Samuel F. B. Morse, His Letters and Journals Volume 2 by Samuel F. B. Morse

Produced by Carlo Traverso, Richard Prairie and PG Distributed Proofreaders. This file was produced from images generously made available by the Bibliotheque nationale de France (BnF/Gallica) at SAMUEL F.B. MORSE HIS LETTERS AND JOURNALS IN TWO VOLUMES VOLUME II SAMUEL F.B. MORSE HIS LETTERS AND JOURNALS EDITED AND SUPPLEMENTED BY HIS SON EDWARD LIND
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Produced by Carlo Traverso, Richard Prairie and PG Distributed Proofreaders. This file was produced from images generously made available by the Bibliotheque nationale de France (BnF/Gallica) at





[Illustration: Sam’l. F.B. Morse]









_Published November 1914_

“Th’ invention all admir’d, and each how he To be th’ inventor miss’d, so easy it seem’d Once found, which yet unfound most would have thought Impossible.”




OCTOBER 1, 1832–FEBRUARY 28, 1833

Packet-ship Sully.–Dinner-table conversation.–Dr. Charles T. Jackson.– First conception of telegraph.–Sketch-book.–Idea of 1832 basic principle of telegraph of to-day.–Thoughts on priority.–Testimony of passengers and Captain Pell.–Difference between “discovery” and “invention.”–Professor E.N. Hereford’s paper.–Arrival in New York.– Testimony of his brothers.–First steps toward perfection of the invention.–Letters to Fenimore Cooper



Still painting.–Thoughts on art.–Picture of the Louvre.–Rejection as painter of one of the pictures in the Capitol.–John Quincy Adams.–James Fenimore Cooper’s article.–Death blow to his artistic ambition.– Washington Allston’s letter.–Commission by fellow artists.–Definite abandonment of art.–Repayment of money advanced.–Death of Lafayette.– Religious controversies.–Appointed Professor in University of City of New York.–Description of first telegraphic instrument.–Successful experiments.–Relay.–Address in 1853



First exhibitions of the Telegraph.–Testimony of Robert G. Rankin and Rev. Henry B. Tappan.–Cooke and Wheatstone.–Joseph Henry, Leonard D. Gale, and Alfred Vail.–Professor Gale’s testimony.–Professor Henry’s discoveries.–Regrettable controversy of later years.–Professor Charles T. Jackson’s claims.–Alfred Vail.–Contract of September 23, 1837.–Work at Morristown, New Jersey.–The “Morse Alphabet.”–Reading by sound.– First and second forms of alphabet


OCTOBER 3, 1837–MAY 18, 1838

The Caveat.–Work at Morristown.–Judge Vail.–First success.–Resolution in Congress regarding telegraphs.–Morse’s reply.–Illness.–Heaviness of first instruments.–Successful exhibition in Morristown.–Exhibition in New York University.–First use of Morse alphabet.–Change from first form of alphabet to present form.–Trials of an inventor.–Dr. Jackson.– Slight friction between Morse and Vail.–Exhibition at Franklin Institute, Philadelphia.–Exhibitions in Washington.–Skepticism of public.–F.O.J. Smith.–F.L. Pope’s estimate of Smith.–Proposal for government telegraph.–Smith’s report.–Departure for Europe


JUNE, 1838–JANUARY 21. 1839

Arrival in England.–Application for letters patent.–Cooke and Wheatstone’s telegraph.–Patent refused.–Departure for Paris.–Patent secured in France.–Earl of Elgin.–Earl of Lincoln.–Baron de Meyendorff.–Russian contract.–Return to London.–Exhibition at the Earl of Lincoln’s.–Letter from secretary of Lord Campbell, Attorney-General. –Coronation of Queen Victoria.–Letters to daughter.–Birth of the Count of Paris.–Exhibition before the Institute of France.–Arago; Baron Humboldt.–Negotiations with the Government and Saint-Germain Railway.– Reminiscences of Dr. Kirk.–Letter of the Honorable H. L. Ellsworth.– Letter to F.O.J. Smith.–Dilatoriness of the French


JANUARY 6, 1839–MARCH 9, 1839

Despondent letter to his brother Sidney.–Longing for a home.–Letter to Smith.–More delays.–Change of ministry.–Proposal to form private company.–Impossible under the laws of France.–Telegraphs a government monopoly.–Refusal of Czar to sign Russian contract.–Dr. Jackson.–M. Amyot.–Failure to gain audience of king.–Lord Elgin.–Earl of Lincoln. –Robert Walsh prophesies success.–Meeting with Earl of Lincoln in later years.–Daguerre.–Letter to Mrs. Cass on lotteries.–Railway and military telegraphs.–Skepticism of a Marshal of France


APRIL 15, 1839–SEPTEMBER 30, 1840

Arrival in New York.–Disappointment at finding nothing done by Congress or his associates.–Letter to Professor Henry.–Henry’s reply.– Correspondence with Daguerre.–Experiments with daguerreotypes.– Professor Draper.–First group photograph of a college class.–Failure of Russian contract.–Mr. Chamberlain.–Discouragement through lack of funds.–No help from his associates.–Improvements in telegraph made by Morse.–Humorous letter


