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Samuel F. B. Morse Papers at the Library of Congress, 1793-1919
Art and Travel
Before he invented the telegraph, Morse traveled to Europe twice to study art. This was the passport he used for his trip in 1829. In it, he identified himself as an "Historical Painter and President of the National Academy of Design." However, Morse would soon become better known as an inventor. It was on his voyage home from that trip in 1832 on the Sully that he first envisioned the electromagnetic telegraph.
In 1829, Morse left the United States to spend nearly three years studying art in Europe. He visited London and Switzerland, but spent much of his time in Paris and Italy. During these years, Morse kept a series of diaries in which he recorded observations of his travels and descriptions of Roman Catholicism. There are also a considerable number of sketches, such as this one. Morse sketched a wide variety of subjects: copies of the Old Masters, landscapes, historic buildings, and people he saw during his travels.
Morse met the Marquis de Lafayette in 1825 after he received a commission from the City of New York to paint the Frenchman's portrait during his last visit to the United States. They developed a friendship that lasted until Lafayette's death in 1834. This note from Lafayette, in which he refers to Morse as his "dear friend," conveys the warm friendship the two men shared.
"I still have an Artist's heart, while deprived by long disuse of an artist's skill," Morse writes wistfully in this letter to his friend, Daniel Huntington, president of the National Academy of Design. Reminiscing about his own career as a struggling painter, he informs his friend of his plans to donate stocks to a fund that assists poor artists. To achieve financial success, Morse found he had to abandon his life as an artist and turned to the telegraph. In his later years, he made contributions to other various institutions and organizations, including Vassar College, Yale College, churches, and mission societies.
Childhood and Family Life
At the age of thirteen, Morse began to keep this journal. In it he wrote about the daily occurrences of his life: learning his lessons, drawing, local news, and other activities. He described the books he read in detail and even recorded the weather. On the last page, Morse made note of his acceptance into Yale College, which he entered later that year.
"I now write you again to inform you that Mama had a baby, but it was born dead & has just been buried, now you have three brothers & three sisters in heaven and I hope you & I will meet them there at our death . . . ." The opening sentence of thirteen-year-old Morse's letter to his brothers reveals not only the fact of a high infant mortality rate in early America but also the religious upbringing of the Morse children. Their mother gave birth to eleven children, though only three--Samuel, Sidney, and Richard--survived past infancy. Jedidiah, Morse's father, was a Congregational minister and known as a proponent of Calvinism. His sons consequently grew to adulthood with a strong religious faith. Their acute awareness of death and their firm belief in the constant need to be prepared for it is evident here even at a young age.
Morse's first wife, Lucretia, died suddenly at the young age of twenty-five on February 7, 1825. Morse was away in Washington, D.C., taking up a commission to paint the Marquis de Lafayette's portrait. His father sent a letter with the sad news, but Morse did not receive it for several days. Unaware of his wife's death two days before, he wrote this letter to her about the election of John Quincy Adams as president and his first meeting with Lafayette. By the time he returned home to New Haven, several days had passed since her burial. It would be nearly two decades before Morse would invent a device that could send such news immediately.
Morse and his brother Sidney often affectionately signed their letters to each other with drawings of a hare and tortoise, a reference to names their father gave them as children. According to their father, Samuel was the hare because he was too quick, and Sidney was the tortoise because he was too stubborn. This letter shows that the names stayed with them even into adulthood.
This head-and-shoulders portrait of Morse is a daguerreotype made between 1844 and 1860 from the studio of Mathew B. Brady. Morse, considered one of the finest portrait painters of the Romantic Style in America, had studied art in Paris, where he met Louis Daguerre. Upon returning to the U.S., Morse set up his own photographic studio in New York. He was among the first in America to make portraits using the new daguerreotype method.
One of the first Americans to make daguerreotypes in the United States, Morse opened a studio in New York in 1840. There, he received many students who paid him to teach them the new daguerreotype process. More pupils came to him than to any other daguerreotypist at the time because of his prestige as president of the National Academy and an acquaintance of Daguerre himself. Some, including Mathew Brady, eventually became highly accomplished. In this letter to Morse, Brady recognizes his teacher's significance to early photography by calling him "the first successful introducer of this rare art in America."
