1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Morse, Samuel Finley Breese

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1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 18
Morse, Samuel Finley Breese
See also Samuel Morse on Wikipedia; and our 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica disclaimer.

MORSE, SAMUEL FINLEY BREESE (1791-1872), American artist and inventor, was born at Charlestown, Massachusetts, on the 27th of April 1791, son of Jedidiah Morse (1761-1826), Congregational minister there and a writer on geography, and a grandson of Samuel Finley, president of the college of New Jersey. At the age of fourteen he entered Yale College, where he graduated in 1810 and where under the instruction of Jeremiah Day and Benjamin Silliman he received the first impulse towards electrical studies. In 1811 Morse, whose tastes during his early years led him more strongly towards art than towards science, became the pupil of Washington Allston, and accompanied his master to England, where he remained four years. His success at this period as a painter was considerable. In 1825 he was one of the founders of the National Academy of Design, and was its first president, from 1826 until 1845. The year 1827 marks the revival of Morse's interest in electricity. It was at that time that he learned from J. F. Dana of Columbia College the elementary facts of electromagnetism. As yet, however, he was devoted to his art, and in 1829 he again went to Europe to study the old masters.

The year of his return, 1832, may be said to close the period of his artistic and to open that of his scientific life. On board the packet-ship “Sully,” while discussing one day with his fellow-passengers the properties of the electromagnet, he was led to remark: “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 by electricity.” In a few days he had completed rough drafts of the necessary apparatus, which he displayed to his fellow-passengers.[1] During the twelve years that followed Morse was engaged in a painful struggle to perfect his invention and secure for it a proper presentation to the public. In poverty he pursued his new enterprise, making his own models, moulds and castings, denying himself the common necessaries of life. It was not until 1836 that he completed any apparatus that would work, and finally, on the 2nd of September 1837, the instrument was exhibited to a few friends in the building of the university of the City of New York, where a circuit of 1700 ft. of copper wire had been set up, with such satisfactory results as to awaken the practical interest of the Messrs Vail, iron and brass workers in New Jersey, who thenceforth became associated with Morse in his undertaking. Morse's petition for a patent was soon followed by a petition to Congress for an appropriation to defray the expense of subjecting the telegraph to actual experiment over a length sufficient to establish its feasibility and demonstrate its value. The committee on commerce, to whom the petition was referred, reported favourably. Congress, however, adjourned without making the appropriation, and meanwhile Morse sailed for Europe to take out patents there. The trip was not a success. In England his application was refused, and, while he obtained a patent in France, it was subsequently appropriated by the French government without compensation to himself. His negotiations also with Russia proved futile, and after a year's absence he returned to New York. In 1843 Congress passed the long-delayed appropriation, steps were at once taken to construct a telegraph from Baltimore to Washington, and on the 24th of May 1844 it was used for the first time. In 1847 Morse was compelled to defend his invention in the courts, and successfully vindicated his claim to be called the original inventor of the electromagnetic recording telegraph. In 1858 the representatives of Austria, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Piedmont, Russia, the Holy See, Sweden, Tuscany and Turkey appropriated the sum of 400,000 francs in recognition of the use of his instruments in those countries. He died on the 2nd of April 1872, at New York, where his statue in bronze now stands in the Central Park. (See Telegraph.) He introduced into America Daguerre's process of photography, patented a marble-cutting machine in 1823, and in 1842 made experiments with telegraphy by a submarine cable.

See S. Irenaeus Prime, Life of S. F. B. Morse (New York, 1875).


  1. Five years later the captain of the ship identified under oath Morse's completed instrument with that which Morse had explained on board the “Sully” in 1832.