Samuel Finley Breese Morse

Samuel F. B. Morse was born at the foot of Breed's Hill, Charlestown,

Mass., April 27, 1791. He was the eighth child in a family of eleven

children, all of whom, except three sons, Samuel, Richard, and Sidney,

died in their infancy.

The father, Jedediah Morse, was a doctor of divinity, having

studied under Jonathan Edwards, and was also a journalist and

writer of books. He helped to establish the "Boston Recorder," now

the "Congregationalist," and with others laid the foundations of the

Theological Seminary at Andover, the American Board of Foreign Missions,

the American Bible Society, and the American Tract Society. He was an

impulsive, hopeful man of wonderful energy, and, as Daniel Webster said,

he was "always thinking, always writing, always talking, always acting."

His wife, Elizabeth Ann Breese, was the granddaughter of Samuel Finley,

President of Princeton College, a woman of strong will, excellent

judgment, and extremely pleasant manners. From the one, the boy Finley

inherited energy and hope; from the other, agreeable manners and

indomitable perseverance.

[From the Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and Women.]]

At four years of age Finley was sent to a school near the parsonage,

kept by "Old Ma'am Rand." Being an invalid, she governed with a long

rattan which reached from her chair across the schoolroom. Finley, early

developing artistic tastes, sketched the teacher's face with a pin on a

chest of drawers. Probably the picture was not handsome, for the

offender was punished by being pinned to her dress. Breaking away, and

carrying part of the dress with him, the rattan did its appropriate


At seven he was sent to a school at Andover, and fitted for Phillips

Academy. He received helpful letters from his father. At ten, Dr. Morse

writes him: "Your natural disposition, my dear son, renders it proper

for me earnestly to recommend to you to attend to one thing at a time;

it is impossible that you can do two things well at the same time, and I

would therefore never have you attempt it. Never undertake to do what

ought not to be done, and then, whatever you undertake, endeavor to do

it in the best manner. It is said of DeWitt, a celebrated statesman in

Holland, who was torn to pieces in the year 1672, that he did the whole

business of the republic, and yet had time left to go to assemblies in

the evening, and sup in company.

"Being asked how he could possibly find time to go through so much

business, and yet amuse himself in the evenings as he did, he answered:

'There was nothing so easy, for that it was only doing one thing at a

time, and never putting off anything till to-morrow that could be done

to-day.' This steady and undissipated attention to one object is a sure

mark of a superior genius, as hurry, bustle, and agitation are the

never-failing symptoms of a weak and frivolous mind."

At this early age Finley pored over Plutarch's "Lives of Illustrious

Men," and resolved, as many another boy from reading these volumes, to

be somebody. There is scarcely a more important thing for a child than

that parents should put into his or her hands stimulating and helpful

books. When Finley was thirteen, he wrote a sketch of the "Life of

Demosthenes," and sent it to his father.

At fourteen he was admitted to the Freshman class at Yale, but did not

attend college till the following year. He was a good scholar in

geometry and history, but was especially fond of natural philosophy and

chemistry. Under Professor Jeremiah Day he began to study electricity,

and witnessed the following experiments with great interest: "Let the

fluid pass through a chain, or through any metallic bodies placed at

small distances from each other, the fluid in a dark room will be

visible between the links of the chain, or between the metallic

bodies.... If the circuit be interrupted by several folds of paper, a

perforation will be made through it, and each of the leaves will be

protruded by the stroke from the middle to the outward leaves."

Writing upon this subject sixty years afterward, Morse said, "The fact

that the presence of electricity can be made visible in any desired part

of the circuit was the crude seed which took root in my mind, and grew

up into form, and ripened into the invention of the telegraph."

Under Professor Benjamin Silliman, a name greatly honored in science,

Morse found great delight and profit. He wrote to his parents, that he

should bring home "a chemical trough, gun-barrels, retorts, etc."

With this fondness for science, Morse showed a decided ability in art.

He took pictures of his classmates, at one dollar each, and miniatures

on ivory at five dollars each, thus helping to pay his expenses. The

price charged was very low, but possibly it was all the pictures were

worth, for as yet he had never taken a lesson.

Long before his college course was at an end, he had decided to become a

painter, probably much against the unspoken wishes of his parents, who

must have felt that poverty would be his companion, for some years, at


On going home to Charlestown, he attended a course of anatomical and

surgical lectures in Boston. Washington Allston, then at the head of his

profession in America, had spent two years in Boston, and was about to

return to Europe. Morse went with him and took lodgings in London. At

once he wrote home, "I only wish you had this letter now to relieve your

minds from anxiety, for while I am writing I can imagine mother wishing

that she could hear of my arrival, and thinking of thousands of

accidents which may have befallen me. I wish that in an instant I could

communicate the information; but three thousand miles are not passed

over in an instant, and we must wait four long weeks before we can hear

from each other."

On the outside of this letter, yellow with age, he wrote toward the end


In London he soon met Benjamin West, born in Springfield, Penn., then at

the head of the Royal Academy in England. He had been poor and obscure;

now he was distinguished, and courted even by royalty. Morse, ever

ambitious, soon arranged to study under West, and became his devoted

admirer. He wrote home: "Mr. West is in his seventy-fourth year, but to

see him you would suppose him only about five-and-forty.... He expressed

great attachment to his native country, and he told me, as a proof of

it, he presented them with this large picture ('Christ Healing the

Sick'). I walked through his gallery of paintings of his own production.

There were upwards of two hundred, consisting principally of the

original sketches of his large pieces. He has painted in all upward of

six hundred pictures, which is more than any artist ever did, with the

exception of Rubens. Mr. West is so industrious now that it is hard to

get access to him, and then only between the hours of nine and ten in

the morning. He is working on eight or nine different pieces at

present, and seems to be more enthusiastic than he ever was before....

No man, perhaps, ever passed through so much abuse, and I am confident

no one ever bore up against its insolence with more nobleness of spirit.

With a steady perseverance in the pursuit of the sublimest profession,

he has travelled on, heedless of his enemies, till he is sure of


"Excuse my fervor in the praise of this extraordinary man.... I think

there can be no stronger proof that human nature is the same always,

than that men of genius in all ages have been compelled to undergo the

same disappointments, and to pass through the same storms of calumny and

abuse, doomed in their lifetime to endure the ridicule or neglect of the

world, and to wait for justice till they were dead."

