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.