S. F. B. MORSE: A Great American Who Invented the Telegraph

By Kate Dickinson Sweetser

On the ocean, homeward bound from Havre to New York, in the first week of October, 1832, was sailing the packet-ship "Sully", with a long list of passengers, among them Samuel Finley Breese Morse, a man so important in the history of America, both as an artist and an inventor, that it is fitting to look backward and see what influences went into the making of such a man.

On the twenty-seventh of April, 1791, the baby with the big name was born in a comfortable home in Charlestown, Mass. His father was the Reverend Jedediah Morse who was not only popular with his congregation but was the personal friend of General Washington and other great men of his time. His mother was the daughter of a Judge, and her grandfather had been president of Princeton college, so the baby who was born on that April day had a rich inheritance of good blood and love of education.

He was christened with the names of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, but the name was too long for daily use, so he was called "Finley" at home, and in college was given the name of "Geography" Morse.

His birth must have interested a large number of friends, for many letters of congratulation were sent to the proud parents and to others who knew them well. Dr. Belknap of Boston wrote to a friend in New York:

"Congratulate the Monmouth Judge (Mr. Breese) on the birth of a grandson. Next Sunday he is to be loaded with names, not quite as many as the Spanish Ambassador who signed the treaty of peace in 1783, but only four! He may have the sagacity of a Jewish Rabbi, or the profundity of a Calvin, or the sublimity of a Homer for aught I know. But time will bring forth all things."

An interesting forecast, that, of the future of Finley Morse! He grew to be a perfectly normal small boy who kept his mother very busy looking after him, but was no more lively and mischievous than other boys of his age. Here is a quaint little note to him from his father's friend, Mr. Wells, written when Finley was only two years old:

"My dear Little Boy,

As a small testimony of my respect and obligation to your excellent Parents and of my love to you I send you with this six (6) English Guineas. They are pretty playthings, and in the country I came from many people are fond of them. Your Papa will let you look at them, and then he will take care of them, and by the time you are grown up to be a Man, they will, under Papa's wise management increase to twice their present number. With wishing you may never be in want of such playthings and yet never too fond of them, I remain your affectionate friend

Wm. M. Wells.

July 2, 1793."

When he was four years old Finley was sent to a school for very little children, kept by "Old Ma'am Rand". She was lame and could not walk across the room, but she kept a rattan rod by her side long enough to reach any naughty pupil in the room, and the children were much afraid of having this happen.

One day the teacher discovered Finley at the back of the room, busy "drawing" a picture of her with a sharp brass pin on the shiny wooden lid of a chest.

"Bring it to me!" commanded the old lady, and the boy came slowly forward, pin in hand. When he was near enough to reach, Old Ma'am Rand gripped him firmly and pinned him to her dress with the big pin. He struggled so hard that he got away and ran screaming to the end of the room with a piece of the old lady's dress that had been torn in the struggle, hanging on his sleeve.

But evidently he and his teacher were really good friends, for he stayed in her class until he was seven years old. Then he went to a preparatory school in Andover, Mass., and from there to Phillips Academy, also in Andover, where he was prepared for Yale college.

The following is the only letter preserved that was written by him at that early date, from the preparatory school.

"Dear Papa,--I hope you are well and I will thank you if you will send me up some quils. Give my love to mama and Nancy and my little brothers; pleas to kis them for me and send me up some very good paper to write to you.

I have as many blackberries as I want I go and pick them myself.


Finley was never much interested in his studies, but liked better to read books on whatever subject caught his fancy. "Plutarch's Lives" was one of his favorites, and it gave him the ambition to become famous, although exactly how to achieve his purpose he did not then see. But he kept on reading, and studying and when he was thirteen he wrote a sketch of Demosthenes and sent it to his father, who was so pleased with it that he laid it away among his treasures.

The letters written to him by his father were very different from those written by fathers of today. Here is part of one:

"My dear Son--You do not write to me as often as you ought. In your next you must assign some reason for this neglect. Possibly I have not received all of your letters. Nothing will improve you in epistolary writing as practice. Take great pains with your letters. Avoid vulgar phrases. Study to have your ideas pertinent and correct, and clothe them in easy and grammatical dress. Pay attention to your spelling, pointing, the use of capitals, to your handwriting. After a little practice these things will become natural and you will thus acquire a habit of writing correctly and well. General Washington was a remarkable instance of what I have now recommended to you. His letters are a perfect model for epistolary writers.... I will show you some of his letters when I have the pleasure of seeing you next vacation and when I shall expect to find you much improved.

Your natural disposition, my dear son, renders it proper for me earnestly to recommend you to attend to one thing at a time. It is impossible that you can do two things well at the same time, and I would therefore never have you attempt it. Never undertake to do what ought not to be done, and then whatever you undertake, endeavor to do it in the best manner.... Steady and undissipated attention to one object is a sure mark of genius, as hurry, bustle and agitation are the never failing symptoms of a weak and frivolous mind. I expect you to read this letter over several times, that you may retain its contents in your memory."

Whether the ten year old boy appreciated this fine letter is open to doubt, but he certainly acted on its advice, for so good was his record for scholarship that when he was only fourteen years old he was ready to leave the preparatory school and become a college student.

