SAMUEL FINLEY BREESE MORSE 1791 - 1872 (G3b, G3c, G4, W4, Va, Vb)

xxxxxThe American Samuel Morse, an artist by profession, began work on an electromagnetic signalling system in 1832. With the help of others and a study of earlier electric telegraphs, he produced his own model around 1835 and then, two years later, in 1837, he completed a code by which messages could be sent. This “Morse Code” was made up of a system of dots and dashes, achieved by varying the duration of the electric signal, and by using different combinations to spell out letters and numbers. In 1843 he persuaded Congress to set up a telegraph line from Washington to Baltimore, and this proved so successful that within a decade a network had been installed across the United States, and the system was in use in Europe. This signalling system made a major contribution to world-wide communications well into the 20th century, when it was largely superseded by the telephone and radio.

xxxxxThe American Samuel Morse was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, the son of a Calvinist minister. After studying at Yale College, he worked for a Boston book publisher, but, being quite proficient at the painting of miniature portraits, he soon left to take up art. He studied in London during the years of the Anglo-American war (the so called War of 1812), but on his return he found it hard to make a living. Concentrating on portraiture, he travelled around the east coast states and finally settled in New York where he soon began to make a reputation for the quality of his work. In 1832, however, his life took a totally different direction.

xxxxxIt was in that year, while travelling home from Europe after another period of art study, that he overheard a conversation about the electromagnet, then recently discovered. Intrigued by its concept and possibilities, on his return he set about making an electromagnetic signalling system. With the help of a partner (a colleague at New York University), and by studying descriptions of an earlier prototype of 1831 - the work of the American physicist Joseph Henry - he had produced his own model of an electromagnetic telegraph by around 1835, and he was then able to put his mind to inventing a “language” for his machine. By the end of 1837 he had come up with his system of dots and dashes, achieved by varying the duration of the electric signal and by using different combinations to spell out numbers and the letters of the alphabet. Within a few years the Morse Code was known throughout the world.

xxxxxAfter failing to sell his invention in Europe, in 1843, taking a Congressman as a partner, he persuaded Congress to set up an experimental telegraph line from Washington to Baltimore. It was completed the following year and proved so successful that within a decade a number of companies had installed a network of relays across the United States, and the system had been widely adopted in Europe. However, success also brought a series of court battles over claims by his partners, and by inventors who vowed to have produced earlier versions of the electric telegraph. Nonetheless, by 1854 he had acquired the legal rights to his system and was living a comfortable life, with a home in New York City and a villa overlooking the Hudson River

xxxxxMorse, an ardent republican, was a sociable man and, during his career, acquired a number of close friends, including the French general and statesman the Marquis de Lafayette and the American novelist James Fenimore Cooper. In his later years he gave generously to various Church charities and temperance societies, and he was a benefactor of his alma mater, Yale College. Ironically enough, his reputation as an artist, which he struggled so hard to create in his early years, has grown considerably in the United States, whilst the invention which bears his name and was such an important contribution to world-wide communication well into the 20th century, has very largely been superseded by the coming of the telephone and the radio. However, his telegraph instrument of 1837 has been preserved, and is in the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

xxxxxIncidentally, when the first telegraph line was completed in 1844 - the one from Washington to Baltimore - Morse sent the first message, “What hath God wrought!” ……

xxxxx…… The house in Cleveland Street where young Morse took lodging during his time in London - 1812 to 1815 - is still standing, and a plaque on the wall records his stay. ……

xxxxx…… A spin-off from the morse code was an international distress signal. The SOS chosen was popularly thought to be an abbreviation for “Save Our Souls”. In fact, these letters were simply chosen because their code was easily recognisable and also very easy to transmit! ……

xxxxx…… The first transatlantic telegraph cable was laid in 1858, but it only worked for four weeks! However, as we shall see, in 1866 (Vb) Brunel’s Great Eastern steamship laid a successful cable at the second attempt. By that time Britain had been connected to the continent and Europe to Africa for a number of years. ……

xxxxxInxthe same year, 1837, the first practicable electric telegraph was also invented in England, the work of the physicist Charles Wheatstone (illustrated) and William Forthergill Cooke (1802-1879), an Englishman who trained as a doctor, but later turned his hand to engineering. Using five needles to indicate various letters of the alphabet, this signalling system was first used to send a message from Euston to Camden Town in London. It proved fairly successful, and an improved version was soon put to good use by the companies then developing the railway system across Britain.

xxxxxWheatstone (1802-75) was born in Gloucester and at the age of 14 began work for his uncle, a maker of musical instruments in London. He inherited the business in 1823, and over the next few years invented both the harmonica (or mouth organ) and concertina (or accordion). However, like Samuel Morse, he also developed a keen interest in electricity, and having conducted his own study of acoustics and made advances in this branch of science, was appointed professor of experimental physics at the University of London in 1834 (a post he held for the rest of his life). It was at this time that he went into partnership with the electrical engineer William Cooke and, in 1837, - having sought and been given assistance by the American inventor Joseph Henry - patented Britain’s first electric telegraph. Both men were later knighted for their services to science. Wheatstone also produced an improved dynamo, pioneered a method of measuring the speed of electricity, and gave the first demonstration of a stereoscope (illustrated), a device by which two similar pictures, viewed together, give the illusion of three dimensions.

xxxxxIncidentally, in 1845 the telegraph system brought a man to justice and the gallows. On New Year’s Day a certain John Tawell went to Slough and murdered his mistress. He was seen making his getaway, but managed to catch a train back to London. A message was sent ahead of him, however, and the police were waiting for him when he arrived! ……

xxxxx…… Inx1849 the German entrepreneur Paul Reuter (1816-1899), a one-time bank clerk, began a prototype news service using electrical telegraphy. Then two years later he moved to England and set up the Reuters Telegram Company, a news service which developed into one of the world’s leading news agencies. Today, its headquarters are in New York City. He was made a baron in 1871.


Morse: photograph – Image online, U.S. National Archives, Washington, artist unknown. Telegraph: National Museum of American History, Washington. Wheatstone: drawing by the English artist Samuel Lawrence (1817-1884), 1868 – contained in Apples to Atoms by Willem Dirk Hackmann, published c1986. Reuter: detail, by the German/English portrait painter Rudolf Lehmann (1819-1905), 1869 – The International Newspaper Museum of the City of Aachen, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany.



Charles Wheatstone