academy, where he immediately became addicted to neo-classical art, here especially Michelangelo and Raphael. He studied and drew anatomy from models and produced his masterpiece: a clay model “The Dying Hercules”, based on Laocoon in pose and musculature. For the sculpture he received the First Prize of the Society of the Arts, a gold medal, at the Adelphi in London. In 1814 Morse painted his last classicist picture, “The Judgment of Jupiter.” In 1815 he returned to America.

Morse could barely make a living from his painting. He received only $15 for a portrait. Because the American art scene lacked both institutional funding and support from private patrons, Morse was forced to adjust his grandiose plans, and he soon realized that portraiture was the only lucrative genre.

Among those he portrayed, for example, was Nathan Smith (1762-1829), the first professor of surgery at Yale University.

Samuel F. B. Morse”s relentlessly matter-of-fact portrait of former President John Adams was both the result of an important commission from leading Philadelphia publisher Joseph Delaplaine (1777-1824) and the cause of one of the artist”s first professional disappointments.

When Morse returned to Boston from London in the fall of 1815, he was confident that his successful studies at the Royal Academy would confirm his future success in America. In advance of his arrival, he had stated in a letter to his parents that he planned to begin painting portraits immediately, for a fee forty dollars less than Gilbert Stuart. Thus, he would earn enough to return to England within a year with more important commissions in his hands. Circumstances were tougher than expected, but in time the young artist received the offer of several commissions from Delaplaine. Moreover, his well-connected father with his connections had already communicated on behalf of his son John Adams that he wished to paint a portrait of him.

As early as the summer of 1814, Joseph Delaplaine had begun advertising a series of illustrated books entitled Delaplaine”s Repository of the Lives and Portraits of Distinguished American Characters with an extravagant prospectus. He had the project in mind with a substantial profit, and so intended to pay very little for the original portraits on which his engraving illustrations would be based. Partly as a favor to Morse”s father, John Adams reluctantly undertook to sit for the portrait, commenting, “It doesn”t seem worth the trouble to paint a bald head on which eighty winters have snowed.”

Morse apparently finished the portrait in relative haste during a stay at Adams”s home, for on February 10, 1816, Abigail Adams had said of the portrait, “a severe, unpleasant likeness.” Shocking in its directness and honesty, it was nevertheless an improvement over other early portraits by Morse, which had conveyed neither substance nor the physical vitality of his models. The determination with which Morse documents the deep wrinkles and flabby flesh, the charmless stare and pinched, involuntary grimace of the elderly Adams, was certainly unexpected. Adams”s own reaction to Morse”s portrait has not survived.

Delaplaine”s reaction was swift and negative; he immediately attempted to convince Adams of the portrait”s shortcomings and made a futile effort to gain access to the Gilbert Stuart portrait from Adams. In his rejection of the portrait, Delaplaine cited the harsh criticism of the artist”s peers and stated his intention to withhold payments to Morse. Humiliated by the rebuff and frustrated by Gilbert Stuart”s mastery of the portrait market, Morse had temporarily abandoned his artistic work that summer.

How poor Morse was at that time is shown by an incident related by General David Hunter Strother of Virginia, who took drawing lessons from Morse: “I paid him the money for the lessons and we had dinner together. It was a simple but good meal, and after Morse finished it, he said, ”This is my first meal in 24 hours.” Strother, don”t become an artist. It means begging. Your life depends on people who don”t understand or care about your art. A pet dog lives better, and only the sensibility that drives the artist to work keeps him alive to suffer.””

After moving through New Hampshire and Vermont as a traveling portrait painter, he lived for a while in Charleston, South Carolina, and eventually settled in New York City. For Morse, however, portraiture exemplified American materialism. Like Sir Joshua Reynolds, he saw the historical painting as the highest expression of art. Following in the footsteps of his compatriots Benjamin West and John Trumbull, he modernized historical representation for an American audience in 1823 with the painting House of Representatives. Included are individual portraits of dozens of congressmen, Supreme Court justices, journalists, and house servants who participated in a Democratic administration.

In 1825, Morse was commissioned to paint a portrait of the freedom hero Lafayette. The best portrait painters of his time had competed for this commission. Finally, he was successful. The full-length portrait of the aging hero Lafayette shows him against a flaming evening sky. With its romantic pathos and rather sober drawing, the painting signifies a high point in the art of portraiture in America at the time. Morse received $700 for the portrait and also half of the proceeds from the sale of an engraving that Asher Durand had made after this picture. The news of his wife”s death weighed heavily on him, especially since it reached him only after his wife had already been buried.

