The Tragic Story Behind the Morse Code
How death led to the world's first super communications highway
In February 1825, Samuel Morse, the inventor of the Morse Code, was painting in New York city blissfully unaware of the tragic news that was about to befall him.
At the age of 34, he was carrying out a $1000 commission to paint the Marquis de Lafayette, a returning American Revolutionary War hero, and things were going well.
Little did he know, however, that his wife, Lucretia, had suffered a fatal heart attack in their New Haven home just days after giving birth to their third child, James. What should have been a time of joy was one of sorrow.
A letter was quickly despatched by his father, Jedidiah, informing him of the sad news and Samuel rushed home, but he was too late. Lucretia’s funeral had already taken place by the time he arrived and he was never to see his beloved wife again.
It was this incident that is believed to have sparked Morse’s desire to create a better and faster way of communicating across America and the globe…resulting in a more efficient telegraph system and the Morse Code.
So, how did this young man go on to invent what is the most famous code in the world?
Samuel was born on April 27, 1791 the first child of Calvinist preacher and geographer, Jedidiah Morse and his wife Elizabeth. A studious child, he attended Phillips Academy in Andover before going to Yale College for religious studies, philosophy, mathematics and the science of horses.
It was while studying there, he attended lectures on the science of electricity by early American chemist and science educator, Benjamin Silliman, and Jeremiah Day, an American academic, minister and President of Yale College.
Those lectures sparked something in the young Samuel that led him to later invent the single wire telegraph and subsequently the Morse code.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s return to student Samuel back at Yale. He was a talented artist and supported himself through college through painting commissions. He graduated with Phi Beta Kappa honours in 1810 and started a career as a painter and sculptor shortly after.
His artistic talents attracted the attention of renowned artist Washington Allston who asked Morse to accompany him to England in 1811 to meet famous American artist, Benjamin West. The two left set sail on board the Libya on July 15.
While in London, Morse perfected his painting techniques and gained entry to the Royal Academy of Arts at the end of that year. One of his most well-known artworks from this time was Dying Hercules, which today can be viewed at Yale University.
During his time in Britain, the 1812 War between the US and Britain broke out. Morse was a committed anti-federalist who was opposed to the creation of a stronger US federal government. A view also held by his father.
Morse left England in August 1815 to return home to work as a professional painter. He had a successful career. He painted former president John Adams as well as Francis Brown, President of Dartmouth College, and Judge Woodward. Further commissions including painting President James Monroe in 1820.
He also married. On September 29, 1818, he wed Lucretia Walker in Concord, New Hampshire and the couple went on to have three children: Susan, Charles and James. The family moved to New Haven where he accepted a commission to paint The House of Representatives in 1821.
Following Lucretia’s death in 1825, Morse threw himself into work and in 1826 he helped found the National Academy of Design in New York City, serving as the Academy’s President from 1826 to 1845 and 1861 to 1862.
Between 1830 and 1832, Morse returned to Europe to study and improve upon his painting. He went to Italy, Switzerland and France, where in Paris he met and befriended writer James Fennimore Cooper and met Louis Daguerre, inventor of the Daguerreotype, a type of early photography.
However, his early fascination with electricity and electromagnetism never left him. On returning to the US in 1832, Morse met scientist Charles Thomas Jackson of Boston who also knew about electromagnetism. Fascinated by the new science, he witnessed various experiments carried out by his friend which led Morse to develop the concept of a single-wire telegraph.
The following year, inventors Wilhelm Weber and Carl Gauss launched one of the earliest electromagnetic telegraph systems in Germany. Four years later, Englishmen William Cooke and Professor Charles Wheatstone formed a partnership and patented their own electrical telegraph system.
Little did they know however, that within a few years, their multiple-wire signalling method would by overtaken by Morse’s cheaper method.
So how did Morse go from witnessing Charles Jackson’s experiments to producing a working telegraph system?
“Painting has been a smiling mistress to many, but she has been a cruel jilt to me; I did not abandon her, she abandoned me.”
Well, he set aside his painting and concentrated on his invention. With input from Professor Leonard Gale, Morse modified his invention to enable messages to travel further. With Gale and inventor Alfred Vail, he produced a telegraph machine and they first publicly demonstrated it to great acclaim in 1838.
That same year, Morse went to Washington DC to ask for Federal funding, but was unsuccessful. Returning home emptied-handed, he worked hard to demonstrate the great potential of his invention and eventually gained financial backing from Maine congressman Francis Smith.
So, what about the Morse Code? In order to use the new telegraph system, the operator had to know the special code invented by Morse. Using only numerals, it could be decoded only by using a special code book. The Morse Code was later further developed by Vail to include letters and special characters.
“If the presence of electricity can be made visible in any part of the circuit, I see no reason why intelligence may not be transmitted instantaneously by electricity.”
In December 1842, Morse returned to Washington DC to demonstrate his telegraph machine. He strung wires between two committee rooms in the Capitol and sent messages back and forth. Impressed, Congress gave him $30,000 for construction of an experimental 38-mile telegraph line between Washington DC and Baltimore.
The first demonstration of this new line occured on May 1, 1844 and it was officially opened in May 24 that same year where Morse sent the now-famous words: “What hath God wrought.”
In May 1845, Morse established the Magnetic Telegraph Company to build telegraph lines from New York City to Philadelphia, Boston, Buffalo, New York and the Mississippi. By 1850, 12,000 miles of telegraph wire had been laid.
And that wasn’t the only happy occasion in his life at that time, for Morse met Sarah Griswold and the couple married on August 10, 1848 in Utica, New York. The happy couple went on to have four children: Samuel, Cornelia, William and Edward.
Well respected for his work in telegraphy, Morse received many accolades and was elected as an Associate Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1849. His telegraphic apparatus was officially adopted as the standard for European telegraphy in 1851 (except the UK) and in 1858, he introduced the telegraph to Puerto Rico.
But his life wasn’t always so filled with good news. He spent many years protecting his patent for the telegraph, but it was either ignored or contested which led him to court.
In 1853, The Telegraph Patent case – O'Reilly v. Morse came before the US Supreme Court where Morse claimed to have invented the telegraph. Chief Justice Roger B Taney ruled that Morse had indeed been the first to combine electromagnetism with a battery and electromagnet, and he could claim a patent for his own system of transmitting signals. However, he added, the inventor could not claim a monopoly over any uses of electromagnetism in relation to transmitting signals.
This case was so important that it set a legal precedent in patent law as it became the foundation of the laws around which computer programme inventions could be granted patents in the USA.
Morse’s final years were filled with his support of Cyrus West Field’s plan to construct the first trans-Atlantic telegraph line. He also invented a marble cutting machine that could carve 3D sculptures in marble or stone and donated large sums to good causes.
Despite his good works in bringing telegraphy to the world, we cannot talk about Samuel Morse without also including the less savoury side of his character. He was pro-slavery and anti-Catholic. He considered slavery as something that was sanctioned by God and he wrote a treaty entitled ‘An Argument on the Ethical Position of Slavery’. He was equally vociferous about his anti-Catholic stance, wanting to forbid Catholics from holding public office and changing immigration laws to stop immigrants coming into the United States from Catholic countries. He wrote numerous letters to the New York Observer claiming that there was a foreign Catholic conspiracy against the United States, even going as so far as to write an 1835 book, Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States, about it.
Samuel Morse died in New York City on April 2, 1872 and is interred at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. By the time of his death, his estate is estimated to have been worth $10.7 million in today’s money.