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Samuel Finley Breese Morse

 (1791 - 1872)
Samuel Finley Breese Morse was active/lived in New York, South Carolina / England.  Samuel Morse is known for portrait, historical, landscape painting, dagguerreotypes, inventions.

Samuel Finley Breese Morse

    MORCE  speaker-click to hear pronunciation  click to hear

Biography from the Archives of askART

Biography photo for Samuel Finley Breese Morse
Samuel Finley Breese Morse, artist and telegraph inventor, was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, the eldest child of Rev. Jedidiah Morse and Elizabeth Ann Breese. Some biographers have emphasized the influence of his father's evangelical Calvinism on Morse, but much of his early life was spent away from home; he was enrolled as a boarder at Phillips Academy in Andover at age eight.  He entered Yale in 1805 and graduated in 1810, obtaining some knowledge of electricity (but not of electromagnetism, which had yet to be discovered) from courses with Benjamin Silliman and Jeremiah Day.  His interest in art was evidenced only by a few miniatures that he painted to help support himself.

After graduation he persuaded his father to allow him to pursue a career in art and sailed with Washington Allston to study in London in 1811.  His terra cotta statue of Hercules won a gold medal at the Society of Arts in 1812, and large paintings of The Dying Hercules and The Judgement of Jupiter won acclaim.  But when he exhibited the paintings in Boston upon his return in 1815, he found little public interest, and he turned to portraiture, traveling to different cities to find sitters.

He spent three successful winters in Charleston, South Carolina, between 1818 and 1821.  In 1823 he established a studio in New York City, where his art matured. His best work of this period is represented by a large painting of the House of Representatives (1822-1823) and two portraits of the Marquis de Lafayette (1825-1826).  He founded the National Academy of Design in New York City in 1826 to promote the training and exhibiting of American artists and was its president and guiding spirit until 1842.  He was effective as a lecturer in promoting its cause throughout this period.

Morse married Lucretia Walker in 1818, but his work kept him away from his family for long periods of time. While he was in Washington working on the Lafayette portraits in 1825, he learned that his wife had died shortly after birth of their fourth child.  His father died the following year and his mother two years after that. Depressed, he left his children with one of his two brothers and sailed for Europe in 1829.  He was financed by several commissions for paintings, but his purpose was to gain enough experience to produce a grand painting that would establish his reputation.  He saw Lafayette in Paris but spent most of his time in Italy, often in the company of James Fenimore Cooper.

He returned in 1832 with high hopes for The Gallery of the Louvre, which he displayed in New York.  But it, like The House of Representatives, failed to attract public interest.  A final disappointment came when he learned that he had not been chosen to paint one of the four panels in the ceiling of the rotunda in the Capitol in Washington, a commission he had long coveted. This rebuff was undoubtedly at least in part a reaction to his strongly expressed political views, which were anti-Catholic and anti abolitionist. (He ran unsuccessfully for mayor of New York in 1836 on the Native-American ticket.)

Frustrated, Morse turned to the field of invention. He had done some experimenting with the paints for some of his portraits.  And he and a brother had devised a flexible-piston pump (1817) and a marble-cutting machine (1822); the former was patented but proved impractical, and the essentials of the latter had been anticipated by someone else.  On the return trip from Europe a new field presented itself to his imagination. Conversations about electricity with Charles Thomas Jackson (who would later make claims that Morse had stolen the idea of the telegraph from him) led to a consideration by Morse that "if the presence of electricity can be made visible in any part of the circuit, I see no reason why intelligence may not be transmitted instantaneously by electricity."

In 1834 he was appointed professor of sculpture and painting (with no pay) at the nascent University of the City of New York (later New York University). Without funds and without any real technical skills, Morse laboriously began to put his ideas about the telegraph into working form. He made molds and cast thin strips of lead with notches on one side.  This "type" was later mounted on a wooden "portrule" (about three feet long), with the notches facing up, and pulled under one end of a wooden lever; pushed by the type, the lever moved up and down, and its other end closed an electrical circuit for long and short periods of time.  The analogy with type on a printer's rule is clear and logically may have followed from the circumstance that his brothers were printers.

In 1835, with a new title of professor of literature of the arts and design, Morse moved into the university building overlooking Washington Square.  His student fees were not enough even to pay for his rooms. However, by the end of the year he had constructed a crude but workable telegraph instrument.  This first telegraph was capable of sending messages only a few feet. The basic problem was the small number of turns of wire around the electromagnet.

