Samuel Morse: Biography, Facts & Inventions

Instructor: Matthew Hill
Samuel Morse struggled in selling fine art, but his invention of the first commercially successful telegraph created a trans-Atlantic revolution in long-range communications. In this lesson, read about the life of Samuel Morse and learn about his inventions.

Samuel Morse as Artist

Samuel F. B. Morse was born in 1791 in Charlestown, Massachusetts. His father was Jedidiah Morse, a clergyman and author of several geography texts, which earned him the title, 'Father of American Geography.' Morse graduated from Yale in 1810 and moved to Boston to study art under the Romantic painter Washington Allston. He then went to England in 1811 where he studied under the celebrated American artist Benjamin West at the Royal Academy of Arts. He returned in 1815 to start an art gallery in Boston. Morse preferred large canvass paintings in the grand style, but the general public favored portraits and miniatures. He had several prominent clients, and in 1822, he proudly finished his now famous painting of the House of Representatives, but it sold for little money.

Frustrated by the perceived lack of art appreciation in America, he co-founded the National Academy of Design in New York in 1826 and served as its first president. He returned to Europe from 1829-1832 for further study and inspiration and befriended the American writer James Fennimore Cooper, who was also studying there. While in Paris, he produced his most famous painting, the Gallery of the Louvre, which depicted 38 smaller paintings onto a single canvass. Though proud of this achievement, when he returned to New York, it only sold for a mere $1,300. In need of steady finances, he took a job as professor at New York University. Ironically, this proved a strategic move, as his frustration in the art world translated into commercial success in inventions.

Gallery of the Louvre
Gallery of the Louvre

Samuel Morse as Inventor

On his return voyage from Europe, he met inventor Charles Thompson Jackson, with whom he discussed electromagnetism and its application for a telegraph. Morse had already shown talent in mechanical inventions. He invented a hand-powered water pump for fire engines that was workable, but failed to attract investors. He also designed a marble and stone cutting machine that cut three-dimensional sculptures, but it was already patented by Thomas Blanchard.

After the death of his wife, the telegraph became his passion. Several crude versions of the telegraph already existed, but none were practical. In 1837, Morse turned his full-time attention away from art to inventing. Morse built on the growing field of electromagnetic theory in the work of Hans Christian Oersted, William Sturgeon, and Joseph Henry, the latter whom worked directly with Morse. The basic principle was that an electric current ran along wires that in turn manipulated an electromagnet. However, though the science was largely understood, its application was not.

Morse was not without his rivals. British physicists William Cooke and William Wheatstone had already created a multi-wire telegraph system, but it proved too complex and expensive. Morse simplified the Cooke and Wheatstone design and created a single-wire system. His chief problem was that the electrical signal grew weaker the father it went and had limited range. His break came when his colleague, Leonard Gale, suggested the use of a relay at successive intervals to open and close circuits to push the current along. The relay became the missing link that made long-distance transmissions possible.

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