Samuel F.B. Morse


by David F. Coppedge

Though an artist by profession, not primarily a scientist or inventor, Samuel F. B. Morse brought a scientific principle to practical use and changed the world. When the grand idea of instantaneous communication across great distances hit him, Morse caught an obsession that cost him every last penny and earned him scorn and snubbing for twelve years, until at last the country gave him a chance to prove his idea. It’s a great American story of perseverance, of putting science to use to improve the lives of millions.

Morse, a devout Christian, built on the exploratory work of other Christians and creationists, like Davy, Faraday and Henry. In the process, he gave the world the first binary code (Morse Code) and a whole new industry that provided a huge boost to the American economy and thousands of new jobs. This was in addition to his other achievements – major improvements to the new invention of photography, and some of the most famous portrait and landscape paintings in America. Did all this go to his head? When asked to sum up his life’s work, Morse remembered the first message sent across the wires (see below), and said, “It is His work.” Quoting Psalm 115:1, he confessed, “Not unto us, but to Thy name, O Lord, be all the praise.”

Samuel Finley Breese Morse was born in Boston when America was young, in the period when Ben Franklin had recently experimented with the strange phenomenon of electricity. Franklin had proven that lightning was the same as the static electricity familiar to those scuffing their shoes across the carpet. Electricity remained, however, a curiosity with no practical use. His father, Jedediah Morse, had achieved fame as a minister and geographer who also investigated Flood geology (see article by Bill Federer about Jedediah Morse’s fame). Young Samuel Morse was not an exceptional student. When his father saw he had some talent for sketching things, he reluctantly allowed him to pursue a career as an artist. Samuel studied with American masters Gilbert Stuart and Benjamin West.

After a “starving artist” period of time trying to support his new bride Lucretia with his portraiture work, Samuel’s skill garnered fame and aroused the notice of the political elite in Washington. He was selected to paint the portrait of Lafayette. While in Washington, meeting the rich and famous, he was unaware that his wife had taken sick and died! It had taken weeks for the mail to arrive with heartbreaking news. Regretting he had not even had time to say good-bye, Morse was reminded also of how many soldiers had died in the War of 1812 after peace had been declared, because news traveled so slowly.

Morse had seen demonstrations of electricity during his college years and his travels, but no one had yet put it to a practical use. It was on board the Sully on a return voyage from France that he overheard a conversation about electricity and magnetism. A passenger was describing how Benjamin Franklin had passed an electric current through miles of wire, and noticed an instantaneous spark at the other end. Thus began the spark of an idea that would lead Morse through incredible trials, long hours of work, and near starvation, trying to bring a great idea to reality.

Morse, 1857

Until the telegraph, communication over long distances was slow and tedious. The French had perfected a system of semaphores on mountaintops to send messages from peak to peak, but it only worked on clear days. The proverbial Indians had their smoke signals. Everyone else used feet and vocal cords. Morse’s spark of an idea would bring the world the first instantaneous communication across the country and across the ocean, day or night, regardless of the weather  — but first he would have to sell his idea.

Samuel suspended his art work and poured himself into his new project. Early on he succeeded in making a working prototype. In his endeavors, he was helped by the most famous American scientist of his day, Joseph Henry (also a devout Christian and creationist). To his dismay, Morse found few investors interested in the idea. He spent all his money trying to garner support; years went by with hopes followed by disappointments: some dismissing the idea as foolish, some promising support but not delivering, few paying him serious attention. One day, when he had raised enough support to attempt a public display across New York harbor, a passing ship cut the telegraph line and made Morse the laughingstock of the day. Morse spent years experiencing the three stages of reaction to a new invention: (1) It’s crazy; (2) It’s a good idea, but it will never work; (3) I thought of it first.

Two years later Morse was in Washington with thirty-seven cents left to his name, waiting into the night for a Senate vote on whether or not to fund a test of the telegraph. His proposal was low on the agenda after 143 other bills, the Senators were eager to adjourn for the season, and support did not look good. Preparing himself for disappointment, he prayed and committed the work to the Lord, then slept. At breakfast the following morning, he was approached by Annie G. Ellsworth, daughter of the Commissioner of Patents, with the exciting news that the Senate passed his proposal just before midnight without debate, and it was already signed by President Harrison! This meant a test between Washington and Baltimore would be funded by the U.S. Government. Re-invigorated by the news, Morse immediately set to work.