In September 1837 a student at the university, Alfred Vail, joined the team. Vail constructed a modified instrument that inscribed short and long marks (dots and dashes) in ink on a strip of paper, and the partners made their first public demonstrations.  Morse had completed his dictionary in October, and it apparently was used in trials in Morristown, New Jersey, on 6 January and 13 January 1838. But by 24 January, in a demonstration at the university, the marks represented individual letters in a form that would become known as the Morse code.  (More precisely, as altered in 1844, this was American Morse; it was further modified for use in Europe to a form known as International Morse.)

Rejoined by Gale and Vail, Morse prepared to run a line forty miles from Baltimore to Washington.  They were assisted by Ezra Cornell, who devised a plow to lay an underground cable consisting of a lead casing with wires insulated by tar inside. After thirteen miles had been laid they determined that the wires were hopelessly shorted and resorted to conveying bare lines overhead on glass insulators attached to poles. Successful completion was marked on 24 May 1844 with a message from Washington to Baltimore and repeated back: "What hath God wrought." The new instruments were constructed by Vail. The transmitter was a simple "key" with which a finger could make and break contact.  At the receiving end two large coils of a relay activated coils of the "register," which caused a metal stylus to press marks on a moving tape.

There has been much dispute over Vail's contributions to the telegraph. Aside from details in construction of the instruments, he himself never claimed more than the use of the stylus and the key.  Others have argued that the shift from the use of a dictionary to a letter code also originated with Vail.

Morse wanted his invention to belong to the government, and he offered to sell it for $100,000.  There was little interest. An additional grant of $8,000 financed operations for another year.  After that, the Morse Electromagnetic Telegraph Company licensed use of the patent in different parts of the country.

Morse played almost no part in succeeding history of the telegraph. Nevertheless, he received fees totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars.  He built a house, "Locust Grove," on the Hudson River near Poughkeepsie in 1847, and the following year married a 26-year-old second cousin, Sarah Griswold, with whom he had four more children.  He ran unsuccessfully for Congress as a Democrat in 1854, was (essentially honorary) electrician for the Atlantic cable in 1857-1858, and was a co-founder of Vassar College in 1861.  He received numerous honors, most notably a grant of 400,000 francs from a consortium of several European governments in 1858.  He made some attempts to paint--mainly landscapes--but found that his talent had left him.

He died in New York City.


The bulk of Morse's papers are in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress.  Additional items are held in the Smithsonian Archives, Yale University Library, Emory University Library, and the New-York Historical Society, as well as in the papers of Alfred Vail at the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, and the New Jersey Historical Society Library, and in the F. O. J. Smith Papers at the Maine Historical Society Library. The 1837 telegraph instrument, tape messages from 1838 and 1844, and a copy Morse made of his 1832 notebook are preserved in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.  A portion of a receiving instrument from 1844 is held at Cornell University.

Excerpts of the American National Biography Online, Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-92300).

Biography from the Archives of askART
Biography photo for Samuel Finley Breese Morse
Born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, Samuel Morse was the inventor of the telegraph for which he is most famous, but he was one of the nation's most recognized early portrait painters, especially known for his depictions of national government figures. He was also the principal founder of the National Academy of Design in 1825 in New York City.

He was the son of a minister and graduated from Yale University in 1810, and went to England in 1811 to study with expatriate painters, Washington Allston and Benjamin West.

In 1815, having returned to American and having earned no attention for classical, academic subjects he had painted in England, he turned to portrait painting. He also did panoramic interiors including The House of Representatives with its eighty-six distinctive and individual portraits of delegates to Washington D.C.

In 1832, he was appointed chair of sculpture and painting at newly founded New York University, but feeling frustrated financially, he turned to spending much more time with his electrical experiments.  In 1839, he invented the telegraph and introduced photography to this country by bringing the first daguerreotype camera to the United States.

Although he enjoyed the attention he received for his inventions, he continued to stay active in art circles, serving as President of the National Academy and becoming a charter trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  He was also a charter Trustee of Vassar College and Rutgers University.

He lived primarily in New York but spent his summers in Poughkeepsie in his "Locust Grove" estate he helped to design.

Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art

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About  Samuel Finley Breese Morse

Born:  1791 - Charlestown, Massachusetts
Died:   1872 - New York City
Known for:  portrait, historical, landscape painting, dagguerreotypes, inventions