How well, unknowingly, Morse foretold his own career; disappointments,

abuse, ridicule!

Stimulated by the industry and renown of West, he worked at his drawing

from half-past seven in the forenoon until five in the afternoon, and

then again in the evening. He learned what all persons learn, sooner or

later, that there is no easy road to fame.

West encouraged the young artist, and this added fuel to the flame of

ambition. Desiring admission to the Royal Academy, he spent two weeks in

making a drawing from a small cast of the Farnese Hercules. Showing it

to Mr. West for his criticism, West said, "Very well, sir, very well;

go on and finish it."

"It is finished," replied Morse.

"Oh, no," said Mr. West; "look here, and here, and here."

Morse drew a week longer, and again presented it. "Very well, indeed,

sir," he said; "go on and finish it."

"Is it not finished?" asked Morse, half discouraged.

"Not yet," said West; "see you have not marked that muscle, nor the

articulations of the finger-joints."

A third time he presented the drawing, and received the same advice as

before. "I cannot finish it," said Morse, despairingly.

"Well," said West, "I have tried you long enough. Now, sir, you have

learned more by this drawing than you would have accomplished in double

the time by a dozen half-finished beginnings. It is not numerous

drawings, but the character of one, which makes a thorough

draughtsman. Finish one picture, sir, and you are a painter."

Morse was now admitted to the Royal Academy, and had visions of becoming

great. He writes home: "I have just finished a model in clay of a figure

('The Dying Hercules'), my first attempt at sculpture. Mr. Allston is

extremely pleased with it; he says it is better than all the things I

have done since I have been in England, put together, and says I must

send a cast of it home to you, and that it will convince you that I

shall make a painter.... Mr. West also was extremely delighted with it.

He said it was not merely an academical figure, but displayed thought.

He could not have paid me a higher compliment.... My passion for my art

is so firmly rooted that I am confident no human power could destroy it.

The more I study, the greater I think is its claim to the appellation of

divine, and I never shall be able sufficiently to show my gratitude to

my parents for enabling me to pursue that profession without which I am

sure I should be miserable. And if it is my destiny to become GREAT, and

worthy of a biographical memoir, my biographer will never be able to

charge upon my parents that bigoted attachment to any individual

profession, the exercise of which spirit by parents toward their

children has been the ruin of some of the greatest geniuses."

The model of the "Dying Hercules" was sent to the Society of Arts at the

Adelphi, and Morse received the gold medal given for the best work

in painting, sculpture, and architecture.

Morse had taken letters of introduction to several prominent persons,

like Wilberforce and Zachary Macaulay, the father of the historian, but

he was too busy to use them. He gives another reason also--poverty. He

says, "With regard to my expenses, I got through the first year with two

hundred pounds, and hope the same sum will carry me through the second.

If you knew the manner in which we live, you would wonder how it was

possible I could have made so great a change in my habits. I am obliged

to screw and pinch myself in a thousand things in which I used to

indulge myself at home.... I breakfast on simple bread and butter, and

two cups of coffee; I dine on either beef, mutton, or pork (veal being

out of the question, as it is one shilling and six pence per pound),

baked, with potatoes, warm perhaps twice a week, all the rest of the

week cold; at tea, bread and butter, with two cups of tea. This is my

daily round.

"I have had no new clothes for nearly a year; my best are threadbare,

and my shoes are out at the toes; my stockings all want to see my

mother, and my hat is growing hoary with age.... 'But,' you will say,

'what do you do with the money, if you live thus sparingly?' Why, I will

tell you the whole. When I first came to London, I was told, if I meant

to support the character of a gentleman, I must take especial care of my

personal appearance; so I thought it a matter of course that I must

spare no expense in order to appear well. So, this being first in my

mind, I (supposing very wisely that London folks had nothing else to do

but to see how I was dressed) laid out a considerable part of my money

on myself; meanwhile, picture-galleries and collections, with many other

places which I ought constantly to have visited, and which cost some

money, were neglected. And why? Because I could not afford it.

"Well, in process of time, I found no very particular advantage to be

gained by supporting the character of a gentleman, for these reasons: in

the first place, nobody saw me; in the second place, if they had seen

me, they would not have known me; and, thirdly, if they had known

me, they would not have cared a farthing about me. So I thought within

myself what I came to England for, and I found that it was not to please

English folks, but to study painting; and, as I found I must sacrifice

painting to dress and visiting, or dress and visiting to painting, I

determined on the latter, and ever since have lived accordingly, and now

the tables are turned. I visit galleries and collections, purchase

prints, etc.; and when I am asked why I don't pay more attention to my

dress, I reply that I cannot afford it."

Morse had now painted the "Death of Hercules," a large picture, eight

feet by six feet and a half. The painting was received at the exhibition

at Somerset House, though six hundred other works were refused. It was

adjudged by the press to be one of the best nine among a thousand

pictures; many of them by such men as Turner, Lawrence, and Wilkie.

Surely, he had reason to be encouraged.

What little leisure Morse could obtain he spent in reading the old

poets,--Spenser, Chaucer, Dante, and Tasso. He now made the acquaintance

of Rogers, Coleridge, and others. Once, as he was going into the country

with Coleridge, he took in the carriage Irving's "History of New York."

On retiring, Coleridge took the book and began to read. Morse fell

asleep, and in the morning was surprised to find the lights burning, and

his friend still reading. It was now ten o'clock, and Coleridge was so

absorbed that he did not know that the whole night had passed. Later,

Irving and Coleridge became warm friends.

In need of money, Morse repaired to Bristol, where he spent several

months, having had the promise of work; but not a single person called

to look at his pictures, and not one came for a portrait. He had already

been abroad four years, and now stern necessity called him home. He had

just finished a large picture, "The Judgment of Jupiter in the Case of

Apollo, Marpessa, and Ida," to compete for the highest prize offered by

the Royal Academy for historical composition; but as he could not be

present to receive the premium, he was not allowed to enter the picture.

He accordingly brought it home with him, arriving in Boston October 18,


Dr. Morse had engaged a studio for his son in Boston, and the "Judgment

of Jupiter" was opened for exhibition. People came, and saw, and

praised, and went away without leaving any orders for pictures. A year

went by, and not one person offered to buy the "Judgment of Jupiter,"

and not one person ordered a historical work. This was indeed

discouraging to an enthusiastic artist. He began now to turn his mind

toward invention, for which he had a natural tendency; and during the

evenings he thought out an improvement in the common pump, one that

could be adapted to the forcing-pump in the fire-engine. The pump and

the "Judgment of Jupiter" certainly had not very much in common.

