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From Art to Invention – Exploring the Contributions of Samuel F. B. Morse

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The following is a guest post by Alya J. Sarna, an intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress. Alya has a master’s degree from Columbia University in sociology. She is fond of history and art and adores her Goldador, Fudge. 

Black and white photo of Morse sitting with right hand on table, long bushy beard, medals on jacket, and signature at bottom.
Samuel F.B. Morse. 1872. Engraving from painting by Chappel. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. //

The trajectory of Samuel Finley Breese Morse’s life is one that displays his ingenuity which he expressed in a number of ways. His contributions to the world of art, for instance, showcased all that captivated his attention, which in turn captivated the eye of art aficionados. Yet the Charlestown, Massachusetts-born renaissance man wasn’t limited to the world of art. Instead, he sought to evolve beyond it, and his habit of tinkering as an engineer would ultimately lead him to invent the telegraph and the Morse code.

Morse’s Artistic Capabilities

Art always played a prominent role in Morse’s life, and he was known to enjoy painting during his free time while at Yale University where he studied philosophy and mathematics. He also attended lectures on electricity that were conducted by  professors Benjamin Silliman and Jeremiah Day. Upon graduating from Yale in 1810, his artistic capabilities caught the attention of the successful American painter, Washington Allston. Allston encouraged Morse to pursue his art and so, much to his parents’ chagrin, Morse set off to London, England, in 1811, where he studied at the Royal Academy of Arts. Here, he received several accolades including a gold medal for The Dying Hercules plaster statuette in 1812 along with receiving critical acclaim for the painting of the same that followed.



Art and Invention

Morse returned to the United States in 1815, and, in 1822, he invented a marble-cutting machine capable of carving three-dimensional sculptures in marble as well as stone. He was unable to patent this invention since it infringed upon a design set forth by Thomas Blanchard in 1820.

In 1823, he worked on a painting titled The House of Representatives, which featured the rotunda of the capitol in Washington, D.C., and the painting went on tour the following year. His artistic capabilities and interests led him to become the founder of the National Academy of Design in 1826, and its first president. This academy was created to mirror the Royal Academy of Arts Morse had attended and, in response to the more conservative American Academy of Fine Arts, to further contemporary art.

Paintings on red wall floor to ceiling with people viewing from the center and sides of room.
Gallery of the Louvre, 1831–33, Samuel F. B. Morse, American, 1791–1872, oil on canvas, 73 ¾ x 108 in. (187.3 x 274.3 cm) Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.51, Photography © Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago.

Morse was commissioned to paint a portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette in Washington, D.C in 1825. During his time away, he learned of his wife’s sudden death. However, this information took so long to reach him that by the time he returned home, she had already been buried. Disheartened by this delay, he sought to use his background to speed up communications.

In 1832, Morse first conceived of the idea of the electromagnetic telegraph and built upon the ideas of William Sturgeon, who was responsible for inventing the electromagnet in 1825. By 1837, he had created relays that would allow for a single electric circuit to open and close a switch on another electric circuit placed at a distance. This ultimately meant that these “relays” could be sent across ten miles of wire by November 1837.

Although the Englishmen William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatsone had patented a five-needle telegraph system, Morse’s telegraph was the first to rely on a single wire alone. In 1837, therefore, he filed a caveat for a patent for the telegraph with the support of Alfred Vail and Leonard Gale.

In 1838, he improved upon his invention by creating a dot and dash system, which would lead to the invention of the Morse Code. Morse was granted a patent for his telegraph in 1840. On May 24, 1844, Morse stood in the Supreme Court Chamber (then in the Capitol building) and, surrounded by congressmen, sent the first official telegraph.

Patents and Recognition

Gray and white statue of Morse with people on right and left looking up.
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Statues” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed November 1, 2022.

In the 1854 case, O’Reilly et al. v. Morse et. al. (56 U.S. 62), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Morse’s patent claims for the telegraph over his former contractor. This resulted in his dominance of the American telegraph market and extensive royalties. During this time, his patent was also extended for a period of 7 years. Owing to the enormous help the telegraph provided to a number of European countries, ten of these countries chipped in and awarded him 400,000 French francs for his invention of the telegraph in 1858.

Ending On a High Note

The Western Union Telegraph Company was formed in 1856, and it completed the first transcontinental telegraph line to California in 1861. In 1871, a number of Western Union employees took it upon themselves to pay homage to Morse, who had paved the paths for their careers, and so they chose June 10 to be celebrated as “Samuel Morse Day.” Celebrations included a parade, along with a statue of Morse unveiled a few weeks prior in Central Park, New York City.

At a frail 80 years old, Morse didn’t partake in all the festivities, yet he did attend the reception held in his honor at the New York Academy of Music on the evening of June 10, 1871. By then, every city and town was a part of a telegraph network and, during this reception, Morse was asked to relay a message to the American public.

His telegraph readGreeting and thanks to the Telegraph fraternity throughout the world. Glory to God in the Highest, on Earth Peace, Goodwill to men. S.F.B. Morse

Morse died wealthy and famous, 10 months later on April 2, 1872.

Black and white image of Samuel Morse sitting at desk with many people around, all dressed formally.
New York City–The Morse celebration at the Academy of Music, June 10th–Professor Morse manipulating his signature to the message telegraphed by Miss Sadie E. Cornwell. 1871. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. //

This blog post was inspired by the Samuel F. B. Morse Papers at the Library of Congress and accompanying timeline of Samuel F.B. Morse’s life.

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