The good news, however, was beset by more troubles: the underground cables shorted out and melted the insulation, wasting the first seven miles of work and thousands of dollars – over half the funding. By now Europeans were testing telegraph designs of their own; it was a race against time. With the advice of Ezra Cornell and Joseph Henry, Morse agreed on a new design destined to change the American landscape forever; overhead cables, strung between glass insulators on tall poles. The work resumed in earnest. By May 24, 1844, the line was completed and ready for its historic test. Morse gave Annie Ellsworth the choice of the first message to be sent over the lines. She chose a phrase from Numbers 23:23, “What hath God wrought.”  Morse was pleased. It would be sent with the world’s first binary code, invented by Morse years earlier, a concept that would someday lead to ASCII and other binary codes that power the Information Age of the 21st century. (Interestingly, after the binary system of the telegraph was overtaken by the analog telephone, our modern computerized world has returned to binary digital representation so completely that analog messages may soon be a thing of the past. Programs like Skype that transmit digitized voice over the Internet are already common, allowing us to make phone calls through our computers.)

Morse tapped out the message from the Supreme Court building in Washington: • – –   ••••   •–   –     ••••   •–   –   ••••     – –•   – – –   –••     •– –   • ••   – – –   ••–   – –•   ••••   – and waited anxiously. Within seconds, Alfred Vail, 41 miles away in Baltimore, who had not been told the contents of the message, received it and echoed it back. It typed out in dots and dashes on a strip of paper before the hushed onlookers. Morse translated the code, and read it aloud. The crowd erupted with an ovation of congratulations, as the excitement of possibilities this invention would bring dawned like the light of a new day. After twelve years of hardship, Morse’s hare-brained idea was finally vindicated. A new chapter in history began overnight. Within two years, telegraph lines stretched to Maine and Milwaukee. Soon they would overtake the Pony Express to the west coast. Within decades, Lord Kelvin (another of the world’s greatest creation scientists), would lay the first successful telegraph cable across the Atlantic. No more would travelers have to wait weeks for word of a dying relative, or soldiers hear too late of declarations of peace. Instantaneous communication across continents was now a reality.

Samuel F. B. Morse, 1791 - 1872

Samuel F. B. Morse, by J. Beverly Greene (special commission for this article)

(Note: The message was sent in the original “American” Morse Code, which was modified into the later “International” Morse Code. IMC is identical to AMC in the message “What God hath wrought” except for the letter R, which is • – • in IMC . Samuel Morse originally planned to represent whole words as codes, but Vail helped Morse decide to use the dots and dashes for individual letters instead.)

Plaque on the old Post Office, Wash DC

The telegraph is considered one of the ten greatest inventions in history. Morse became one of the most famous men in America, and the world. In his old age, thousands of telegraph operators came to thank him for creating a whole new industry and giving them well paying, satisfying jobs. Morse gave all the credit to God, claiming the message Annie had chosen, What hath God wrought, seemed divinely inspired. “It is His work,” he reminded them; “and He alone carried me thus far through all my trials and enabled me to triumph over the obstacles, physical and moral, which opposed me. ‘Not unto us, not unto us, by to Thy name, O Lord, be all the praise.’”

Niagara Falls from Table Rock (Morse, 1835)

Many who learned in school to equate Morse with the telegraph are surprised to hear that he also was one of the greatest American painters. He painted three hundred major canvasses, portraits and landscapes, which hang in galleries across America and Europe. One of his paintings sold recently for three million dollars, the highest paid to that date for an American painting. Morse was also the father of photography in America. He had seen Daguerre’s studio in France before it burned to the ground, and brought the technology to the United States, where he improved it greatly. His improvements allowed people to sit for seconds instead of minutes under a hot lamp for their portrait.

Morse supported education and Sunday School, making the prophetic comment, “Education without religion is in danger of substituting wild theories for the simple commonsense rules of Christianity.” He saw a perfect harmony between the Word of God, the beauty of the landscapes he painted, and the scientific endeavors he undertook. After a long and successful career, Morse said, “The nearer I approach the end of my pilgrimage, the clearer is the evidence of the divine origin of the Bible, the grandeur and sublimity of God’s remedy for fallen man are more appreciated, and the future is illumined with hope and joy.”

— written by David F. Coppedge