In 1825, Morse was among the pioneers with the formation of the New York Drawing Association, and the following year he was one of the founders of the National Academy of Design in New York; he also became its first president (1826-1845). Here he also gave his lectures on painting, the first in 1826 (“Lectures on the Affinity of Painting with the Other Fine Arts”).

In 1829, he sailed to Europe and traveled through England, France and Italy. While there, he visited Paris and the Louvre for the first time. After a trip to Italy, he returned to Paris and began his painting “Gallery of the Louvre” in September 1831, finishing the “European” part a year later and returning to America in November 1832. A cholera epidemic had broken out in Paris, causing many residents to flee the city. Morse had stayed and braved the danger to complete his masterpiece. The arrangement on the walls consists of about 40 exquisite miniature copies of the works of Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Titian, Antonio da Correggio, Nicolas Poussin, Peter Paul Rubens, Anthonis van Dyck and Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, among other artists. From February to August 1833, he finished his painting and exhibited it in New York and New Haven, Connecticut. In the center of the painting he had placed himself, who appears to be helping his daughter Susan copy. Also pictured: in the doorway, C. James Fenimore Cooper; in the left corner, his wife Susan with daughter; in the front left of the painting, F. Richard W. Habermas, artist and roommate of Morse; and Horatio Greenough, artist and roommate. In the front right, one suspects the image of Morse”s late wife Lucretia Pickering Walker. The exhibitions were well received by critics, but they were a financial failure. In August 1834, he sold “Gallery of the Louvre” and frame to George Hyde Clark for $1300. The painting was on loan to Syracuse University in New York, which bought it in 1884. Now Morse”s wish was finally fulfilled that his painting would serve as a study for American artists who could not afford a trip to Europe. (In 1982, it was acquired by Daniel J. Terra for the collection of the Terra Foundation for American Art).

That same year, he was appointed the first professor of art history at New York University. In the newly constructed neo-Gothic style university building on Washington Square East, Morse occupied the Northwest Tower as a studio, as well as six other rooms for his students, who received both practical and theoretical instruction. As an unpaid member of the faculty, he collected tuition directly from his students.

On the return voyage in the fall of 1832 on the SS Sully from Le Havre to New York, Charles Thomas Jackson, who had studied with Claude Servais Mathias Pouillet in Paris, entertained passengers with his electrical devices, such as an electromagnet made by Hippolyte Pixii and galvanic cells. They discussed using electricity for signaling.

At about the same time, Morse became interested in chemical and electrical experiments. Using wire scraps, scrap metal and his wall clock, he built the first Morse apparatus in 1837, which he demonstrated for the first time on September 4, 1837. Alfred Vail was present at this demonstration.

In 1837 he was passed over by Congress for the commission to paint the Rotunda. This hit Morse deeply, and that year he also painted his last work of art.

Political activities

Coming from a white, Anglo-Saxon and strictly Protestant home, Morse held nativist, xenophobic beliefs and leaned toward the Know-Nothing Party with its anti-Catholic conspiracy theories. In Morse”s eyes, Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany in particular posed a danger to the United States because, as followers of the pope, they would attempt to seize power in the country. In 1835, he published the polemical Imminent Dangers to the Free Institutions of the United States through Foreign Immigration. In it, he called for all immigrants to be denied the right to vote. He himself ran unsuccessfully for mayor of New York. The later development of the Morse Code sprang initially from his desire to provide the government with a cipher with which it could communicate covertly in the event of a Catholic uprising. Later, however, he came to the realization that the public use of the telegraph would be conducive to the coalescence and thus the strengthening of the United States. In this, he followed his father Jedidiah Morse, who had written his work American Geography, published in 1789, expressly with the aim of promoting the still weakly developed national feeling of the U.S. Americans.

Life as an inventor

Since Morse was a professor of painting and sculpture, it is not surprising that his first telegraph was made from an easel. Suspended from the frame was a pendulum with a pin. Below the pendulum, a clockwork pulled a rolled-up strip of paper. As long as no current flowed through the electromagnet, the pen drew a straight line. But as soon as current flowed, a magnet attracted the writing pendulum and a V-shaped prong appeared on the paper. Each prong stood for a number. At the first demonstration, the paper strip read: “214-36-2-58-112-04-01837”. The first electromagnetic telegraph was invented and built in 1833 by Carl Friedrich Gauss and Wilhelm Eduard Weber, who also sent the first telegram. Carl August von Steinheil constructed the first usable telegraph in 1836.

