Samuel F.B. Morse:
Communications at the
Speed of Light

By Harold Frost

San Jose Mercury News, 2003, with additional material in 2008 and 2009

A Review of “Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F.B. Morse” by Kenneth Silverman (2003).

Having created an electric telegraph in the 1830s, Samuel F.B. Morse discovered that much of the world had no desire to communicate at the speed of light. Speed of horse was OK. Speed of ship – good. Railroad – excellent. But the idea of sending data over electric wires at an unfathomable rate was greeted with blank stares by key people in the U.S. government and flat-out hostility by some members of the press.

Samuel F.B. Morse

Morse (1791-1872) fought for years to get his telegraph into the marketplace, overcoming lawsuits, delays, and governmental inertia, and learning a cardinal fact of innovation: getting a good idea is one thing, commercializing it is quite another.

Eventually things clicked. Morse made some money and became famous and bemedaled. But even his success was rife with problems. His whole life was troubled, maybe even accursed, although the latter adjective seems a bit strong.

He is prime fodder for a good biographer, and Kenneth Silverman, a noted cultural historian, is up to the task. Silverman’s “The Life and Times of Cotton Mather” (1984) won a Pulitzer Prize; he’s the author of major studies of Edgar Allen Poe and Houdini, and is an authority on the development of the arts in early America. He understands technology and writes engagingly about it, a rare combination in American letters. This book is a readable and important contribution to the history of American technical innovation, and to the study of human creativity.

Samuel Finley Breese Morse, born in Massachusetts in 1791, developed two grand passions in his early years: religion and art.

His soul was filled with the stern predestinarian Calvinism, taught by his father, Pastor Jedediah Morse, positing God’s selection of a certain number of people for salvation (John Calvin [1509-1564] believed the number to be very small). People couldn’t know for sure if they were among the elect, nor could they affect the selection process, but they could endeavor to feel they were among the chosen. As historians R.R. Palmer, Joel Colton, and Lloyd Kramer write, people could capture this useful feeling if they “persisted in a saintly life” through “all trials and temptations.” Calvinism did not foster fatalism or resignation – quite the contrary. It generated unrelenting effort. Calvinists in all countries, write Palmer/Colton/Kramer, were “militant, uncompromising, perfectionist – or Puritan, as they were called first in England and later in America.”

Samuel Morse struggled ceaselessly to feel he was among the select. Meanwhile he battled a poor self-image. Perhaps the two labors were related. Bertrand Russell, years later, went through the same travail: “Like others who had a Puritan education, I had the habit of meditating on my sins, follies, and shortcomings. I seemed to myself – no doubt justly – a miserable specimen.”

Meanwhile Morse pursued his vocational dream of becoming an important artist, specifically a great history painter, rendering epic scenes from the Bible, the Roman Empire, and so on. This discipline thrived in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries as a means of disseminating cultural values, teaching history, and giving visual nourishment. (Among the great history paintings is “The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis” by Rembrandt [1662].)

Like any true artist, Morse was willing to suffer and starve in order to bring something important into the world. He wrote about one of his canvases, “I have become so interested in it that I believe I should risk my life in finishing it.” But his career never took off, a sad state of affairs for a man burning with a need to make up for the sin in his heart. As he entered middle age he regarded himself and his work as forgettable.

Morse’s early years are interesting, but biographer Silverman rattles on too long about them. This reader was more than ready, around page 150, to move from the vagaries of the 19th century art scene to cool new hardware.

In 1832, traveling by ship from France to America, Morse, age 41, first thought of, in his words, “making an electric wire the means of communicating intelligence.” This idea came by way of a conversation with one Charles Jackson, a physician and geologist who knew something about the new science of electricity, which in those years was relatively accessible for a curious amateur. (Morse had learned the basics at Yale.)

Morse sketched out telegraphy ideas, pondered them, sketched some more, and plunged into his life’s work. Here, then, is one of history’s most vivid examples of the power of visual thinking, of getting some preliminary ideas down on paper in the form of drawings, and letting the juices flow. Thomas Edison also made use of this approach to creativity. A good guide to this technique is “Thinking With a Pencil” by Henning Nelms (1957). An inspirational text is “Leonardo’s Notebooks” edited by H. Anna Suh (2005).