The patent pump was put on exhibition on Gray's Wharf in Charlestown,

but it did not cause money to flow into the pockets of its inventor.

Disappointed in his art work, Morse took letters of introduction from

his father to several ministers in the neighboring towns, and started

out to paint portraits at fifteen dollars apiece. This was not very much

better than the five-dollar miniatures on ivory while in college,

especially as he had been to the expense of four years in Europe.

At Concord, N. H., he had good success, writing home that he had

"painted five portraits, had two more engaged, and many more talked of."

While in London he had written to his parents, "I came very near being

at my old game of falling in love; but I find that love and painting

are quarrelsome companions, and that the house of my heart was too small

for both of them, so I have turned Mrs. Love out-of-doors. 'Time

enough,' thought I (with true old-bachelor complacency), 'time enough

for you these ten years to come.'"

But Morse did not wait ten years, for at twenty-four he fell in love

with Lucretia P. Walker of Concord, and was engaged to her. She was not

only beautiful, but of the same lovable and intellectual type as Grace

Webster, who held the heart of Daniel Webster while he lived. She

combined sound judgment with much tenderness of feeling. Morse was a

tall, graceful, handsome young man, with blue eyes and winsome manners.

Dr. Morse and his wife at once sent for their prospective daughter to

visit them. She came, and, as she pleased a mother who idolized Finley,

it is safe to conclude that she was indeed lovely.

In January, 1818, having been assured that he would find work in

Charleston, S. C., he sailed from New York, and met with a pleasant

reception in the home of his uncle, Dr. Finley. He found the society

agreeable, but month after month passed, and there was not a single

request for a portrait. At last, as he was about to return to New

England, he begged his uncle to sit for a painting, as a small return

for his kindness. He did so, and an admirable picture resulted.

Friends came to see it. At once Charleston perceived that a real artist

was in the city. He soon had one hundred and fifty orders at sixty

dollars each! Hope came again to his heart; after a few months he

returned to Boston, and October 1, 1818, he married Lucretia Walker.

At the request of the Common Council of Charleston, he now painted the

portrait of James Monroe, then President of the United States, and a

year later went again to South Carolina, leaving his wife and an infant

daughter in Concord, with her parents. On his return, Dr. Morse having

resigned his pastorate at Charlestown, and moved to New Haven, Ct.,

Finley also moved thither. Here he found delight in renewing his studies

of galvanism and electricity under Professor Silliman.

Tiring of portraits, and longing for preeminence in art, he conceived

the idea of a historical piece, the "House of Representatives," with

eighty portraits of individual members. For this purpose he went to

Washington, and began his work in earnest. He writes to his young wife:

"I am up at daylight, have my breakfast and prayers over, and commence

the labors of the day long before the workmen are called to work on the

Capitol by the bell. This I continue unremittingly till one o'clock,

when I dine in about fifteen minutes, and then pursue my labors until

tea, which scarcely interrupts me, as I often have my cup of tea in one

hand and pencil in the other. Between ten and eleven o'clock I retire to

rest. This has been my course every day (Sundays, of course, excepted)

since I have been here, making about fourteen hours study out of the

twenty-four. This, you will say, is too hard, and that I shall injure my

health. I can say that I never enjoyed better health, and my body, by

the simple fare I live on, is disciplined to this course.... I have had

a great deal of difficulty with the perspective of my picture. But I

have conquered, and have accomplished my purpose. After having drawn in

the greater part three times, I have as many times rubbed it all out

again. I have been, several times, from daylight until eleven o'clock

at night, solving a simple problem.

"How I do long to see that dear little girl of mine, and to hear her

sweet prattle! Instruct her early, my dear wife, in the most important

of all concerns; teach her that there is a great Father above, her

obligations to him and to her Saviour. Kiss her often for papa, and tell

her he will come back one of these days."

So absorbed did he become in this picture, that once he arose in the

night, mistaking the light of the moon for the day, and went to his

work, and another time attempted to enter the hall on Sunday, forgetting

even the days of the week. When the work was finished and exhibited,

everybody was too much interested in his own affairs to care about

congressmen, and the picture failed to attract the public. It proved a

loss pecuniarily, and was purchased by an Englishman and taken to

England. Twenty-five years afterward, it was found in the third story of

a store in New York, nailed against a board partition, and covered with

dust. It had been sent over from London by a house which had advanced a

sum of money upon it while in England. The picture afterward became the

property of the artist Daniel Huntington.

Morse now went to Albany, hoping to obtain some patronage from public

men. After long waiting, he writes to his wife: "I have not as yet

received any application for a portrait. Many tell me I have come at the

wrong time--the same tune that has been rung in my ears so long! I hope

the right time will come by and by. The winter, it is said, is the

proper season; but, as it is better in the South in that season, and it

will be more profitable to be there, I shall give Albany a thorough

trial and do my best. If I should not find enough to employ me here, I

think I shall return to New York and settle there. This I had rather not

do at present, but it may be the best that I can do. Roaming becomes

more and more irksome. Imperious necessity alone drives me to this

course. Don't think by this I am faint-hearted. I shall persevere in

this course, painful as is the separation from my family, until

Providence clearly points out my duty to return."

Morse now turned his attention to the invention of a machine for carving

marble, from which he hoped for pecuniary success, but success did not

result from it. He now went to New York to try his fortune. But things

were no brighter.

He wrote to Lucretia: "My last two letters have held out to you some

encouraging prospects of success here, but now they seem darkened again.

I have had nothing to do this week thus far but to wait patiently. I

have advertised in both of the city papers that I should remain one week

to receive applications, but as yet it has produced no effect.... I

sleep in my room on the floor, and put my bed out of sight during the

day, as at Washington.... I have been active in calling on my friends

and inviting them to my room; they have promised to come, but as yet

few have called. As far as human foresight can perceive, my prospects

seem gloomy indeed. The only gleam of hope--and I cannot underrate

it--is from confidence in God. When I look upward, it calms my

apprehensions for the future, and I seem to hear a voice saying: 'If I

clothe the lilies of the field, shall I not also clothe you?' Here is my

strong confidence, and I will wait patiently for the direction of


Again he writes to his wife: "My cash is almost gone, and I begin to

feel some anxiety and perplexity to know what to do. I have advertised,

and visited, and hinted, and pleaded, and even asked one man to sit, but

all to no purpose.... My expenses, with the most rigid economy too, are

necessarily great; my rent to-morrow will amount to thirty-three

dollars, and I have nothing to pay it with. What can I do? I have been

here five weeks, and there is not the smallest prospect now of any

difference as to business."

