CHAPTER XX. SAMUEL F.B. MORSE.
SAMUEL FINLEY BREESE MORSE is the eldest son of the late Jedediah Morse, one of the most distinguished Presbyterian clergymen of New England. He was born at Charlestown, Massachusetts, on the 27th of April, 1791, was carefully educated in the common schools of his native town, and at an early age entered Yale College, where he graduated in 1810. He exhibited an early fondness for art as well as studies of a scientific character, and while a student at Yale displayed an especial aptness for chemistry and natural philosophy. Upon leaving college he decided to adopt the profession of an artist, and was sent abroad to study under the tuition of West and Copley and Allston.
"When Allston was painting his 'Dead Man Restored to Life,' in London," says Mr. Tuckerman, in his Book of the Artists, "he first modeled his figure in clay, and explained to Morse, who was then his pupil, the advantages resulting from a plan so frequently adopted by the old masters. His young countryman was at this time meditating his first composition—a dying Hercules—and proceeded at once to act upon this suggestion. Having prepared a model that exhibited the upper part of the body—which alone would be visible in the picture—he submitted it to Allston, who recognized so much truth in the anatomy and expression that he urgently advised its completion. After six weeks of careful labor, the statue was finished and sent to West for inspection. That venerable artist, upon entering the room, put on his spectacles, and as he walked around the model, carefully examining its details and general effect, a look of genuine satisfaction beamed from his face. He rang for an attendant and bade him call his son. 'Look here, Raphael,' he exclaimed, as the latter appeared; 'did I not always tell you that every painter could be a sculptor?' We may imagine the delight of the student at such commendation. The same day one of his fellow pupils called his attention to a notice issued by the Adelphi Society of Arts, offering a prize for the best single figure, to be modeled and sent to the rooms of the association within a certain period. The time fixed would expire in three days. Morse profited by the occasion, and placed his 'Dying Hercules' with the thirteen other specimens already entered. He was consequently invited to the meeting of the society on the evening when the decision was to be announced, and received from the hands of the Duke of Norfolk, the presiding officer, and in the presence of the foreign ambassadors, the gold medal. Perhaps no American ever started in the career of an artist under more flattering auspices; and we can not wonder that a beginning so successful encouraged the young painter to devote himself assiduously to study, with a view of returning to his own country fully prepared to illustrate the historical department of the art."
Morse spent four years in Europe in close study, and was then obliged to return to America by lack of means to carry on his education in the Old World. He had not indeed reached the high degree of proficiency which he had hoped to obtain before returning home, but he was possessed of natural talents and acquired skill, which fairly entitled him to recognition as one of our leading artists. This recognition never came to him, however, and his artist life in this country was a series of sorrowful disappointments. He found no opportunity of devoting himself to the higher branches of his art, and was obliged to confine himself entirely to portrait painting as a means of livelihood. His artist career is thus referred to by Mr. Tuckerman:
"Morse went abroad under the care of Allston, and was the pupil of West and Copley. Hence he is naturally regarded by a later generation as the connecting bond that unites the present and the past in the brief annals of our artist history. But his claim to such recognition does not lie altogether in the fact that he was a pioneer; it has been worthily evidenced by his constant devotion to the great cause itself. Younger artists speak of him with affection and respect, because he has ever been zealous in the promotion of a taste for, and a study of, the fine arts. Having entered the field at too early a period to realize the promise of his youth, and driven by circumstances from the high aims he cherished, misanthropy was never suffered to grow out of personal disappointment. He gazed reverently upon the goal it was not permitted him to reach, and ardently encouraged the spirit which he felt was only to be developed when wealth and leisure had given his countrymen opportunities to cultivate those tastes upon the prevalence of which the advancement of his favorite pursuit depends. When, after the failure of one of his elaborate projects, he resolved to establish himself in New York, he was grieved to find that many petty dissensions kept the artists from each other. He made it his business to heal these wounds and reconcile the animosities that thus retarded the progress of their common object. He sought out and won the confidence of his isolated brothers, and one evening invited them all to his room ostensibly to eat strawberries and cream, but really to beguile them into something like agreeable intercourse. He had experienced the good effect of a drawing club at Charleston, where many of the members were amateurs; and on the occasion referred to covered his table with prints, and scattered inviting casts around the apartment. A very pleasant evening was the result, a mutual understanding was established, and weekly meetings unanimously agreed upon. This auspicious gathering was the germ of the National Academy of Design, of which Morse became the first president, and before which he delivered the first course of lectures on the fine arts ever given in this country."