He refined his telegraphy system in the 1830s in an arduous labor that included work on what became known as the Morse Code, keeping his day job as professor of painting and sculpture in New York. He unveiled a version of the system in 1838. (He perfected the code in 1844; it uses pulses of electric current to represent the alphabet.)

He knew he’d done something worthy – one of his first telegraphed messages during this experimental period was “Attention, the universe!” (He had a knack for memorable proclamations.) On June 20, 1840, he received U.S. patent No. 1647 for the system. Part One of his quest was complete; now began Part Two, convincing the world that it needed the technology.

A few key people instantly saw the value of what he had created; many did not. After several years of delay that tested every fiber of his Calvinist soul, Morse obtained a bit of investment capital from a skeptical Congress, strung a telegraph line between Washington D.C. and Baltimore, and, on May 24, 1844, transmitted “What hath God wrought,” quoting the Book of Numbers.

Once telegraphy reached the marketplace – once people grasped the implications of what God and Morse had wrought – the invention generated excitement and utopian dreaming. The Philadelphia North American foresaw an improvement in family life: “The absent will scarcely be away.” The Utica Gazette predicted an “immense diminution” in crime because police would become more efficient. The New York Sun believed the new technology would bring harmony to the nations.

The idea of technology-as-savior-of-humanity, not uncommon in Silicon Valley today, has a long provenance. As historian Jill Lepore writes,

Awestruck wonder at machine-driven, millennial progress animated the nineteenth century the way obsession with innovation animates American culture today. It’s what (historian) Perry Miller called the ‘technological sublime.’ In prints and paintings, ‘Progress’ was pictured as a steam-powered locomotive, chugging across the continent, unstoppable.

A few additional examples of the technological sublime, from different periods and settings: Aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont [1873-1932] believed that machines, including planes, had the power to bring peace on earth. The Wright Brothers thought along similar lines. In the 1950s atomic energy was sold as a panacea. In 1971 author Arthur C. Clarke wrote, “I believe that communications satellites can unite mankind.” In the 1990s media theorist Nicholas Negroponte predicted that the Internet would end the pernicious effects of nationalism. Also in the ’90s a group of West Coast ex-hippies did major cheerleading for the embryonic Internet, charting a “utopian blueprint” for cyberspace. In 2008, former Vice President Al Gore said that if the Internet steers clear of government control it will evolve in a way that “re-empowers individuals to play the role that American citizens are supposed to play in reinvigorating our democracy.” In 2009 the “Twitter Revolution” supposedly occured in Moldova, wherein thousands of protesters were organized online to protest publicly against a Communist regime; Malcolm Gladwell makes an interesting case for the possibility that social media may not be the powerful political tool some people hope for.

Samuel Morse felt he was doing God’s work with telegraphy, believing that technology and theology are “two sides of the same thing,” writes Silverman, that the “inspiration and end of his invention was the greater glory of God, and secondly of God’s country.”

Sadly, Morse was prejudiced when it came to the question of which residents of God’s country were truly His children. Convinced that Protestantism was essential to the nation’s liberty, he invested time and money trying to keep Catholics out. He also believed God had relegated black people to slavery. He worked in New York City on behalf of Southern slaveholders, gathering “warmhearted praying conscientious Christians” in a pro-slavery organization called the American Society for Promoting National Unity.

Telegraphy spread rapidly in the middle of the 19th century, but Morse could summon only a modicum of happiness at his success. He suffered business problems for years – money woes, back-stabbing partners, unscrupulous competitors, difficult patent cases, and endless lawyer’s fees. As soon as one problem was solved another appeared. Silverman thoroughly chronicles this bleakness.

In the last months of his life, several people made an organized effort to destroy Morse’s reputation, calling him a fraud who could not have invented the telegraph because he lacked scientific training. These slanders were included in a major book about American industry. Morse died soon thereafter of meningitis, which was exacerbated, said his doctor, by stress. To this day we can read in “The Columbia Encyclopedia” that “Morse’s originality as the inventor of telegraphy has been questioned.” (1993 fifth edition).

Kenneth Silverman offers a verdict on the controversy: “With the help and collaboration of others, a normal situation for inventors, Morse created a telegraph system that against many competitors repeatedly proved itself to be the cheapest, the most rugged, the most reliable, and the simplest to operate. By perseverance that would not be denied he made it a commercial reality – the catalyst, to look ahead, of an entire industry and the beginning of a worldwide network.”