He now attempted to obtain a situation in the legation about to be sent

to Mexico. The place was promised, and Morse went to Washington, only to

find that the expedition had been abandoned.

There was an occasional rift in the clouds, as when the corporation of

the city of New York commissioned Morse to paint for them a portrait of

General Lafayette, then in Washington, the price to be about one

thousand dollars. As Sully, Peale, Inman, and other prominent artists

were competitors in the application for this picture, to receive the

commission was indeed an honor.

Morse now wrote cheerfully to his wife: "When I consider how wonderfully

things are working for the promotion of the great and long desired

event,--that of being constantly with my dear family,--all unpleasant

feelings are absorbed in this joyful anticipation, and I look forward to

the spring of the year with delightful prospects of seeing my dear

family permanently settled with me in our own hired house here."

February 8, 1825, he wrote his wife that he had met Lafayette, "the man

whose beloved name has rung from one end of this continent to the other,

whom all flock to see, whom all delight to honor."

That very day a letter was penned him, not this time by the wife, but by

his father. "My affectionately beloved son: Mysterious are the ways of

Providence. My heart is in pain and deeply sorrowful, while I announce

to you the sudden and unexpected death of your dear and deservedly loved

wife. Her death proved to be an affection of the heart, incurable had

it been known.... I wrote you yesterday that she was convalescent. So

she then appeared and so the doctor pronounced. She was up about five

o'clock yesterday afternoon, to have her bed made, as usual; was

unusually cheerful and social; spoke of the pleasure of being with her

dear husband in New York ere long; stepped into bed herself, fell back,

with a momentary struggle, on her pillow; her eyes were immediately

fixed, the paleness of death overspread her countenance, and in five

minutes more, without the slightest motion, her mortal life terminated.

"It happened that, just at this moment, I was entering her chamber-door,

with Charles in my arms, to pay her my usual visit, and to pray with

her. The nurse met me affrighted, calling for help. Your mother, the

family, and neighbors, full of the tenderest sympathy and kindness, and

the doctor, thronged the house in a few minutes; everything was done

that could be done, to save her life. But her appointed time had come,

and no earthly skill or power could stay the hand of death. It was the

Lord who gave her to you, the chiefest of all your earthly blessings,

and it is he that has taken her away; and may you be enabled, my son,

from the heart to say, 'Blessed be the name of the Lord!'"

The heart of Morse was well nigh broken. The woman he had idolized had

gone from him in a moment. He wrote back to his father: "Oh, is it

possible? is it possible? Shall I never see my dear wife again? But I

cannot trust myself to write on the subject. I need your prayers, and

those of Christian friends, to God for support. I fear I shall sink

under it.

"Oh, take good care of her dear children!

"Your agonized son,


Travelling by stage, he did not reach New Haven till his wife had been

buried a week. A month later he wrote to a friend: "I dare not yet give

myself up to the full survey of its desolating effects; every day brings

to my mind a thousand new and fond connections with dear Lucretia, all

now ruptured. I feel a dreadful void, a heart-sickness, which time does

not seem to heal, but rather to aggravate. You know the intensity of the

attachment which existed between dear L. and me, never for a moment

interrupted by the smallest cloud; an attachment founded, I trust, in

the purest love, and daily strengthening by all the motives which the

ties of nature and more especially of religion furnish.

"I found in dear L. everything that I could wish. Such ardor of

affection, so uniform, so unaffected, I never saw nor read of, but in

her. My fear with regard to the measure of my affection toward her, was

not that I might fail of 'loving her as my own flesh,' but that I should

put her in the place of Him who has said, 'Thou shalt have no other gods

but me.' I felt this to be my greatest danger, and to be saved from this

idolatry was often the subject of my earnest prayers. If I had desired

anything in my dear L. different from what she was, it would have been

that she had been less lovely. My whole soul seemed wrapped up in her;

with her was connected all that I expected of happiness on earth."

She was but twenty-five, and had shared only the sorrows and privations

of her young husband. How pitiful it seemed that she could not live to

share his grand success. Whatever may come into a man's life afterwards,

he never forgets an affection like this. It blossoms in the warm

sunlight of his youth; it never withers, even though other flowers take

root in the heart.

Truly says George Eliot: "There is no despair so absolute as that which

comes with the first moments of our first great sorrow, when we have not

yet known what it is to have suffered and be healed, to have despaired

and to have recovered hope."

This despair seemed to have settled upon Morse. He went back to New

York, and now had plenty of work, but he said, "After being fatigued at

night, and having my thoughts turned to my irreparable loss, I am ready

almost to give up. The thought of seeing my dear Lucretia, and returning

home to her, served always to give me fresh courage and spirits whenever

I felt worn down by the labors of the day, and now I hardly know what to

substitute in her place."

Hard, indeed, it seemed, that this "plenty of work" did not come in

Lucretia's life-time. Why are so many of the best and sweetest things in

this world a little too late in their coming? Is it because perfection

attained is not best for mortals?

About this time the National Academy of Design was organized, and Morse

was made president, holding this position for eighteen years, till his

work on the telegraph required his whole attention. These years were

extremely busy years. So numerous were his sitters, that he was obliged

to send many to his artist friends. In his evenings he prepared a series

of lectures on the Fine Arts, which he delivered to large and

fashionable audiences at the New York Athenaeum. He also wrote at this

time a life of Lucretia Maria Davidson, a young poet who died at

Plattsburg, N. Y., when she was seventeen, and several pamphlets against

the growing power of the Romish Church.

Four years after the death of his wife he sailed for Italy, still

further to study his beloved art. In London he again met Rogers, the

poet,--"he has not the proverbial lot of the poet,--he is not poor, for

he is one of the wealthiest bankers, and lives in splendid style," said

Morse,--Turner, "the best landscape-painter living," Irving, our

secretary of legation, and other distinguished men.

