Samuel Finley Breese Morse (April 27, 1791 – April 2, 1872) was an American painter who turned inventor.After having established his reputation as a portrait painter, in his middle age Morse contributed to the invention of a single-wire telegraph system based on European telegraphs. He was a co-developer of the Morse code, and helped to develop the commercial use of telegraphy. Born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, the first child of the pastor Jedidiah Morse, who was also a geographer, and his wife Elizabeth Ann Finley Breese.
After attending Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, Samuel Morse went on to Yale College to receive instruction in the subjects of religious philosophy, mathematics and science of horses. While at Yale, he attended lectures on electricity from Benjamin Silliman and Jeremiah Day. He supported himself by painting. In 1810, he graduated from Yale with Phi Beta Kappa honors.
Although Samuel Morse respected his father’s religious opinions, he sympathized with the Unitarians.Among the converts to Unitarianism were the prominent Pickerings of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, whom Morse had painted. Some critics thought his sympathies represented his own anti-Federalism. Morse was commissioned to paint President James Monroe in 1820. He embodied Jeffersonian democracy by favoring the common man over the aristocrat.
In 1826 he helped found the National Academy of Design in New York City. He served as the Academy’s President from 1826 to 1845 and again from 1861 to 1862.
On a subsequent visit to Paris in 1839, Morse met Louis Daguerre. He became interested in the latter’s daguerreotype—the first practical means of photography. Morse wrote a letter to the New York Observer describing the invention, which was published widely in the American press and provided a broad awareness of the new technology.
As noted, in 1825 New York City had commissioned Morse to paint a portrait of Lafayette, then visiting Washington, DC. While Morse was painting, a horse messenger delivered a letter from his father that read, “Your dear wife is convalescent“. The next day he received a letter from his father detailing his wife’s sudden death. Morse immediately left Washington for his home at New Haven, leaving the portrait of Lafayette unfinished. By the time he arrived, his wife had already been buried. Heartbroken that for days he was unaware of his wife’s failing health and her death,he decided to explore a means of rapid long distance communication.
While returning by ship from Europe in 1832, Morse encountered Charles Thomas Jackson of Boston, a man who was well schooled in electromagnetism. Witnessing various experiments with Jackson’s electromagnet, Morse developed the concept of a single-wire telegraph. The original Morse telegraph, submitted with his patent application, is part of the collections of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution. In time the Morse code, which he developed, would become the primary language of telegraphy in the world. It is still the standard for rhythmic transmission of data.
Morse received a patent for the telegraph in 1847, at the old Beylerbeyi Palace (the present Beylerbeyi Palace was built in 1861–1865 on the same location) in Istanbul, which was issued by Sultan Abdülmecid, who personally tested the new invention. He was elected an Associate Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1849. The original patent went to the Breese side of the family after the death of Samuel Morse.
Morse lent his support to Cyrus West Field’s ambitious plan to construct the first transoceanic telegraph line. Morse had experimented with underwater telegraph circuits since 1842. He invested $10,000 in Field’s Atlantic Telegraph Company, took a seat on its board of directors, and was appointed honorary “Electrician”. In 1856, Morse traveled to London to help Charles Tilston Bright and Edward Whitehouse test a 2,000-mile-length of spooled cable. After the first two cable-laying attempts failed, Field reorganized the project, removing Morse from direct involvement. Though the cable broke three times during the third attempt, it was successfully repaired, and the first transatlantic telegraph messages were sent in 1858.
In addition to the telegraph, Morse invented a marble-cutting machine that could carve three-dimensional sculptures in marble or stone. He could not patent it, however, because of an existing 1820 Thomas Blanchard design.
Patents to his name:
- US Patent 1,647, Improvement in the mode of communicating information by signals by the application of electro-magnetism, June 20, 1840
- US Patent 1,647 (Reissue #79), Improvement in the mode of communicating information by signals by the application of electro-magnetism, January 15, 1846
- US Patent 3,316, Method of introducing wire into metallic pipes, October 5, 1843
- US Patent 4,453, Improvement in Electro-magnetic telegraphs, April 11, 1846
- US Patent 6,420, Improvement in electric telegraphs, May 1, 1849
Morse code is a method of transmitting text information as a series of on-off tones, lights, or clicks that can be directly understood by a skilled listener or observer without special equipment. The International Morse Code encodes the ISO basic Latin alphabet, some extra Latin letters, the Arabic numerals and a small set of punctuation and procedural signals as standardized sequences of short and long signals called “dots” and “dashes”, or “dits” and “dahs”. Because many non-English natural languages use more than the 26 Roman letters, extensions to the Morse alphabet exist for those languages.