Morse, Samuel Finley Breese

Morse, Samuel Finley Breese, 1791–1872, American inventor and artist, b. Charlestown, Mass., grad. Yale, 1810. He studied painting in England under Washington Allston and achieved some success. He returned to the United States in 1815, took up portrait painting, and gained a considerable reputation in this field. Associated with the Hudson River school, he also executed a number of landscapes and, less successfully, various historical works. A founder (1825) of the National Academy of Design, he spent the years from 1829 to 1832 in further European study and upon his return became a professor of fine arts at New York Univ. An outspoken opponent of Catholic immigration to the United States, he was an unsuccessful Nativist candidate for mayor of New York City in 1836.

Morse's interest in electricity, aroused in his college days, was further stimulated by the lectures of James F. Dana in 1827 and later by contacts with university faculty. Learning in 1832 of Ampère's idea for the electric telegraph, Morse worked for the next 12 years, with the aid of the chemist Leonard Gale, physicist Joseph Henry, and machinist Alfred Vail to perfect his own version of the instrument. So many phases of the telegraph, however, had already been anticipated by other inventors, especially in Great Britain, Germany, and France, that Morse's originality as the inventor of telegraphy has been questioned; even the Morse code did not differ greatly from earlier codes, including the semaphore. In any case, in 1844 Morse demonstrated to Congress the practicability of his instrument by transmitting the famous message “What hath God wrought” over a wire from Washington to Baltimore. Morse subsequently was compelled to defend his invention in court, although by then he commanded the acclaim of the world. He later experimented with submarine cable telegraphy. Both Morse and John Draper were instrumental in introducing the daguerreotype in the United States.

See his letters and journals, ed. by E. L. Morse (1914, repr. 1973); biographies by C. Mabee (1943, repr. 1969), P. Staiti (1989), and K. Silverman (2003).

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