Working Great Mischief
The electric telegraph is the miracle of modern times . . . a man may generate a spark at London which, with one fiery leap, will return back under his hand and disappear, but in that moment of time it will have encompassed the planet on which we are whirling through space into eternity. That spark will be a human thought!
The Times, London, October 1856
When he was twenty-three, Samuel Finley Breese Morse wrote to his parents from England, where he had been studying and practicing art for two years, defying their wishes that he become a bookseller at home in Massachusetts. Morse had just received an Adelphi Gold Medal for a statuette of Hercules, and Dying Hercules, his painting of the same subject, recently had been exhibited at the Royal Academy. Despite these achievements he was well aware, as were his parents, of the challenges that any artist faced simply in making a living. If those challenges were not quite Herculean, surely they seemed, at the time, heroic. "I need not tell you what a difficult profession I have undertaken," he wrote. "It has difficulties in itself which are sufficient to deter any man who has not firmness enough to go through with it at all hazards, without meeting with any obstacles aside from it."1
In 1815, Morse returned to America, where he believed he would face even more obstacles as a professional artist than in Europe. "I should like to be the greatest painter purely out of revenge," he proclaimed.2 Awaiting recognition of his greatness, he opened an art studio in Boston; but clients did not flock to his door, and he resorted to a path he had hoped not to take: cultivating a career as a portrait painter. By the time he married in 1818, he had earned considerable renown, attracting commissions from politicians, college presidents, statesmen, and other public figures. Along the way, he also dabbled in inventing: he devised a fire engine water pump, which unfortunately failed; and a marble-cutting machine, which he could not patent because it infringed upon another inventor's design.
In February 1825, Morse was in Washington, painting a portrait of General Lafayette, when his wife, at the age of twenty-five, suddenly died a month after giving birth to their son. By the time Morse received the shocking news and returned to New Haven, where she had been living with his parents, the family already had buried her. This was not the first time that delay in receiving a message had caused Morse distress: while he was in England studying, letters to his family went astray, or their letters to him failed to arrive, generating suspicion and worry for all parties.
After his wife's death, followed by his father's death the next year and his mother's in 1828, Morse fell into a depression. Like many of his contemporaries, he sought solace in travel abroad, and in 1829, leaving his children with relatives, he sailed to Europe to paint, study, and revive his spirits. Three years later, he sailed home. The return trip, as it turned out, changed his life. During the six-week journey, he had several conversations with other passengers about electromagnetism, a phenomenon reported about frequently in newspapers and magazines. Although electricity and magnetism had been thought of as separate forces, recent discoveries by Hans Ørsted, Michael Faraday, and the American physicist Joseph Henry proved that the forces were interrelated; electrified wire acted exactly as a magnet- able, for example, to deflect the needle of a compass- and electrification could enhance a magnet's strength. This discovery was exciting news for those who yearned to prove the unity of natural forces; it was also exciting for inventors tinkering with the possibility of sending signals over long distances by interruptions in electrical current.
Morse had only a limited background in electricity. He had attended some lectures on the subject when he was an undergraduate at Yale, and in 1827, he had heard Columbia professor James Freeman Dana lecture on electricity and electromagnetism at the New York Athenaeum. Interested in what Dana had to say, Morse befriended him for further conversations. These talks with Dana and later with his fellow passengers, besides introducing Morse to recent investigations into electromagnetism, most likely made him aware of prototypes of the telegraph developed since the middle of the eighteenth century. Volta's invention of a chemical battery in 1799 and new reports of the effect of electricity on magnets generated excited speculation that a breakthrough in telegraphy was imminent.
Inspired by his shipboard conversations, Morse returned to his cabin with his imagination fired. Although he had never before dabbled in electricity, he felt convinced that electromagnetism could be harnessed to facilitate communication. Soft wire bent into a horseshoe shape, Morse believed, could be magnetized by sending a galvanic current through a coil wound around the iron; the coil would lose its magnetism when the current was suspended; these alternations could produce marks on a paper, if a stylus and paper roll somehow were attached to the mechanism. Fascinated by this idea, Morse drew a design for a Recording Electric Magnetic Telegraph, along with a code in which numbers corresponded to dots and dashes. These numbers, he conjectured, then would correspond to letters of the alphabet, and the code would result in a special telegraph dictionary.
Morse arrived home on November 15, 1832, enthralled by the idea of the telegraph, yet facing the reality of having to make a living. A widower with young children, Morse knew that he would have to continue portraiture in order to provide for his family. In 1835, however, a fortunate occurrence solved both of his problems: he was appointed Professor of the Literature of the Arts and Design at the University of the City of New York. This position gave him enough income so that he could retreat from portrait painting and devote himself fully to his invention. Within a year, working dutifully in an old building in Washington Square, where the university had given him studio space- and where Morse also ate, slept, and taught art- he had constructed a model of his telegraph.
At first glance, it looked like a motley assemblage of wood and metal. Morse fastened a canvas frame to a tabletop. He found wheels from an old wooden clock to carry a strip of paper forward, over and under three wooden drums. He suspended a wooden pendulum from the top piece of the frame, with a pencil at the end which came into contact with the paper. To provide power, he attached an electromagnet to a shelf across the frame, connected by a short circuit of wire to the terminals of a battery. Odd as it appeared, it worked.
Early in 1836, Morse demonstrated his instrument to a few trusted men, among them Leonard Gale, a professor of science, and Alfred Vail, a young entrepreneur with an interest in new technology; both were enthusiastic enough to back Morse financially. With Gale's advice, Morse devised a sequence of circuits, or relays, which increased the distance an electrical impulse could travel and thereby enable messages to be sent to a receiver miles away. Morse was elated about the potential of his invention; he was sure, he said, that "magnetism would do in the advancement of human welfare what the Spirit of God would do in the moral renovation of man's nature; that it would educate and enlarge the force of the world."3 This extravagant claim would be echoed by future nineteenth-century inventors of other technologies: if humans dared to manipulate nature, they must do so for the good of humankind. Education was one proper effect of telegraphy, moral uplift even better. The prospect of financial gain clearly was not to be admitted publicly.
Yet Morse realized, indeed was counting on, the possibility ...