Samuel Morse—the artist who invented the Morse code
Samuel Finley Breese Morse was bom in Charlestown, Massachusetts, on Wednesday April 27, 1791. This was some 70 years before Darwin’s theory of evolution did any damage to general acceptance of creation.
Samuel was the eldest of three sons born to Dr. Jedediah Morse, a well-known clergyman and author of geography books. The well-to-do family had high expectations of their sons. The boys were educated at a Christian boarding school, and then at Yale College.
As part of his studies at Yale, Samuel saw demonstrations of electricity, which at that stage had not been put to any useful purpose. He also experimented with a camera obscura—a primitive forerunner of the photographic camera. However, the image made by the camera obscura was only temporary. Samuel’s real interest though was in drawing, and he began to develop his talents in his spare time. Unfortunately, Samuel’s father believed that being an artist was not a suitable occupation for a gentleman.
Art talent blossoms
Samuel began working for a printer and bookseller, but disliked that job. He spent his spare time painting. When his talent began to be recognized, his father finally agreed to send him to England to study art. There, Samuel’s talents blossomed and he began to gain public recognition. His successes included a statue called ‘The Dying Hercules’, which won a prestigious sculpturing competition, a painting also of ‘The Dying Hercules’, and a painting called ‘The Judgement of Jupiter’.
When he returned to the United States, Samuel Morse travelled to various towns earning a living by painting portraits. His subjects included fifth US President James Monroe, and the famous French General Lafayette. He also painted scenes portraying democracy in practice. One large painting called ‘Representative Hall’, which showed the United States House of Representatives in session, gained widespread acclaim.
In spite of the recognition his work was gaining, Morse’s income was very irregular. However, he always made generous donations to God’s work; He supported missionaries and gave to institutions which trained clergymen. Morse gave his time to God as well. In his home church, he established one of the first Sunday Schools in the United States. Although his work took him away from his wife and children much of the time, he used these times away to encourage fellow Christians and promote the idea of Sunday Schools.
It was during these struggling but happy years that Samuel Morse first became involved with scientific inventions. He and his brother Sidney invented an improved version of the water pump and also invented a marble-cutting machine.
Morse later combined his artistic and scientific talents.
He had seen the new process of photography while in France and became one of the first to take photographs in the United States. However, at that time the subject had to remain still for 10 minutes. This was unsuitable for taking portraits so Morse worked with a science professor, John Draper, to improve the chemical processes involved until only one minute was required for exposure. Also, he taught many others the art and science of photography.
But why did Morse suspend his now successful artistic career to focus on developing the telegraph? In Morse’s day, communication was slow. Morse experienced first hand the problems that slow communication could cause. In 1811, when he arrived in London as an art student, tensions were high between England and the United States. English ships were attacking American ships believed to be carrying goods to England’s enemy France. Eventually England sought reconciliation but, tragically, while that message was on its month-long journey over the Atlantic Ocean, the United States declared war in 1812. This war ended two years later amid similar confusion. After the peace treaty had been signed, American and English forces engaged in another major battle, not knowing that the war was over.
Slow communication also affected Morse in a more personal way. In 1825, Morse was 500 kilometres away in Washington D.C. when his young wife died suddenly in New Haven, Connecticut. He could not even attend her funeral because it took a week for the news to reach him by mail. However, an electrical impulse travels in an instant. Morse realized that the international and personal problems he had experienced could be eliminated if electricity could be put to use in communication.
Inventing the telegraph and Morse code
Morse conceived of the idea of the single-circuit, electro-magnetic telegraph while on a ship travelling back to the United States from Europe in 1832. With some assistance from Leonard Gale, a university science professor, Morse spent the next five years developing his ideas into a working model. This included the use of a code of dots and dashes for the letters of the alphabet, which became known as the Morse Code. The dots and dashes were transmitted as short and long electrical impulses with gaps in between.
He began demonstrating the telegraph to businessmen, hoping that private investors would finance construction of a telegraph line. When no private investments came, he spent a year constructing a better model and then demonstrated this to the American government. Again no financial support. Morse spent a year in England and Europe trying to gain financial support, but still he failed.
On returning to the United States, he tried to gain the interest of the public. He laid an insulated wire across New York harbour and announced in the newspapers that he would give a public demonstration. Unfortunately, when a ship’s anchor caught his wire and it was cut, Morse received ridicule instead of support. During these 11 years of frustration, Morse was penniless and frequently hungry, but he never took his eyes off God. During this time, Morse wrote, ‘I am perfectly satisfied that, mysterious as it may seem to me, it has all been ordered in view of my Heavenly Father’s guiding hand’.1
In 1843, Morse made another attempt to interest the American government in financing the telegraph. This time he succeeded. Despite a number of technical difficulties, he successfully built the first telegraph line from Washington to Baltimore within the allotted budget and within the specified time. On Friday May 24, 1844, all was in readiness. The words of the first official message were chosen by a young Christian lady, the daughter of a lifelong friend of Samuel Morse. She chose the words ‘What hath God wrought’ from the Bible (Numbers 23:23) because she recognized that it was God who had inspired and sustained Morse throughout.
Morse goes to court
The success of the telegraph ensured even more fame for Morse, and finally financial reward as well. However, this attracted many unscrupulous people who claimed credit for the invention of the telegraph. Others simply wanted to build telegraphs without having to pay Morse for the right to do so. Eventually these legal claims reached the US Supreme Court. The court decided that ‘Morse alone, in 1837, seems to have reached the most perfect result desirable for public and practical use. The telegraph never was invented, perfected, or put into practical use, until it was done by Morse.’2
Concerning the help that Morse had received from others, the justices said, ‘The fact that Morse sought and obtained the necessary information from the best sources, and acted upon it, neither impairs his rights as an inventor, nor detracts from his merits.’3
Morse remained a humble Christian to the end of his days, describing his life’s work by saying that ‘it is His work. “Not unto us, but to Thy Name, O Lord, be all the praise”.’4
Samuel Morse revolutionized communication by putting scientific knowledge to work. He did not see any conflict between his scientific knowledge and Christianity—in fact, quite the reverse. He believed that ’education without religion is in danger of substituting wild theories for the simple commonsense rules of Christianity.’ 5