For three years Morse remained in Europe, in Rome becoming the friend of

Thorwaldsen, whose portrait he painted; in Florence, of Horatio

Greenough, the sculptor, of James Fenimore Cooper, and many others. In

Paris, Morse painted the "Gallery of the Louvre," working from nine till

four daily, meeting Baron Humboldt, and receiving the cordial

hospitality of General Lafayette.

October 1, 1832, he sailed from Havre, on the packet ship Sully, for New

York. That passage marked an epoch not only in the life of S. F. B.

Morse, but an epoch in American progress. At the dinner-table the

conversation turned upon recent discoveries in electro-magnetism, and

the experiments of Ampere with the electro-magnet. Morse said, "If the

presence of electricity can be made visible in any part of the circuit,"

and he had seen that it could years before in the class-room at Yale

College, "I see no reason why intelligence may not be transmitted

instantaneously by electricity."

He thought the subject over as he walked upon the deck, and as he lay in

his berth, too deeply interested to sleep. If intelligence could be

transmitted, it could be recorded. He took from his pocket a note-book,

and thought out his alphabet of dots and lines. He showed his sketches

to his fellow-passengers,--not a wise thing, as it proved, when, later,

one of the persons on board laid claim to the invention, causing some

years of litigation.

When the vessel reached New York, Morse said, "Well, captain, should you

hear of the telegraph one of these days as the wonder of the world,

remember the discovery was made on board the good ship Sully."

Electricity had been known and studied since early times. It had been

ascertained that the electric force could be stored up, as in the Leyden

jar, and that it could be conducted through long metallic wires. The

discovery of the Voltaic pile, or battery, in 1800, gave a great impetus

to the study. Oersted of Copenhagen found that the position of the

magnetic needle may be changed by the electric current, and that a

magnet will induce electricity in a coil of wire. Schweigger of Halle

discovered that "the deflection of the needle may be increased by

coiling an insulated wire in a series of ovals or flat rings, compactly

disposed, in a loop, and conducting the current around the needle from

end to end." Ampere developed the theory of electro-magnetism, and

proposed to the French Academy in 1820 a plan for a telegraph, in which

there was to be a needle for each letter.

In 1827 Morse had listened to a course of lectures, given by Prof. James

Freeman Dana, upon these matters, so that the subject was still fresh in

his mind when he crossed the ocean in the Sully. Prof. Joseph Henry's

important discoveries were also well known.

Says Prof. E. N. Horsford of Cambridge, Mass., in the admirable life of

Morse written by Dr. Samuel Irenaeus Prime: "He knew generally, when he

stepped on board the Sully, in 1832, that a soft-iron horseshoe-shaped

bar of iron could be rendered magnetic while a current of galvanic

electricity was passing through a wire wound round it; and he knew that

electricity had been transmitted, apparently instantaneously, through

wires of great length, by Franklin and others.... In the leisure of

ship-life the idea of a recording electric telegraph seized Professor

Morse's mind, and he gave expression to his conviction that it was

possible. As it was possible to dispatch and to arrest the

current, he conceived that some device could be found for compelling it

to manifest itself by this intermittent action, and produce a record.

"He knew, for he had witnessed it years before, that by means of a

battery and an electro-magnet reciprocal motion could be produced. He

knew that the force which produced it could be transmitted along a wire.

He believed that the battery current could be made, through an

electro-magnet, to produce physical effects at a distance. He saw in

his mind's eye the existence of an agent and a medium by which

reciprocal motion could be not only produced, but controlled, at a

distance. The question that addressed itself to him at the outset was

naturally this: 'How can I make use of the simple up-and-down motion of

opening and closing a circuit to write an intelligible message at one

end of a wire, and at the same time print it at the other?'...

"Like many a kindred work of genius, it was in nothing more wonderful

than in its simplicity. First, he caused a continuous ribbon or strip of

paper to move under a pencil by clock-work, that could be wound up. The

paper moved horizontally. The pencil moved only up and down; when

resting on the paper it made a mark--if for an instant only, a dot; if

for a longer time, a line. When lifted from the paper it left a

blank.... The grandeur of this wonderful alphabet of dots, lines, and

spaces has not been fully appreciated....

"Not one of all the brilliant scientific men who have attached their

names to the history of electro-magnetism had brought the means to

produce the practical registering telegraph. Some of them had ascended

the tower that looked out on the field of conquest. Some of them brought

keener vision than others. Some of them stood higher than others; but

the genius of invention had not recognized them. There was needed an


As soon as Morse left the ship Sully, and met his brothers Richard and

Sidney, he told them that he had made an important invention, "one that

would astonish the world, and of the success of which he was perfectly

sanguine." He became an inmate of Richard's house, living there several


From this time onward for twelve years he labored to give his telegraph

to mankind; labored in the midst of distressing poverty, the ridicule of

acquaintances, and the indifference of the world. Three motherless

children were dependent upon him, but he could do little for them.

On the corner of Nassau and Beekman Streets, in the newspaper building

erected by his brothers,--they were the editors and proprietors of the

"New York Observer,"--in the fifth story, a room was assigned to him

which he used for studio, sleeping-room, kitchen, and workshop. On one

side was his cot, on the other his tools and crude machine. He whittled

the models, and then made the moulds and castings. Here, from day to

day, the simplest food was brought him, he preparing his own tea.

In the year 1835, having been appointed professor of the Literature of

the Arts of Design in the New York City University, he took rooms in the

third story of the university building. "There," he says, "I immediately

commenced, with very limited means, to experiment upon my invention. My

first instrument was made up of an old picture or canvas frame fastened

to a table; the wheels of an old wooden clock, moved by a weight to

carry the paper forward; three wooden drums, upon one of which the paper

was wound and passed over the other two; a wooden pendulum suspended to

the top piece of the picture or stretching-frame, and vibrating across

the paper as it passes over the centre wooden drum; a pencil at the

lower end of the pendulum, in contact with the paper; an electro-magnet

fastened to a shelf across the picture or stretching-frame, opposite to

an armature made fast to the pendulum; a type rule, and type for

breaking the circuit, resting on an endless band, composed of

carpet-binding, which passed over two wooden rollers, moved by a wooden

crank, and carried forward by points projecting from the bottom of the

rule downward into the carpet-binding; a lever, with a small weight on

the upper side; and a tooth, projecting downward at one end, operated on

by the type; and a metallic fork, also projecting downward over two

mercury-cups; and a short circuit of wire, embracing the helices of the

electro-magnet connected with the positive and negative poles of the

battery, and terminating in the mercury-cups."