In 1829 Mr. Morse went abroad for the purpose of completing his art studies. He remained in Europe for more than three years, residing in the principal cities of the Continent. During his absence he was elected "Professor of the Literature of the Fine" in the University of the City of New York. He set out on his return home to accept this professorship in the autumn of 1832, sailing from Havre on board the packet-ship "Sully."
As has been stated, he had manifested a decided fondness for Chemistry and Natural Philosophy while at Yale College, where he was a pupil of Professor Silliman in the former science, and of Professor Day in the latter, and after his departure from college he had devoted all his leisure time to the pursuit of these studies. So great was his fondness for them that some of his friends declared their belief that he ought to abandon art and devote himself to science. In 1826-27 he had delivered, at the Athenæum in New York, the course of fine-art lectures to which reference has been made, and on alternate nights of the same season Professor J. Freeman Dana had lectured upon electro-magnetism, illustrating his remarks with the first electro-magnet (on Sturgeon's principle) ever seen in this country. Morse and Dana had been intimate friends, and had often held long conversations upon the subject of magnetism, and the magnet referred to had at length been given to the former by Professor Torrey. The interest which he had thus conceived in this instrument had never diminished, and his investigations and studies had never ceased, so that at the time of his departure from France in the "Sully," in 1832, he was one of the best informed men upon the subject to be found in any country.
Among his fellow-passengers were a number of persons of intelligence and cultivation, one of whom had but recently witnessed in Paris some highly interesting experiments with the electro-magnet, the object of which was to prove how readily the electric spark could be obtained from the magnet, and the rapidity with which it could be disseminated. To most of the passengers this relation was deeply interesting, but to all save one it was merely the recital of a curious experiment. That one exception was Mr. Morse. To him the development of this newly-discovered property of electricity was more than interesting. It showed him his true mission in life, the way to his true destiny. Art was not his proper field now, for however great his abilities as an artist, he was possessed of genius of a higher, more useful type, and it was henceforth his duty to employ it. He thought long and earnestly upon the subject which the words of his fellow-passenger had so freshly called up, pacing the deck under the silent stars, and rocked in his wakeful berth by the ocean whose terrors his genius was to tame, and whose vast depths his great invention was to set at naught. He had long been convinced that electricity was to furnish the means of rapid communication between distant points, of which the world was so much in need; and the experiments which his new acquaintance had witnessed in Paris removed from his mind the last doubt of the feasibility of the scheme. Being of an eminently practical character, he at once set to work to discover how this could be done, and succeeded so well that before the "Sully" reached New York he had conceived "not merely the idea of an electric telegraph, but of an electro-magnetic and chemical recording telegraph, substantially and essentially as it now exists," and had invented an alphabet of signs, the same in all important respects as that now in use. "The testimony to the paternity of the idea in Morse's mind, and to his acts and drawings on board the ship, is ample. His own testimony is corroborated by all the passengers (with a single exception), who testified with him before the courts, and was considered conclusive by the judges; and the date of 1832 is therefore fixed by this evidence as the date of Morse's conception, and realization also—so far as the drawings could embody the conception—of the telegraph system which now bears his name."
But though invented in 1832, it was not until 1835 (during which time he was engaged in the discharge of the duties of his professorship in the University of the City of New York) that he was enabled to complete his first recording instrument. This was but a poor, rude instrument, at the best, and was very far from being equal to his perfected invention. It embodied his idea, however, and was a good basis for subsequent improvements. By its aid he was able to send signals from a given point to the end of a wire half a mile in length, but as yet there was no means of receiving them back again from the other extremity. He continued to experiment on his invention, and made several improvements in it. It was plain from the first that he needed a duplicate of his instrument at the other end of his wire, but he was unable for a long time to have one made. At length he acquired the necessary funds, and in July, 1837, had a duplicate instrument constructed, and thus perfected his plan. His telegraph now worked to his entire satisfaction, and he could easily send his signals to the remote end of his line and receive replies in return, and answer signals sent from that terminus. Having brought it to a successful completion, he exhibited it to large audiences at the University of New York, in September, 1837. In October, 1837, Professor Morse filed a caveat to secure his invention, but his patent was not obtained until 1840.