A year later, in the fall of 1805 he left home and took the trip to New Haven, where he entered the freshman class at Yale. An amusing incident of his early college days is given in this letter. He says:

"We had a new affair here a few days ago. The college cooks were arraigned before a tribunal of the students. We found two of the worst of them guilty of several charges, such as being insolent to the students, not exerting themselves to cook clean for us, in concealing pies which belonged to the students, having suppers at midnight and inviting all their neighbors and friends to sup with them at the expense of the students, and this not once in a while but every night.... The fault is not so much in the food as in the cooking, for our bill-of-fare has been in the following way: Chocolate, coffee and hashed meat every morning, at noon, various; roast beef twice a week, pudding three times, and turkeys and geese on an average once a fortnight; baked beans occasionally; Christmas and other merry days, turkeys, pie and puddings as many as we wish for.... I ought to have added that in future we are to have beefsteaks and toast twice a week, before this the cooks were too lazy to cook them. I will inform you of the result of the affair as soon as it is completed."

Then as now, "eats" formed a vastly important part of boys' life, it seems.

At that time Jeremiah Day was teacher of natural philosophy at Yale, and Prof. Silliman, of chemistry, and to these men young Morse owed much of his later achievement. One day in class Prof. Day told his pupils to all join hands while a student touched the pole of an electric battery. At once a shock was felt down the long line of boys. Morse described it as being like "a slight blow across the shoulders". This experiment showed the pupils the wonderful speed at which electricity travels. Another day the laboratory was darkened and a current of electricity passed through a row of metal blocks placed at a short distance apart, while the boys in awed silence watched the white light flash between the links of the chain and the blocks.

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So interested did Finley become in experiments along that line, that when at vacation time he found he could not afford to take the trip home, he was not much disappointed, but spent his time making tests in the laboratory. That his problems were much the same as those of young men of today is shown by this letter to his father. He says:

"I find it impossible to live in college without spending money. At one time a letter is to be paid for, then comes up a great tax from the class or society, which keeps me constantly running after money.... The amount of my expenses for the last term was fifteen dollars expended in the following manner:

Postage $ 2.05
Oil .50
Taxes, fines, etc 3.00
Oysters .50
Washbowl .37-1/2
Skillet .33
Axe, $1.33;
Catalogues, 12c 1.45
Powder and shots 1.12
Cakes, etc. etc. etc. 1.75
Wine, Thanks Day .20
Toll on bridge .15
Grinding axe .08
Museum .25
Poor man .14
Carriage for trunk 1.00
Pitcher .41
Sharpening skates .37-1/2
Circ. Library .25
Post Papers .57
Lent, never to be returned .25
---------- $14.75
Paid for cutting wood .25
---------- $15.00"

Surely it would do the college boy of today good to read that list of expenses. It might be a revelation to him.

A postscript to the letter adds, "The students are very fond of raising balloons at present. I will (with your leave) when I return home, make one. They are pleasant sights."

At that time, he was as much interested in drawing as he was in electrical experiments, and could get a remarkable likeness of anyone who would pose for him. As there were no photographs in those days, his portraits were in great demand, and needing money, to help with his expenses he began to paint miniatures to order, his price being five dollars for those painted on ivory, and one dollar for profiles, and he says, "Everybody is ready to engage me at that price."

When his college course was at an end Finley wished to take up painting for a profession, but of this his parents did not approve, so for a short time he was apprenticed to a bookshop-keeper, but was so unhappy that Dr. and Mrs. Morse finally decided to let him become an artist, and when he was nineteen years old he went to Europe with the well-known artist, Washington Allston, to study art. In London he met Benjamin West, the famous painter, to whom Morse "a young pilgrim from the United States, modest and gentle, with his foot not yet on the first rung of the ladder of fame" made a great appeal, and West took the youth under his personal supervision, and felt enormous pride in his progress, for Finley's picture of the dying Hercules at the Royal Academy exhibition was named as one of the twelve best among two thousand exhibited, and his cast of Hercules took the gold medal at the Adelphi Society of Fine Arts.

Back again in America after four years abroad, young Morse had years of struggle ahead, but with undaunted courage continued to work, and at last, despite all obstacles won success as an artist. But of that no more in this brief sketch which has to do with the Inventor.

We have seen the child in school, the boy in college, the budding artist in his training, have watched him painting and making electrical experiments with equal enthusiasm, and now he is no longer a boy, but Morse, the man, when on that April day in 1832 we find him on the deck of the packet-ship "Sully." There, alone with the mighty influences of Nature and his new idea, he is working out the first crude principles of the Telegraph system which in after years was to be such a revolutionizing factor in civilization and commerce.

Then came years of struggle against what seemed to be overwhelming obstacles, but Morse was equal to the emergencies of the case and we have one more glimpse of him as the man who succeeded.

After twelve years of hard work to achieve his ends, a bill was passed by the Senate appropriating thirty thousand dollars for testing the Morse Telegraph. A young woman, Miss Ellsworth, had the good fortune to carry the news to Mr. Morse, who was so overjoyed that he could scarcely find his voice to thank her. When at last he spoke, it was to promise that she should choose the first message to be sent across the wires of his Telegraph.

A glimpse of his achievement--at its crowning moment of success.

The Assembly room of the United States Supreme Court with one of the Morse Telegraph instruments installed in it. A group of distinguished officers and private individuals, waiting with intense interest to see the invention tested.

With perfect calmness the Inventor took his seat at the instrument, laid his hands on the key-board now familiar to us all, and in the Morse code sent the message chosen by Miss Ellsworth. Slowly--steadily, successfully he wrote the chosen words,--


The message was instantaneously received in Baltimore by a Mr. Vail who did not know beforehand what message was to be sent. He returned it immediately to Washington, so that within a single moment those inspired words were flashed back and forth through a circuit of eighty miles.--The Telegraph system had begun to work!

A great American by inheritance, and by achievement, we do Samuel Finley Breese Morse homage, for his ideals are those for which our forefathers gave their lives. When that first message flashed over the wires to Baltimore and back, the Inventor said humbly and reverently, "The message baptizes the Telegraph with the name of its author,--for that author is God."

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