These first experiments were seen by Alfred Vail, a student who became a technically skilled associate of Morse”s and persuaded his father to invest $2,000 in the development work. By September 23, 1837, he had formed a partnership with Vail that required the latter to build a series of telegraph instruments at his own expense and file patents for them. In return, Morse promised Vail a ¼ share of the revenues from the patents in the United States and half of those abroad.

Morse realized that his sporadic attempts to work with batteries, magnets and wires did not bring him much closer to understanding electricity. So he asked a colleague at New York University for help, Professor Leonard D. Gale. The latter was a professor in chemistry and familiar with the work of Joseph Henry, a pioneer of electricity at Princeton. Henry had made a remote bell ring by opening and closing an electric circuit. As early as 1831 he had published an article, unknown to Morse, in which he toyed with the idea of an electric telegraph. Gale”s knowledge of this article and his help not only provided for the elimination of defects in the system, but showed Morse how to amplify the power of the signal and solve distance problems with a relay system that Joseph Henry had invented. Henry”s experiments, Gale”s help, and Alfred Vail”s skill were the keys to Morse”s success.

Under Vail”s influence, Morse gave up the numerical code. The paper strip now had short and long pendulum deflections. Without the connecting lines, this was already the later Morse code composed of dots and dashes. Transmissions were made with a contact board in which short and long copper plates were inserted. If an electrically conductive pencil was now stroked over the platelets inserted next to a letter, a short or long current surge was induced in the line. The telegraph operator at the transmitter did not have to learn the code by heart. This system was successfully demonstrated publicly by Morse and Vail on January 6, 1838.

After five years of experimentation, Morse was able to patent his apparatus. The United States Patent Office granted him the certificate on June 20, 1840.

At the same time, the U.S. Congress was looking for a suitable system of optical telegraphy. Morse also demonstrated his telegraph to the Cabinet. Morse asked President Martin Van Buren to whisper a short phrase into his ear for transmission. Morse looked at his “register,” in which he had noted the approximately 5,000 most frequently used words and assigned numbers to them. He began the transmission while, at the same time, dots and dashes appeared on a strip of paper at another table. When the transmission was finished, the assistant began to transcribe the code into numbers and then to search for the words in his “lexicon.” Then he announced the received message “The enemy is near”. Those present were delighted.

Members of Congress seemed unwilling to approve the required sum of $30,000. Only the chairman of the Commerce Committee, Francis Ormand Jonathan (“Fog”) Smith of Maine, immediately recognized the vast possibilities of the telegraph. He prepared a bill, although he knew it had little chance at the time. He expressed a desire to become a partner in Morse”s company, even though it was a conflict of interest with his mandate. Morse agreed, recognizing that he needed a promoter familiar with Washington”s intrigues-and another source of cash. Vail and Gale agreed for the same reasons. Smith was to provide legal assistance and finance a three-month trip to Europe for Morse and himself to acquire patent rights in Europe. They signed an agreement to this effect on March 2, 1838. Morse remained the principal stockholder. Smith”s share was 5

In this situation, Morse traveled to Europe in May 1838 to find support there. He was not successful there either, but at least he was able to study the European competitive systems. Morse was received with acclaim by scientists in every country he visited, and he exhibited his apparatus under the auspices of the Académie des sciences in Paris and the Royal Society in London, respectively. He obtained a patent in France, which was practically worthless because it required the inventor to put his discovery into operation within two years. Moreover, telegraphs were under government control and private companies were excluded. After nearly a year”s absence, Morse returned to New York in May 1839 and wrote to Francis O. J. Smith that he had returned without a penny in his pocket and that he had even had to beg for his meals. Even worse for him was that rent debts had accumulated in his absence. Four years of worry and abject poverty followed. He lived on the drawing lessons he gave to some students and commissions for portraits.

After the return, the apparatus was modified so that the pen no longer touched the paper in the rest position. Only when the electromagnet attracted the pen did it mark a dot or a line on the paper strip, depending on the duration of the current flow. Decades later, Morse”s colleague Alfred Vail discovered that the characters could also be deciphered acoustically and did not necessarily have to be recorded on a strip of paper.

In 1839, Morse met Louis Daguerre, the inventor of the daguerreotype, in Paris and published the first American description of this photographic process. Morse thus became one of the first Americans to make a daguerreotype photograph. He opened a photography studio in New York with John William Draper and taught several students, including Mathew B. Brady, who later became a Civil War photographer.

Meanwhile, his British competitors Charles Wheatstone and William Cooke received significant help from the government in England with their needle telegraph, and they made every effort to convince the U.S. Congress to apply their systems in America, while Morse struggled to convince his own countrymen of the merits of his system.

In October 1842, Morse experimented with underwater transmissions. Two miles of cable were sunk between The Battery and Governors Island in New York Harbor and successfully transmitted signals. Then a ship damaged the cable with its anchor; thus ended the experiment.

The Washington – Baltimore test track

On March 3, 1843, Congress appropriated $30,000 for the construction of the 60-km telegraph line from Baltimore, Maryland, to Washington, D. C. Construction began a few months later. With the approval of the Secretary of the Treasury, Morse appointed Professors Gale and Fisher as his assistants, and Alfred Vail was again involved. James C. Fisher supervised the making of the cable, its insulation, and its insertion into the lead pipes, while Vail was in charge of the magnets, batteries, and other necessities down to acid, ink, and paper. Gale was available when his advice was needed, F. O. Smith made the contracts with the companies that dug the trench beside the railroad.

F. O. J. Smith was able to enlist the cooperation of Ezra Cornell, who designed a machine to dig a trench for the cable to be laid in lead pipes. Morse had looked at it and agreed to its use. Cornell acted as Morse”s “assistant” and was paid $1,000 a year. In October 1843, Cornell began laying the telegraph cables. In the process of putting in the lead pipes, the insulation on the wires had been scratched. Fisher was responsible for this failure because he had not inspected the cables before they were inserted into the lead pipe. Morse also subsequently terminated his relationship with the supplier of the pipes, the Serrell Company. This caused a lot of trouble, as Morse wrote to his brother Sidney. Morse ordered an immediate halt to the work. Cornell again built a machine which pulled the wire out of the tubes and re-insulated it. On December 27, 1843, Morse notified the Secretary of the Treasury that he had discharged Fisher. Gale had given up cooperation for health reasons, leaving Morse to rely only on Vail.

Morse asked Cornell to let the work rest until he had an idea how to deal with the problem. Moreover, none of this could be allowed to get out to the public. Cornell spent the winter in Washington reading books on electricity and magnetism in the Patent Office library and the Library of Congress. His reading convinced him that underground routing was useless and that the wires should be attached above ground to posts with glass insulators. Morse agreed.

In the spring of 1844, they began constructing the lines above ground on telegraph poles. It was over this line that Samuel Morse telegraphed the first electronic message using his Morse alphabet on May 24, 1844. The content of the message was “What hath God wrought?” (What has God done?) (Num 23:23 EU). Samuel Morse sent from the Supreme Court room in the Capitol, and Alfred Vail acknowledged receipt at the Baltimore train station.

Morse saw the telegraph as a natural adjunct to the postal service and offered his patent to the government for purchase for $100,000. President James K. Polk was enthusiastic about the telegraph, but he needed congressional approval. The Postmaster General, Cave Johnson, feared for the subsequent cost of maintenance. Thus, American telegraphy came into the hands of private investors. In the spring of 1845, Morse chose Amos Kendall, the former Postmaster General, as his agent. Vail and Gale agreed. In May, Kendall and F. O. J. Smith formed the Magnetic Telegraph Company and extended the telegraph line from Baltimore to Philadelphia and on to New York.

Late years

In 1847, Morse purchased the country estate of Locust Grove in the Town of Poughkeepsie in the Hudson Valley, designed by architect Alexander Jackson Davis, which he used as a summer residence until the end of his life. Shortly thereafter, he purchased a home on New York”s 22nd Street, where he spent the winter months. A marble sign was placed on the house after his death that read, “In this house S. F. B. Morse lived for many years and died.” (In this house S. F. B. Morse lived for many years and died).

A court ruled in 1853 that all American companies using telegraphy must pay Morse royalties. From 1857 to 1858, Morse advised Cyrus W. Field as an engineer in laying the first transatlantic cable. The cable became unusable after a few weeks of operation because Wildman bogged down Whitehouse with voltages that were too high. In 1859, his Magnetic Telegraph Company merged into Field”s American Telegraph Company. In 1865 Morse was one of the founders and trustees of Vassar College. From 1866 to 1868, he lived with his family in France and represented the U.S. at the 1867 Paris World”s Fair.

Samuel Morse died in 1872 and was buried in Green-Wood Cemetery.


On September 29, 1818, Morse married Lucretia Pickering Walker (b. November 14, 1798) in Concord, New Hampshire. They had three children together:

Lucretia died on February 7, 1825 at the age of 26 after giving birth to her third child. The children grew up with relatives.

Morse”s father Jedidiah Morse died on June 9, 1826, and his mother Elizabeth Ann Finley Breese died on May 28, 1828.