Morse was now so poor that he bought his food in small quantities from

some grocery, and prepared it himself. He says, "To conceal from my

friends the stinted manner in which I lived, I was in the habit of

bringing my food to my room in the evenings, and this was my mode of

life for many years."

In this year, 1835, says Professor Horsford, "Morse made his discovery

of the relay, the most brilliant of all the achievements to which his

name must be forever attached. It was the discovery of a means by which

the current, which through distance from its source had become feeble,

could be reenforced or renewed. This discovery, according to the

different objects for which it is employed, is variously known as the

registering magnet, the local circuit, the marginal circuit, the

repeater, etc. It made transmission from one point on a main line

through indefinitely great distances, and through an indefinite number

of branch lines, and to an indefinite number of way-stations, and

registration at all, possible and practicable, from a single act of a

single operator."

Poor, longing for money to carry forward his plans, despondent lest some

one think out a kindred machine and supplant him, Morse was also

suffering from injustice in his art work. Our government having offered

to American artists commissions to paint pictures for the panels in the

Rotunda of the Capitol, the friends of Morse urged that he, as the

president of the National Academy of Design, be one of the artists

chosen by the committee. John Quincy Adams, ex-President of the United

States, and one of the committee, urged that foreign artists be allowed

to compete, stating that no American artists were competent for the

work. This, of course, gave offence, and James Fenimore Cooper wrote a

severe article, in the "New York Evening Post," upon Mr. Adams's

remarks. The article was attributed to Morse, and his name was rejected

by the committee. This was a great disappointment.

He said, years afterward, "The blow I received from Congress ... has

almost destroyed my enthusiasm for my art.... I have not painted a

picture since that decision.... When I applied to paint one of the

Rotunda pictures, I was in my full vigor. I had just returned from three

years' hard study in Italy, ... and felt a consciousness of ability to

execute a work creditable to my country. I hazarded everything almost

for this single object. When so unexpectedly I was repelled, I staggered

under the blow. I have endeavored in every way to prevent its effects

upon my mind; but it is a thorn which perpetually obtrudes its point,

and would goad me to death were it not for its aspect in the light of

God's overruling providence. Then all is right."

From time to time prominent men came to the university, to see the

telegraph. They saw, thought it wonderful, doubted its practicability,

and did not offer to invest any money in the enterprise. Finally, in

1837, Mr. Alfred Vail, a young graduate of the University of the City of

New York, became interested, helped to construct an improved machine at

his father's brass-works at Speedwell, N. J., for Morse to take to

Washington for exhibition, and provided the means for his going.

After five long years, Morse had finally found some one ready to help.

Arriving at Washington, he obtained the use of the room of the Committee

on Commerce, to show his telegraph. Congressmen came, wondered, and went

away doubting.

He now caused a respectful memorial to be presented to Congress, asking

an appropriation of thirty thousand dollars, to test the telegraph

between two cities. The petition was referred to a committee, quietly

ignored, and Morse heard no more concerning it.

He sailed for Europe in 1838, to take out a patent for his work, but

could obtain none in England, as Wheatstone and Cooke had already

patented a magnetic-needle telegraph, entirely unlike that of Morse,

invented four years later, says Professor Horsford, but brought before

the public about the same time, 1837. In point of active use,

Wheatstone's preceded Morse's telegraph by six years, on account of the

indifference of Congress in helping the inventor.

In Paris, Morse submitted his telegraph to the Institute, and Arago,

Humboldt, and others were delighted with it. As Morse was sending a word

from one room to the other, Robert Walsh said to him, "The next word you

may write is 'IMMORTALITY,' for the sublimity of this invention is of

surpassing grandeur. I see now that all physical obstacles, which may

for a while hinder, will inevitably be overcome. The problem is solved;



Morse returned to New York after eleven months, disappointed that

Congress had done nothing, "without," as he said, "a farthing in my

pocket, and have to borrow even for my meals." In Paris, having learned

from M. Daguerre, the inventor of the daguerreotype, the process, Morse

introduced it in this country, and earned enough by taking pictures to

reimburse him for his European journey. Many crowded to his rooms to be

taught, and he cheerfully imparted the knowledge he possessed.

As the months went by and Congress did nothing, Morse became despondent.

He had not the means even to pay postage on letters. He said, "I am sick

at heart.... I feel at times almost ready to cast the whole matter to

the winds, and turn my attention forever from the subject." The Vails

were unable to help the enterprise further, at present. Morse was still

teaching a few pupils at the university. Gen. Strother, of Virginia,

"Porte Crayon," thus tells of Morse's pecuniary condition: "He was very

poor. I remember that when my second quarter's pay was due, my

remittance from home did not come as expected; and one day the professor

came in, and said, courteously:

"'Well, Strother, my boy, how are we off for money?'

"'Why, professor,' I answered, 'I am sorry to say I have been

disappointed; but I expect a remittance next week.'

"'Next week,' he repeated, sadly; 'I shall be dead by that time.'

"'Dead, sir?'

"'Yes, dead by starvation!'

"I was distressed and astonished. I said, hurriedly: 'Would ten dollars

be of any service?'

"'Ten dollars would save my life; that is all it would do.'

"I paid the money, all that I had, and we dined together. It was a

modest meal, but good, and, after he had finished, he said: 'This is my

first meal in twenty-four hours. Strother, don't be an artist. It means

beggary. Your life depends upon people who know nothing of your art, and

care nothing for you. A house-dog lives better, and the very

sensitiveness that stimulates an artist to work keeps him alive to


Even the janitor of the University building said to a young man who was

looking for a studio for himself: "You will have an artist for your

neighbor, though he is not here much of late; he seems to be getting

rather shiftless, he is wasting his time over some silly invention, a

machine by which he expects to send messages from one place to another.

He is a very good painter, and might do well if he would only stick to

his business; but, Lord!" he added, with a sneer of contempt, "the idea

of telling by a little streak of lightning what a body is saying at the

other end of it!"

"Judge of my astonishment," says the young man, "when he informed me

that the 'shiftless individual,' whose foolish waste of time so much

excited his commiseration, was none other than the president of the

National Academy of Design,--the most exalted position, in my youthful

artistic fancy, it was possible for mortal to attain."

