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Collection Samuel F. B. Morse Papers at the Library of Congress, 1793 to 1919

Artist, Politician, Photographer

Long before his interest turned to telegraphy, Samuel Finley Breese Morse intended to be an artist but an idea and opportunity forever changed the course of his journey.

[Samuel F.B. Morse, three-quarter length portrait, seated, facing front, posed with a camera and glass plate negatives]
Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-12900

Born in Charlestown (now part of Boston), Massachusetts, in 1791, the son of a minister, Samuel F. B. Morse would come to typify a certain type of hard-driving, aggressive American of the early nineteenth century. A graduate of Yale who trained as an artist in England, he brought tenacity and determination to everything he attempted, combining hard work with an unquenchable desire to succeed greatly in some field. For the first half of his life, Morse believed his success would be found in producing great art. When circumstances seemed repeatedly to prove him wrong, he was willing to switch gears and try new ventures.

An Artist First

Long before his interest turned to telegraphy, Morse intended to be an artist. Although his father had other plans, the young Morse showed enough artistic promise for his father to send him abroad to study painting after he graduated from Yale University in 1810. Morse sailed for England the following year, little realizing when he wrote in a letter to his parents after the long but safe transatlantic voyage, "I wish I could communicate this information, but 3000 miles are not passed over in an instant, & we must wait 4 long weeks before we can hear from each other," that some fifty years later his own efforts would make it possible to do just that. He proved to be an apt student at the Royal Academy of Arts, receiving critical acclaim for an exhibition of his work at the Academy and winning a gold medal at another British exhibition.

Returning home in 1815, Morse hoped to translate his foreign success into domestic achievement. In this he was disappointed. The problem was not a lack of talent, for Morse showed great promise as a painter, but probably the fact that he offered Americans grand paintings with historical themes when all his paying patrons really wanted were portraits of themselves. Eventually Morse accepted many portrait commissions, but even they did not bring the steady income he needed to support himself and his family.

Towards Telegraphy

In 1829, although he had already painted such famous individuals as Eli Whitney and the Marquis de Lafayette and had helped found the National Academy of Design, Morse left for Europe once again to study and paint what he loved. It was during the month-long sea voyage home in 1832 that he first began to sketch out ideas for an electric telegraph. He took up the idea of telegraphy--sending a message electrically over a wire--at a time of feverishly expanding electrical experimentation excited by the work of the English physicist and chemist Michael Faraday (1791-1867). From his own modest first steps, the scientifically-ignorant Morse would need some twelve years of sporadic work before he had gathered enough knowledge, advice, and experience to attempt his historic demonstration of May 24, 1844.

Art and Politics

During the years of his research, Morse did not devote himself solely to the pursuit of the telegraph. In 1834, still trying to succeed as an artist, he formulated an ambitious plan to paint grand historical scenes on the four remaining blank panels in the Rotunda of the national Capitol in Washington. When Congress rejected his plan, he moved to New York and accepted an appointment as professor of Literature of Arts and Design at the newly created University of the City of New York (now New York University). By the end of 1841, he had also twice unsuccessfully campaigned for mayor as a representative of an anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic nativist party.

Pioneering Photographer

At the same time, Morse was also deeply involved in trying to make a go of his newfound vocation as a daguerreotypist. After meeting the French artist and inventor of photography, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre (1789-1851), in Paris in 1838, Morse enthusiastically embraced this startling new technology and became one of the first to practice photography in America. He worked as a daguerreotypist for some two years but could not achieve any financial success. Nevertheless, through his studio in New York, he trained many young men anxious to learn the new art. One was Mathew B. Brady (c.1823-1896), who went on to become one of the best-known American photographers of the nineteenth century.

Ultimately, posterity would not remember Morse as an artist, nor as a politician, professor, or photographer. Despite claiming to have "an artist's heart" and being called by some the father of American photography, Morse achieved his enduring success as the inventor of the practical electrical telegraph.