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Samuel Morse Was a Painter, So How Did He Come to Invent Morse Code?
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The technology we have access to today is simple and intuitive to use. It wasn’t always this way and at times, people literally suffered from it. Samuel Finley Breese Morse, the inventor of the telegraph was one of those people. Morse’s invention was sparked by a personal tragedy, that took his life and legacy down a completely different path than what he had planned, envisioned, or was working towards.

Who is Samuel Morse?

Samuel Morse Code Invention
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Samuel F. B. Morse was the son of Calvinist preacher Jedidiah Morse and Elizabeth Ann Finley Breese. Being raised in the Puritan faith influenced his decision to study religious philosophy along with mathematics and horse science at Yale University. He attended a few lectures on electricity during his undergraduate studies. To support himself throughout school, he worked as a portrait painter. He continued to paint, incorporating religious and political elements into his artwork, even after school.

What is Samuel Morse known for?

Samuel Morse, Dying Hercules
Dying Hercules, Morse , Public Domain

In fact, if you query Morse on the internet, his first accolade is ‘American Painter’ and ‘American Artist’. He was known as an artist prior to becoming an inventor.  Dying Hercules, Judgment of Jupiter, as well as many elite portraits including James Monroe and Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette are some of his most acclaimed pieces.

In 1825, Samuel F.B. Morse was commissioned by New York City to paint a portrait of his friend Marquis de Lafayette. Although Marquis de Lafayette was from France, he was an outspoken supporter of the American Revolution. Morse planned an elaborate mural that would also incorporate key American figures.

The mural consisted of Lafayette against a sunset. Standing next to pedestals with busts of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin framing an empty one. The implication being that it was for Lafayette himself.

While working on the commissioned painting, Samuel Morse received a letter from his father via horse carrier. It read: “Your dear wife is convalescent”. The day following he received another letter from his father. This one stated that his wife, Sarah Elizabeth Griswold, had suddenly passed away. He left immediately for his home in New Haven for the burial. However, with communication having to travel such long distances, Samuel Morse arrived home too late to bury his wife.

Why did Samuel Morse invent the telegraph?

Samuel Morse
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Upon this happening, Morse put aside painting. He decided to take his pain and put it to use, to find a quicker means of communication so others wouldn’t have to suffer loss the way he did. His wife’s passing was the catalyst for some of the technology we have today, and Morse’s greatest mark on history was, essentially, a labor of love.

Pulling from his knowledge of electricity from his lectures at Yale College, and the experiments he leaned from Charles Thomas Jackson, a man well versed in electromagnetism whom he encountered traveling through Boston, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., he produced the prototype of the first telegraph: the single-wire telegraph line. The original patent still lives in the Smithsonian Institution to this day. Shortly after Morse’s telegraph was invented in the United States, he created a rhythmic telegraphy communication method named aptly, Morse code. The road to perfecting Morse’s telegraph did not stop there. Nor was it easy.

Morse Telegraph
Original Morse Telegraph

Around the same time across the Atlantic, two Englishmen, Professor Charles Wheatstone and William Cooke were working on the same form of correspondence. With more resources, the Europeans were able to create the electric telegraph. This caused Morse much distress and disappointment. He wanted to be the sole inventor of the telegraph. So he worked harder than his competitors in London. He began working with Alfred Vail and shortly after, they were the fist to demonstrate the electric telegraph in January 1838. The first telegraph message that Morse sent read, “A patient waiter is no loser“, a phrase that speaks to Morse’s character and diligence. Talk about a first message.

His battle with patenting, being named sole inventor and attaining funding did not end there. Morse spent much of his lifetime, trying to perfect the electromagnetic telegraph system and even involved the Supreme Court at the capitol in regards to his rights. Without Samuel Morse’s original loss and dedication to exploring the options for types of communication, our world and means of communication might look very different.

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