He now entered upon that period of the inventor's life which has proved so disastrous to many, and so wearying and disheartening to all—the effort to bring his invention into general use. It was commonly believed that, although the invention was successful when used for such short distances as had been tried in the City of New York, it would fail when tested by longer lines. Morse was confident, however, that this was not the case, and in December, 1837, he went to Washington to solicit from the Government an appropriation for the construction of an experimental line from Washington City to Baltimore—a distance of forty miles. This line he declared would thoroughly test the practicability and utility of the telegraph. His petition was laid before Congress, and a committee appointed to consider it. He stated his plan to this body, and proved its practicability by actual experiments with his instruments. Considerable interest in the subject was thus aroused in Congress and throughout the country, but he derived no benefit from it. If men spoke of his telegraph, it was only to ridicule it, or to express their doubts of its success. This was especially the case in Congress, and it was very uncertain whether that body would sustain the report from the committee in favor of the invention. The session wore away in this manner, and at length ended without any action being taken in the matter.
Having failed to secure the assistance of Congress, Professor Morse went to Europe in the spring of 1838, for the purpose of enlisting the aid of the governments there in bringing his invention into use. He was unsuccessful. In England a patent was refused him, and in France he merely obtained a worthless brevet d'invention. He tried several other countries, but was equally unsuccessful in all, and he returned home almost disheartened, but not entirely cast down. For four years he had to struggle hard for a living. He was very poor, and, as one of his friends has since declared, had literally "to coin his mind for bread." His sturdy independence of character would not allow him to accept assistance from any one, although there were friends ready and even anxious to help him in his troubles. Alone and manfully he fought his way through these dark days, still hopeful of success for his invention, and patiently seeking to improve it wherever opportunity presented itself. At length, in 1840, he received his long-delayed patent from the General Government, and, encouraged by this, determined to make another effort to bring his telegraph into use.
He was not able to do so until the session of Congress of 1842-43, when he presented a second petition to that body, asking its aid in the construction of an experimental line between Baltimore and Washington. He had to encounter a great degree of skepticism and ridicule, with many other obstacles, not the least of which was the difficulty of meeting the expense of remaining in Washington and urging his invention upon the Government. Still he persevered, although it seemed to be hoping against hope, as the session drew near its close, and his scanty stock of money grew daily smaller. On the evening of the 3d of March, 1843, he returned from the Capitol to his lodgings utterly disheartened. It was the last night of the session, and nothing had been done in the matter of his petition. He sat up late into the night arranging his affairs so as to take his departure for home on the following day. It was useless to remain in Washington any longer. Congress would adjourn the next day, and his last hope of success had been shattered.
On the morning of the 4th of March he came down to the breakfast-table gloomy and despondent. Taking up the morning journal, he ran over it listlessly. Suddenly his eye rested upon a paragraph which caused him to spring to his feet in complete amazement. It was an announcement that, at the very last hour of the session of the previous night, a bill had been passed by Congress appropriating the sum of thirty thousand dollars for the purpose of enabling Professor Morse to construct an experimental line of telegraph between Baltimore and Washington. He could scarcely believe it real, and, as soon as possible, hastened to the Capitol to seek authentic information. The statement was confirmed by the proper authorities, and Morse's dearest wish was realized. The hour of his triumph was at hand, and his long and patient waiting was rewarded at last.
Work on the telegraph line was immediately begun, and carried on actively. At first, an insulated wire was buried under ground in a lead pipe, but this failing to give satisfaction, the wire was elevated upon poles. On the 27th of May, 1844, the line was completed, and the first trial of it made in the presence of the Government officials and many other distinguished men. Professor Morse was confident of success; but this occasion was a period of the most intense anxiety to him, for he knew that his entire future was staked upon the result of this hour. Among the company present to witness the trial was the Secretary of the Treasury, John C. Spencer. Although very much interested in the undertaking, he was entirely ignorant of the principles involved in it, and, therefore, very apprehensive of its failure. It was upon this occasion that he asked one of Professor Morse's assistants how large a bundle could be sent over the wires, and if the United States mail could not be sent in the same way.
When all was in readiness, Professor Morse seated himself at the instrument, and sent his first message to Baltimore. An answer was promptly returned, and messages were sent and replies received with a rapidity and accuracy which placed the triumph of the invention beyond the possibility of doubt. Congratulations were showered upon the inventor, who received them as calmly as he had previously borne the scoffs of many of these same men. Yet his heart throbbed all the while with a brilliant triumph. Fame and fortune both rose proudly before him. He had won a great victory, and conferred a lasting benefit upon his race.