Once more, in some way, Morse obtained the money to go to Washington,

and make another effort. December 30, 1842, a bill was at last

submitted, asking for the thirty-thousand-dollar appropriation. It

received much ridicule from some of the members. One suggested that

there should be an appropriation for mesmeric experiments; another

suggested the same for Millerism. At last the vote was taken in the

House, Morse sitting in the gallery watching the result with feverish

anxiety. The vote stood 89 yeas to 83 nays. IT WAS CARRIED.

Would it pass the Senate? The amount of business to be transacted made

its coming up improbable. The last day of the session came. Morse sat

all the day and evening in the gallery, and finally went to his hotel,

nearly prostrated from disappointment.

In the morning, as he came down to breakfast, Annie G. Ellsworth, the

daughter of his old friend, the Commissioner of Patents, came toward him

with a bright smile, saying: "I have come to congratulate you!"

"For what, my dear friend?"

"On the passage of your bill."

Morse could scarcely believe the good news, that the bill had passed, in

the last moments of the session, without opposition. He was nearly

overcome with joy, and told the young lady that she should send the

first message over the first line.

He at once proceeded to construct the first line of his electric

telegraph between Washington and Baltimore. Ezra Cornell, later one of

the most successful constructors and largest proprietors of telegraphs,

and the founder of Cornell University, was employed at a salary of one

thousand dollars a year.

After many perplexities, the line was completed. On May 24, 1844, Morse

invited his friends to assemble in the chamber of the United States

Supreme Court, where he had his instrument in connection with Baltimore.

Annie Ellsworth's mother had suggested to her these words from the

Bible, for the first message: "What hath God wrought!" No words could

have been more in accordance with Morse's feelings. Taking his seat at

the instrument, he spelled out the words, and instantly they were

received by Mr. Vail in Baltimore, who resent them the same moment to

Washington. The strip of paper on which this message is printed is now

in the Athenaeum at Hartford, Conn.

What must have been Professor Morse's feelings at that moment. The day

of triumph had come--the twelve weary years of poverty were over.

Hereafter he was to be like one of the princes of the world.

A telegraph company was formed which offered to sell the telegraph to

the government for one hundred thousand dollars. Congress refused to

buy, much to the subsequent profit of the Morse company. In less than

thirty years, the Morse telegraph was used in America upon two hundred

and fifty thousand miles of wire, and in foreign countries upon six

hundred thousand miles of wire, while the telegraph receipts throughout

the world were about forty million dollars yearly.

There were many amusing incidents in connection with this early

telegraph. "A pretty little girl tripped into the Washington City

termination, and, after a great deal of hesitation and blushing, asked

how long it would take to send to Baltimore. The interesting appearance

of the little questioner attracted Mr. Morse's attention, and he very

blandly replied, 'One second!'

"'Oh, how delightful, how delightful!' ejaculated the little beauty, her

eyes glistening with delight. 'One second only; here, send this even

quicker if you can.' And Mr. Morse found in his hand a neatly folded,

gilt-edged note, the very perfume and shape of which told a volume of


"'I cannot send this note,' said Mr. Morse, with some feeling; 'it is


"'Oh, do, do!' implored the distracted girl. 'William and I have had a

quarrel, and I shall die if he don't know that I forgive him in a

second. I know I shall.'

"Mr. Morse still objected to sending the note, when the fair one,

brightening up, asked, 'You will, then, send me on, won't you?'

"'Perhaps,' said one of the clerks, 'it would take your breath away to

travel forty miles in a second.'

"'Oh, no, it won't! no, it won't, if it carries me to William! The cars

in the morning go so slow I can't wait for them.'

"Mr. Morse now comprehended the mistake which the petitioner was

laboring under, and attempted to explain the process of conveying

important information along the wires. The letter-writer listened a few

moments, impatiently, and then rolled her burning epistle into a ball,

in the excitement under which she labored, and thrust it into her bosom.

"'It's too slow!' she finally exclaimed; 'it's too slow! and my heart

will break before William knows I forgive him; and you are a cruel man,

Mr. Morse,' said the fair creature, the tears coming into her eyes,

'that you won't let me travel by the telegraph to see William.' And,

full of emotion, she left the office."

All these years Morse was longing for a home. In 1845 he wrote his

daughter, who was now married and living in Porto Rico, in the West

Indies, "I do long for the time, if it shall be permitted, to have you,

with your husband and little Charles, around me; I feel my loneliness

more and more keenly every day. Fame and money are, in themselves, a

poor substitute for domestic happiness: as means to that end, I value

them. Yesterday was the sad anniversary (the twentieth) of your dear

mother's death, and I spent the most of it in thinking of her."

Two years later he purchased two hundred acres on the Hudson River, near

Poughkeepsie, calling it "Locust Grove," and built a handsome and

spacious Italian villa for his residence. With the telegraph in his

library, he could now converse with men in all parts of the world. Here

he gathered his children and grandchildren around him. He was now

fifty-six years old. Fame and money had come late in life. The next year

he married Miss Sarah E. Griswold, the daughter of his cousin, a lady

thirty years his junior.

His life here was peaceful and happy, most of the day being spent in

reading and writing. He was very fond of nature. One of his daughters

writes: "He loved flowers. He would take one in his hand, and talk for

hours about its beauty, its wonderful construction, and the wisdom and

love of God in making so many varied forms of life and color to please

our eyes. In his later years he became deeply interested in the

microscope, and purchased one of great excellence and power. For whole

hours, all the afternoon or evening, he would sit over it, examining

flowers, or the animalcula in different fluids. Then he would gather his

children about him, and give us a sort of extempore lecture on the

wonders of creation, invisible to the naked eye, but so clearly brought

to view by the magnifying power of the microscope.

"He was very fond of animals, cats and birds in particular. He tamed a

little flying-squirrel, and it became so fond of him that it would sit

on his shoulder while he was at his studies, and would eat out of his

hand, and sleep in his pocket. To this little animal he became so much

attached that we took it with us to Europe, where it came to an untimely

end, in Paris, by running into an open fire."

In New York he bought a large house, No. 5 West Twenty-second Street,

for his winter residence, and, on a vacant lot adjoining, erected an

elegant building for his library and study. What a contrast between this

and the time when "Porte Crayon" gave him ten dollars, which Morse said

would save his life!