Impact of the Telegraph
This map reveals the status of the telegraph network as it existed in the U.S. in 1853, only nine years after the first message. By this time, only one state east of the Mississippi, Florida, was not connected by telegraph. The legend on the left offers the list of message rates from Pittsburgh. By 1861, telegraph lines crossed the American continent; by 1866, the transatlantic cable connected America and Europe. Credit: Chas. B. Barr, Pittsburgh, Pa. Wegner & Buechner lith., 1853. Col. map 59 x 85 cm. Scale ca. 1:4,200,000 Geography and Map Division
With remarkable foresight, Morse, already keenly aware of the potential for misuse of the new communication medium, writes to his assistant in Washington. Only months after the telegraph has begun operation, Morse warns Vail to "be especially careful not to give a partisan character to any information you may transmit." Morse's instructions display his insights into the importance of objectivity and accuracy for both the messenger and the message.
Once the potential suggested by Morse's 1844 success began to be realized, other rival systems soon would emerge, naturally claiming to provide better and faster communication. This poster advertises a forthcoming exhibition of one such telegraph. As with many other technological pioneers, Morse would have to endure many a challenge to his patent in court.
This decoration from the Sultan of Turkey was the first of numerous accolades bestowed on Morse for his invention of the electromagnetic telegraph. He also received recognition from the sovereigns of France, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Prussia, Austria, and Italy. Scientific organizations such as the Academy of Industry in Paris and the National Institute for the Promotion of Science in Washington, D.C., honored him. Both the Archaeological Society of Belgium and the American Philosophical Society granted Morse honorary membership and Yale conferred a degree of Doctor of Laws on him.
In this stylized and simplified rendering of a transatlantic connection, Morse sketched the basics of what would be a three-thousand-mile version of his basic telegraph. Although Morse had written as early as 1843 that a telegraph cable might "be established across the Atlantic," it was not until 1854 that the American financier Cyrus W. Field wrote to the inventor of his idea to link Ireland and Newfoundland by telegraph cable. This prodigiously ambitious project stirred the imagination of millions on both sides of the Atlantic and, despite bitter disappointments and repeated failures, met with final success in 1866.
Invention of the Telegraph
When decoded, this paper tape recording of the historic message transmitted by Samuel F. B. Morse reads, "What hath God wrought?" Morse sent it from the Supreme Court room in the U.S. Capitol in Washington to his assistant, Alfred Vail, in Baltimore. Morse's early system produced a paper copy with raised dots and dashes, which were translated later by an operator. Across the top of this artifact of his historic achievement Morse has given credit to Annie Ellsworth, the young daughter of a good friend, for suggesting the message he sent. She found it in the Bible, Numbers 23:23.
Seven days after his great success with the first telegraph message, Morse writes, in a humble and cautious tone, to his brother, Sidney, of the responsibilities of success. Twice he quotes the famous message, "What hath God wrought?" and uses it to invoke his deep religious feelings. Still feeling the flush of success, he quotes a former opponent, now won over, as saying, "It is an astonishing invention."
During his work on the telegraph, Morse needed political help to obtain support from Congress as much as he required technical and financial assistance, and this formal agreement allowed him to achieve all three. By sharing ownership of sixteen shares in a future telegraph system with Congressman Francis Ormond Jonathan "Fog" Smith (four shares), technician Alfred Vail (two shares), and professor of science Leonard D. Gale (one share), Morse (nine shares) forged an alliance that would allow him eventually to succeed.
The dots and dashes system of telegraph transmission that became known as Morse Code came into being once Morse began his collaboration with Alfred Vail. One of its earliest versions is seen here in the bottom line titled "2d For Letters." By 1844, what became known as "American Morse" had emerged, with nearly every letter undergoing some small change. This system was, in turn, itself slightly altered to form what was known as "International Morse."
Morse's early mechanism to send messages did not involve a key like this one since it used ridged slugs, with each slug representing a letter. His receiver was a pendulum-like device that used a ribbon of paper to record dots and dashes, which were then deciphered and read by the operator. Soon the system was simplified, and a key or hand transmitter similar to the one in this drawing became popular. Clerks eventually learned to read the messages by the sound of the marking lever and, once a "sounder" was added, the Morse telegraph was converted from a paper-based system to an acoustic one.
By 1842, funding from the U.S. Congress was essential if the now-impoverished Morse was to be able to build and prove his telegraph system. On February 23, 1843, his bill for appropriated funding passed in the House of Representatives by a slim majority of 89 to 83 (with 70 not voting), but obviously every vote was crucial. This annotated member list of the twenty-six states may have been used by Morse before, during, or after the vote. The symbol "O" is thought to indicate an assenting vote, "-" a dissenting vote, and ">" no vote.