The success of the experimental line brought Professor Morse numerous offers for the use of his invention. Telegraph companies were organized all over the country, and the stock issued by them was taken up as fast as offered. At the present day, not only the United States, but the whole world, is covered with telegraph lines. In July, 1862, just eighteen years after the completion of Morse's experimental line, it was estimated that the lines then in operation throughout the world amounted to an aggregate length of 150,000 miles. The Morse system is adopted on the principal lines of the United States, on all the lines of the Eastern continent, and exclusively on all the continental lines of Europe, "from the extreme Russian north to the Italian and Spanish south, eastward through the Turkish empire, south into Egypt and northern Africa, and through India, Australia, and parts of China."
The rapid growth of the telegraph interest of the United States placed Professor Morse in the possession of a large fortune, which was greatly increased by the adoption of his invention in Europe. The countries which had refused him patents at first now did honor to his genius. Nor was he the only gainer by this. In France, especially, the benefits of his invention were great. The old system of semaphore telegraphs had been an annual expense to the government of that country of 1,100,000 francs, but Morse's telegraph yielded to the French Government, in the first three years after its introduction, a total revenue of 6,000,000 francs.
Fortune was not Morse's only reward. Honors were showered upon him from all parts of the world. In 1848, his alma mater, Yale College, conferred on him the complimentary degree of LL.D., and since then he has been made a member of nearly all the American scientific and art academies. From European Governments and scientific and art associations he has received more honors than have ever fallen to the share of any other American. In 1848, he received from the Sultan of Turkey the decoration of the Nishaun Iftiohar in diamonds, and subsequently gold medals of scientific merit were awarded him by the King of Prussia, the King of Würtemburg, and the Emperor of Austria. The gift of the King of Prussia was set in a massive gold snuff-box. In 1856, the Emperor Napoleon III gave him the Cross of Chevalier of the Legion of Honor; in 1857, he received from the King of Denmark the Cross of Knight of the Danebrog; and in 1858, the Queen of Spain sent him the Cross of Knight Commander of the order of Isabella the Catholic. In 1859, a convention of the representatives of the various European powers met in Paris, at the instance of the Emperor Napoleon III, for the purpose of determining upon the best means of giving Professor Morse a collective testimonial. France, Russia, Sweden, Belgium, Holland, Austria, Sardinia, Tuscany, Turkey, and the Holy See were represented, and their deliberations resulted in the presentation to Professor Morse, in the name of their united governments, of the sum of 400,000 francs, as an honorary and personal reward for his labors. In 1856, the telegraph companies of Great Britain gave him a banquet in London, at which Mr. William Fothergill Corke, himself the distinguished inventor of a system of telegraphy, presided.
Professor Morse is also the inventor of submarine telegraphy. In 1842, he laid the first submarine telegraph line ever put down, across the harbor of New York, and for this achievement received the gold medal of the American Institute. On the 10th of August, 1843, he addressed a communication to the Secretary of the Treasury, in which he avowed his belief that a telegraphic cable could and would be laid across the Atlantic ocean, for the purpose of connecting Europe and America. His words upon this occasion clearly prove that the idea of the Atlantic telegraph originated with him. They were as follows: "The practical inference from this law is, that a telegraphic communication on the electro-magnetic plan may with certainty be established across the Atlantic ocean. Startling as this may now seem, I am confident the time will come when this project will be realized."
In February, 1854, Mr. Cyrus W. Field, of New York, ignorant of Professor Morse's views upon this subject, wrote to him to ask if he considered the working of a cable across the Atlantic practicable. The Professor at once sought an interview with Mr. Field, and assured him of his entire confidence in the undertaking. He entered heartily into Mr. Field's scheme, and rendered great aid in the noble enterprise which has been described elsewhere in these pages. He was present at each attempt to lay the cable, and participated in the final triumph by which his prediction, made twenty-three years previous, was verified.
Professor Morse is now in his eightieth year. He resides during the winter in the city of New York, and passes his summers at his beautiful country seat near Poughkeepsie, on the Hudson. He bears his great honors with the same modesty which marked his early struggles, and is the center of a host of friends whom he has attached to himself by the tenderest ties. "Courage and patience have been his watchwords, and although the snows of time have bleached his hair, the same intelligence and enterprising spirit, the same urbane disposition that endeared him to the friends of his youth, still cause all who know him to rejoice in the honorable independence which his great invention has secured to his age."