On August 10, 1848, Morse married Sarah Elizabeth Griswold, in Utica, New York, who had been a bridesmaid at the wedding of his son Charles. She was 26 years old, deaf from birth, and two years younger than his daughter Susan. They had four other children:

Morse was showered with honors from around the world: in 1848 his alma mater, Yale College, awarded him an honorary doctorate, and thereafter he was named a member of nearly every American academy of science and art, including the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1849.

He received more honors from European governments and scientific and artistic societies than any American before him. In 1848, he received the Diamond Order of Nishaun Iftioha from the Sultan of Turkey. Gold medals for scientific merit followed from the King of Prussia, the King of Württemberg, and the Emperor of Austria. The gift from the Prussian king was enclosed in a solid gold snuff box.

In 1856, Morse received the Cross of Knight Commander of the Order of the Legion of Honor from Emperor Napoleon III. In 1857 he was made a Knight of the Order of Dannebrog by the King of Denmark, and in 1858 the Queen of Spain sent him the Cross of Knight Commander of the order of Isabella the Catholic. In 1859, at the instigation of Emperor Napoleon III, the representatives of various European powers met in Paris to discuss how best to jointly express their gratitude to Professor Morse. Those involved were France, Russia, Sweden, Belgium, Holland, Austria, Sardinia, Tuscany, Turkey, and the Holy See (the Vatican). They agreed to give Professor Morse, in the name of their united governments, the sum of 400,000 francs as an honorarium and personal recognition of his work.

In 1856, the Telegraph Societies of Great Britain gave a banquet in Morse”s honor in London, presided over by William Fothergill Cooke, himself a distinguished inventor of a telegraph system.

In 2002 the asteroid (8672) Morse was named after him.

Morse published poetry and articles in the “North American Review.”


  1. Samuel F. B. Morse
  2. Samuel Morse
  3. Landing of the Pilgrims (Memento des Originals vom 8. April 2014 im Internet Archive)  Info: Der Archivlink wurde automatisch eingesetzt und noch nicht geprüft. Bitte prüfe Original- und Archivlink gemäß Anleitung und entferne dann diesen Hinweis.@1@2Vorlage:Webachiv/IABot/
  4. Sculpture of „The Dying Hercules“ at Yale University Art Gallery (Memento des Originals vom 8. April 2014 im Internet Archive)  Info: Der Archivlink wurde automatisch eingesetzt und noch nicht geprüft. Bitte prüfe Original- und Archivlink gemäß Anleitung und entferne dann diesen Hinweis.@1@2Vorlage:Webachiv/IABot/
  5. Medal for the Model of the Dying Hercules (Memento des Originals vom 8. April 2014 im Internet Archive)  Info: Der Archivlink wurde automatisch eingesetzt und noch nicht geprüft. Bitte prüfe Original- und Archivlink gemäß Anleitung und entferne dann diesen Hinweis.@1@2Vorlage:Webachiv/IABot/
  6. Barbara I. Tshisuaka: Smith, Nathan. In: Werner E. Gerabek, Bernhard D. Haage, Gundolf Keil, Wolfgang Wegner (Hrsg.): Enzyklopädie Medizingeschichte. De Gruyter, Berlin/ New York 2005, ISBN 3-11-015714-4, S. 1340.
  7. Unión Internacional de Telecomunicaciones (15 de marzo de 1965). «Los pioneros del telégrafo». Del semáforo al satélite. Ginebra. p. 28. «Morse consiguió en 1843 treinta mil dólares para una línea telegráfica entre Washington y Baltimore; esta línea se inauguró el 1º de enero de 1845 ».  |fechaacceso= requiere |url= (ayuda)
  8. « » (consulté le 9 mai 2022)
  9. Library of Congress Online Catalog, (catalogue informatisé en ligne), consulté le 9 mai 2022
  10. a b c d e f g h et i (en) « Samuel F.B. Morse », sur (consulté le 25 juillet 2018)
  11. James Pfrehm, Technolingualism : The Mind and the Machine, Bloomsbury Academic, 2018 (ISBN 9781472578358), « Letter frequencies and telegraphic code », p. 80-81
  12. Tristan Donovan, It”s All a Game : The History of Board Games from Monopoly to Settlers of Catan, Thomas Dunne Books, 2017 (ISBN 9781250082725), « Scrabble: Words without meaning », p. 136.
  13. 1 2 Samuel F.B. Morse // Encyclopædia Britannica (англ.)
  14. Encyclopædia Britannica (англ.)
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