Honors now poured in upon him. In 1835 he had been elected a member of

the Historical Institute of France.

In 1837, a member of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of Belgium.

In 1839 the Great Silver Medal of the Academy of Industry of Paris was

voted him.

In 1841, a corresponding member of the National Institution for the

Promotion of Science at Washington.

In 1842, the gold medal of the American Institute.

In 1845, a corresponding member of the Archaeological Society of Belgium.

In 1846, Doctor of Laws by Yale College.

In 1848, the first decoration ever bestowed by the Sultan of Turkey upon

a citizen of the United States, Nishan Iftikar, in diamonds; he was

also made a member of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia.

In 1849, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Boston.

In 1851, a golden snuff-box containing the Prussian golden medal for

scientific merit.

In 1852, the Great Gold Medal of Arts and Sciences from the King of


In 1855, the Great Gold Medal of Science and Art from the Emperor of


In 1856, the brevet and decoration as Chevalier of the Imperial Order of

the Legion of Honor, from the Emperor of France.

In 1856, the Cross of the Order of Dannebrog from the King of Denmark.

In 1858, a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences in Sweden.

In 1859, the order of knighthood and Commander of the First Class of the

Royal Order of Isabella the Catholic, from Isabella II. of Spain.

In 1860, Knight of the Tower and Sword, from the King of Portugal.

In 1864, Chevalier of the Royal Order of Saints Lazaro and Mauritio,

from Victor Emmanuel II., King of Italy.

In 1866, honorary member of the Societe de Physique et d'Histoire

Naturelle of Geneva, Switzerland.

In 1857, Morse aided in the attempt to lay the Atlantic cable, being

made electrician of the company. This was eminently fitting, as he had

laid the first submarine cable, in 1842, October 18; one moonlight night

in the harbor of New York City, between Castle Garden and Governor's


In 1858, France, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Piedmont, Russia,

the Holy See, Sweden, Tuscany, and Turkey presented Mr. Morse with an

honorary gratuity of four hundred thousand francs, "as a reward,

altogether personal, of your useful labors."

During an extended trip in Europe, he was presented at the Court of

Alexander III. in Russia, and met Baron Humboldt at Potsdam, from whom

he received a large photograph of himself, on which he wrote in French:

"To Mr. S. F. B. Morse, whose philosophic and useful labors have

rendered his name illustrious in two worlds. The homage of the high and

affectionate esteem of Alexander Humboldt." After also visiting his

daughter in the West Indies, his return to Poughkeepsie in 1859 was made

by the people a time of rejoicing. Crowds flocked to the station to

welcome him. The children of the public schools joined in the

procession, while bells rung, flags waved, and bands played, as they

followed the carriage of Professor Morse to the gateway of his

residence, which had been festooned with flowers and evergreens. Was

ever a man more honored? The world loves heroes, though it takes very

little pains to help men or women to achieve greatness.

In 1866, Morse crossed the ocean again to give his children the

opportunity of study abroad. He was now seventy-five years old, yet

seemingly as vigorous as ever. At the Paris Exposition he was one of the

committee upon telegraphic instruments. At Duesseldorf, he was received

with great enthusiasm by the artists of the city. He purchased there

five valuable pictures, as he was now in circumstances to be a patron of

art. He also purchased Allston's celebrated painting of "Jeremiah," for

seven thousand dollars, and gave it to Yale College; a portrait of

Allston, at five hundred dollars, he presented to the Academy of Design.

Thus did he remember the man who had been his friend in his young


Morse also gave to the Union Theological Seminary, in the city of New

York, ten thousand dollars, endowing a lectureship on the "Relation of

the Bible to the Sciences," named in honor of his father.

In 1868, a public dinner was given Professor Morse in New York, by the

distinguished men of the day. Chief Justice Chase presided, and made an

able address. After recounting the discoveries of others in electricity,

"not least illustrious among these illustrious men, our countryman

Henry," he said: "And it is the providential distinction and splendid

honor of the eminent American who is our guest to-night that, happily

prepared by previous acquirements and pursuits, he was quick to seize

the opportunity, and give to the world the first recording telegraph.

Fortunate man! thus to link his name forever with the greatest wonder

and the greatest benefit of the age!" Other addresses were made by

Bryant, Evarts, and many prominent men.

In 1871, June 10, a bronze statue of Professor Morse was unveiled in

Central Park, the money for it being raised, in small amounts, from

telegraphic operatives all over the country. In the evening, a brilliant

reception was tendered him in the Academy of Music, the following

despatch being sent on his ORIGINAL register: "GREETING AND THANKS TO



And then the white-haired Morse, now eighty years old, took his seat at

the instrument, and signed his name to his message--"S. F. B. Morse."

The entire audience rose and cheered, and many eyes filled with tears,

as he gave his farewell address.

The last time Mr. Morse appeared in public was when he unveiled the

statue of Benjamin Franklin in Printing-House Square, in front of the

City Hall, January 17, 1872.

Death came in a few weeks. To his pastor, Rev. Dr. Adams, he said in

response to a remark concerning the goodness of God to him in the past,

"The best is yet to come."

Near the last, when the physicians were inspecting his lungs, and

tapping upon his breast, one said, "This is the way we doctors


"Very good," said the dying man, and passed away, April 2, 1872.

He was buried with distinguished honors from Madison Square Presbyterian

Church, New York. Scientific, philanthropic, and religious institutions

everywhere adopted resolutions of respect for his memory. A solemn

service was held in the hall of the House of the Representatives at

Washington, April 16, with appropriate addresses from Garfield and

others. An oil painting of Professor Morse hung in front of the main

gallery, surrounded by the historic words, "What hath God wrought!"

Telegraphic messages were sent from Europe, Asia, and Africa, to this

memorial meeting. Did any of those present remember how Congress allowed

him nearly to die of despair and want, only a few years before? Truly a

life that reads like a romance, in its misfortunes and its fortunes!

Through all the days of poverty, as well as prosperity, Morse preserved

his earnest Christian character, and his childlike, tender, loving

nature. Trials did not embitter him, as they sometimes do, and honors

did not exalt him above his fellows. American history does not furnish a

more sublime illustration of faith in God and indomitable perseverance.

Rollo the Viking Sir Charles Lyell facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail