The Two Careers of Samuel Morse

Samuel F.B. Morse, Self-Portrait (1812 -- he was 21) National Portrait Gallery, Washington

Samuel F.B. Morse, Self-Portrait (1812 — he was 21)  National Portrait Gallery, Washington

We can only imagine what Jedidiah Morse thought when his son Samuel announced, “Dad, I’ve decided to become an artist.”  There is no historical record of how that conversation went, so we don’t know if the father snarled, “What!?  You have any idea what it cost to put you through Yale?  You were Phi Beta Kappa — and now you want to throw all that away?”

As an occupation, artist was not a common road to riches in early 19th-century America (still isn’t, for that matter).  Young Samuel Finley Breese Morse went off to study painting in England, though, and when he returned in 1815, he managed to support himself despite the widespread lack of interest in the kind of historical subjects he personally favored.

The only real market was portraits, and let’s give him credit — Morse cranked out good ones.  He painted former president John Adams and was commissioned to do a portrait of president James Monroe, as well as Revolutionary War hero, the Marquis de Lafayette.  By 1826, Morse had become the presiding officer of the National Academy of Design.

Jedidiah Morse died that same year, and he probably went out saying to anyone who would listen, “Didn’t I tell you my son had talent?  I always knew he’d make me proud.”  What dad never knew was that his son would gain far greater fame, but not as an artist.

Samuel went back to Europe in 1830 to sharpen his painting skills, but on the return voyage in 1832, Morse met a fellow passenger who was talking about electromagnetism.  Those conversations inspired Morse; he saw the possibility of using pulses of electric current to send messages over wires.

It isn’t quite accurate to say that Samuel F.B. Morse invented the telegraph, since crude versions of it had been around for almost a hundred hears.  In 1746, for example, a French scientist named Nollet got a couple hundred monks into a giant circle and wired them together.  When he discharged electricity from Leyden jars, those monks got the shocking message.

Anyway, Morse did come up with his single-wire telegraph in the mid-1830s, but the challenge was getting a signal to travel more than a few hundred yards.  He got help on that from New York University chemistry professor Leonard Gale; Morse was teaching art at NYU at the time.  Gale and Morse figured out how to put relays into the system, allowing telegraphic impulses to be sent over long distances.

Those signals were developed into a code so that their meaning could be interpreted.  Morse worked on this with a machinist named Alfred Vail.  Historians agree that Morse never, ever said, “I couldn’t have done it without you, Alfred.  Let’s call it ‘The Vail Code’ .”

The first public demonstration of Morse’s telegraph was on May 24, 1844, when a message was sent from the Supreme Court chamber in Washington, D.C., to a train station in Baltimore.  Morse tapped out “What hath God wrought?”, perhaps the only time he shared credit for the invention of the telegraph.

Ten years later there were 23,000 miles of telegraph wire in operation.  Samuel Morse’s second career secured his place in history.  His first career had ended in 1837; he never completed another painting in the remaining 35 years of his life.

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12 responses to “The Two Careers of Samuel Morse

  1. Patricia Hill

    Life does have its twists. So interesting- Thanks

  2. Thanks for the info. When the Army drubbed Morse code into me, I had no idea that he was the cause of my brain freezes.

  3. – …. . .-. . / .. … / .- / .-.. — – / – — / -… . / … .- .. -.. / ..-. — .-. / .- / .-.. — -. –. / — -.-. . .- -. / …- — -.– .- –. . / .– .. – …. / -. — / -.. .. … – .-. .- -.-. – .. — -. … / .- .-.. .-.. — .– .. -. –. / – …. . / -.-. .-. . .- – .. …- . / — .. -. -.. / .- — .–. .-.. . / – .. — . / ..-. — .-. / .-. . ..-. .-.. . -.-. – .. — -. / .- -. -.. / .. -. -. — …- .- – .. — -.

    • I hope this message is reasonably polite. I made a couple of attempts to translate it but came up too many vowels short of actual words. Using my woeful code skills the text starts “6 ERE IS AL (something, something) SLTI F (something) R… well, you get the idea. Clearly you have more of a gift for Morse Code than I do!

  4. Well.. It was SUPPOSED to say: “There is a lot to be said for a long ocean voyage with no distractions allowing the creative mind ample time for reflection and innovation.” But… that is DEFINITELY not what the online translator converted it to!

    • OK, that makes me feel better. And, by the way, I agree with your thought about long ocean voyages encouraging creativity. The guy Morse met on that voyage, whose name was Jackson, seems to have had a different view. In later years, his and Morse’s lawyers wrangled about which of them deserved credit for the telegraph. In fact, Morse was embroiled in patent issues quite a bit throughout his second career.

  5. This reminds me of Leonardo da Vinci and Paul Cornu.. Leonardo envisioned the CONCEPT of the helicopter. But, Paul Cornu actually INVENTED the first helicopter that could fly unassisted.. So maybe, Jackson did indeed give Morse the concept. But, Morse actually INVENTED the telegraph..

  6. As an old, old sailor who was a signalman for many, many years, my mind automatically began to ‘translate’ Tommi’s coded message, and by automatically, I mean my mind began its job by first imagining the code as flashing light. Like you, I couldn’t do it. But now that I see the translation, I see the problems, as I’m sure you do, too. While the Navy has (rightfully) made the signalman rating obsolete, it was, for a very long time, a necessary part of daily life in the US Navy. Plus, when going to those old war movies involving ships, there would invariably be scenes involving some flashing light, which always prompted my girlfriend to ask, ‘what’s it say,, what’s it say?’ Nothing. The camera never stayed on the light long enough to develop an actual word.

    Interesting stuff, as always, Mr. Reeder. Also, if I may…recently, one of your former colleagues who also writes a blog, opined that the Chuckles Bites the Dust episode from the Mary Tyler Moore Show, was the best sitcom episode ever written. I am of the opinion that there’s been way too many episodes of so many shows written that it’s not possible to pick one over all others. However, I could choose several. And one of those is yours – Hash. I happened to see it again a few weeks ago, probably the first time I’ve seen it since its original run way back in the 70s. And it still stands up very well. When I first saw it, I remember I laughed so hard that my eyes started watering. I did not know that you wrote it because in the 70s, that information did not interest me. It aired a few weeks after another of my all-time faves, The Werewolf (I may be wrong about the actual title). One question if you don’t mind…when Yamana started singing, was it a tune from Flower Drum Song?

    What episodes would you put on a list of the best written episodes ever? Wow, that could be several blog entries, couldn’t it!

    Anyway, _ …. ._ _ / .. … / .. ._.. ._.. / _ _ ._ _ .. /

    • Thanks for your generous comment. I’m quickly tapping this out in an airport, but I want to give this a proper response when I have access to a real computer. Thanks again, Gary — I hope to reply in a couple of days.

  7. OK, Gary, I’m back to my computer, so now I can respond while seated comfortably. I agree completely with your view that there have been so many great episodes over the years that it’s hard to single one out as the best ever.

    Back in the 1990s, TV Guide ran a list of what they called the best episodes of all time. It included dramas and comedies, and they had “Chuckles Bites the Dust” at #1. The Barney Miller episode “Hash” also made that list; as I recall it was in 74th or 77th or something like that.

    Among the many that could be included in the conversation would be the I Love Lucy episode in which Lucy and Ethel were frantically trying to keep up with a conveyor belt in a chocolate factory.

    There were many fine episodes of the Dick Van Dyke show; one that comes to mind had Laura Petrie angry with Rob because he always picked up the check when they went out to dinner with friends.

    Everybody probably has their own favorite episode of Cheers, but one that might get overlooked is the pilot. In my opinion, Les and Glen Charles wrote one of the funniest pilots ever, and that’s not easy to do. Pilots tend to have so much exposition and character introduction in them that sometimes it’s hard to be funny, too. I thought the Charles brothers did a great job with that one.

    Episodes of Seinfeld… M*A*S*H… The Bob Newhart Show… Everybody Loves Raymond… more recently, Modern Family — those should get some consideration. And I think you’d agree that there were many hilarious episodes of Frasier, particularly ones in which David Hyde Pierce (Niles) got to demonstrate his gift for physical comedy.

    After I hit “send”, I’m sure I’ll think of others that deserve mention, which just serves to prove your point.

    The song Jack Soo sang was not from Flower Drum Song, although that was a good guess since he had appeared in that Broadway production. It was “It’s Almost Like Being In Love”, from Brigadoon, by Lerner and Loewe. It has a big finish that includes the line “And from the way that I feel/When that bell starts to peal/It’s almost like being in love.” As a stoned Nick Yemana, Jack really made a very funny moment out of it.

    Thanks for your comment, Gary, and thanks for not writing last January to give me a bad time about my bowl predictions that went amiss!

  8. Thanks so much for sharing your insight, Tom. It’s very kind that you make yourself so accessible to the fans. I sure appreciate it. While awaiting your reply, my local PBS station coincidentally ran a 30 min. show called “You Don’t Know Jack Soo,” which was very informative, but too brief. I didn’t know he was a 5-tool player!

    I did think of several Cheers episodes that still make me laugh, incl. Woody’s Wedding, and one where Rebecca agrees to dog sit a corporate boss’ doberman, but Sam and Woody show up at the boss’ palatial estate on a stormy night. Just happened to see a favorite Frasier recently, something about Mrs. Moskowitz, when Niles winds up in costume as Jesus while the family has been trying to ‘be Jewish’ at Frasier’s request. And there are many others that spring to mind.

    I’m sure my bowl game predictions were just as accurate as yours, overall. I’d never give you a hard time for putting yourself out there. The only bowl game I really cared about was K-State – probably the last time in my lifetime that they’ll be so good and be so close to the Big Game. And still, I’m anxious for your season preview…and if you overlook the Cats, I’ll give ya a nudge!
    Thanks again.

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