1825—in a Washington D.C. art studio, a servant pressed a heavy letter into the stained hand of painter Samuel Morse.
Samuel Morse was at the top of his field and hard at work completing a portrait of Marquis de Lafayette, hero of the American Revolution. The Lafayette portrait was one of the most sought-after painting commissions in the United States and paid a cool $1,000 (almost $23,000 today).
It was the second letter from his father in several days, the first informing him that his wife, Lucretia, had been feeling ill. Morse had written a reply, wishing her a quick recovery and highlighting his time in the capital. He promised to return to his Massachusetts home as soon as possible.
After just a few sentences of second letter, he forgot about the war hero Lafayette. His father was heartbroken to inform him of “…the sudden & unexpected death of your dear & deservedly loved wife. Her disease proved to be an affection of the heart…”
Samuel Morse left without finishing the Lafayette portrait and hurried home, but compounding tragedy upon tragedy, he was too late to even see to her funeral. By the time he arrived at their New Haven home 300 miles from Washington, his young and beautiful wife was buried. Morse found himself a lonely widower with three children.
The tragedy affected him deeply, and his restless mind began obsessing over a method of communication using the power of electricity. He knew such a method could cross hundreds, even thousands, of miles instantaneously. Had such technology existed, Samuel Morse would at the very least been able to see his wife one last time before internment.
He continued painting, but his artwork simply became his method of revenue. His true interest was now long-distance communication using electricity, or, in a term becoming more common in his day, electric telegraphy.
In 1831, working hand-in-hand with a Boston physician and amateur engineer, Samuel Morse put aside his painting and developed the simplest, most effective method of electric communication possible—a single-wire rhythmic transmitter, which could send messages based on pulses tapped out by hand. The code utilized by this invention, which was a series of long and short electric pulses, would become known as Morse Code, which is still in use today.
Given the widespread knowledge of electricity and the need for communication, Morse was not the first to patent a telegraph machine. Within years of his device, two other patents were recorded by competing inventors. These inventions quickly came and went, with both too expensive and complicated for widespread application. Morse’s invention is best remembered because it was simple, cheap, and effective.
Sadly, Morse’s impressive legacy as a painter, inventor, and visionary was eclipsed by his more controversial beliefs. He held strong anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiments, and joined the infamous New York Nativist Party, unsuccessfully running for the New York City’s mayor under their banner. His dislike for Catholic was so venomous, in fact, that while visiting Rome, but refused to even remove his hat while meeting the pope.
As the Civil War loomed on a divided country, Morse surprised the public by publicly stating slavery was sanctioned by God and natural. In his 1863 Slavery Pamphlet #60, Morse insisted that slavery was “ordained from the beginning of the world for the wisest purposes, benevolent and disciplinary, by Divine Wisdom.”
While less controversial in the mid-1800s, these delusional beliefs have relegated him to the margins of history today. While his inventions and advances are celebrated, the inventor is not.
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