JUNE 20, 1840–AUGUST 12, 1842

First patent issued.–Proposal of Cooke and Wheatstone to join forces rejected.–Letter to Rev. E.S. Salisbury.–Money advanced by brother artists repaid.–Poverty.–Reminiscences of General Strother, “Porte Crayon.”–Other reminiscences.–Inaction in Congress.–Flattering letter of F.O.J. Smith.–Letter to Smith urging action.–Gonon and Wheatstone.– Temptation to abandon enterprise.–Partners all financially crippled.– Morse alone doing any work.–Encouraging letter from Professor Henry.– Renewed enthusiasm.–Letter to Hon. W.W. Boardman urging appropriation of $3500 by Congress.–Not even considered.–Despair of inventor


JULY 16, 1842–MARCH 26, 1843

Continued discouragements.–Working on improvements.–First submarine cable from Battery to Governor’s Island.–The Vails refuse to give financial assistance.–Goes to Washington.–Experiments conducted at the Capitol.–First to discover duplex and wireless telegraphy.–Dr. Fisher. –Friends in Congress.–Finds his statuette of Dying Hercules in basement of Capitol.–Alternately hopes and despairs of bill passing Congress.– Bill favorably reported from committee.–Clouds breaking.–Ridicule in Congress.–Bill passes House by narrow majority.–Long delay in Senate.– Last day of session.–Despair.–Bill passes.–Victory at last


MARCH 15, 1848–JUNE 18, 1844

Work on first telegraph line begun.–Gale, Fisher, and Vail appointed assistants.–F.O.J. Smith to secure contract for trenching.–Morse not satisfied with contract.–Death of Washington Allston.–Reports to Secretary of the Treasury.–Prophesies Atlantic cable.–Failure of underground wires.–Carelessness of Fisher.–F.O.J. Smith shows cloven hoof.–Ezra Cornell solves a difficult problem.–Cornell’s plan for insulation endorsed by Professor Henry.–Many discouragements.–Work finally progresses favorably.–Frelinghuysen’s nomination as Vice-President reported by telegraph.–Line to Baltimore completed.– First message.–Triumph.–Reports of Democratic Convention.–First long-distance conversation.–Utility of telegraph established.–Offer to sell to Government


JUNE 23, 1844–OCTOBER 9, 1845

Fame and fortune now assured.–Government declines purchase of telegraph.–Accident to leg gives needed rest.–Reflections on ways of Providence.–Consideration of financial propositions.–F.O.J. Smith’s fulsome praise.–Morse’s reply.–Extension of telegraph proceeds slowly. –Letter to Russian Minister.–Letter to London “Mechanics’ Magazine” claiming priority and first experiments in wireless telegraphy.–Hopes that Government may yet purchase.–Longing for a home.–Dinner at Russian Minister’s.–Congress again fails him.–Amos Kendall chosen as business agent.–First telegraph company.–Fourth voyage to Europe.–London, Broek, Hamburg.–Letter of Charles T. Fleischmann.–Paris.–Nothing definite accomplished


DECEMBER 20, 1845–APRIL 19, 1848

Return to America.–Telegraph affairs in bad shape.–Degree of LL.D. from Yale.–Letter from Cambridge Livingston.–Henry O’Reilly.–Grief at unfaithfulness of friends.–Estrangement from Professor Henry.–Morse’s “Defense.”–His regret at feeling compelled to publish it.–Hopes to resume his brush.–Capitol panel.–Again disappointed.–Another accident.–First money earned from telegraph devoted to religious purposes.–Letters to his brother Sidney.–Telegraph matters.–Mexican War.–Faith in the future.–Desire to be lenient to opponents.–Dr. Jackson.–Edward Warren.–Alfred Vail remains loyal.–Troubles in Virginia.–Henry J. Rogers.–Letter to J.D. Reid about O’Reilly.–F.O.J. Smith again.–Purchases a home at last.–“Locust Grove,” on the Hudson, near Poughkeepsie.–Enthusiastic description.–More troubles without, but peace in his new home


JANUARY 9, 1848–DECEMBER 19, 1849

Preparation for lawsuits.–Letter from Colonel Shaffner.–Morse’s reply deprecating bloodshed.–Shaffner allays his fears.–Morse attends his son’s wedding at Utica.–His own second marriage.–First of great lawsuits.–Almost all suits in Morse’s favor.–Decision of Supreme Court of United States.–Extract from an earlier opinion.–Alfred Vail leaves the telegraph business.–Remarks on this by James D. Reid.–Morse receives decoration from Sultan of Turkey.–Letter to organizers of Printers’ Festival.–Letter concerning aviation.–Optimistic letter from Mr. Kendall.–Humorous letter from George Wood.–Thomas R. Walker.– Letter to Fenimore Cooper.–Dr. Jackson again.–Unfairness of the press. –Letter from Charles C. Ingham on art matters.–Letter from George Vail.–F.O.J. Smith continues to embarrass.–Letter from Morse to Smith


MARCH 5, 1850–NOVEMBER 10, 1854

Precarious financial condition.–Regret at not being able to make loan.– False impression of great wealth.–Fears he may have to sell home.– F.O.J. Smith continues to give trouble.–Morse system extending throughout the world.–Death of Fenimore Cooper.–Subscriptions to charities, etc.–First use of word “Telegram.”–Mysterious fire in Supreme Court clerk’s room.–Letter of Commodore Perry.–Disinclination to antagonize Henry.–Temporary triumph of F.O.J. Smith.–Order gradually emerging.–Expenses of the law.–Triumph in Australia.–Gift to Yale College.–Supreme Court decision and extension of patent.–Social diversions in Washington.–Letters of George Wood and P. H. Watson on extension of patent.–Loyalty to Mr. Kendall; also to Alfred Vail.– Decides to publish “Defense.”–Controversy with Bishop Spaulding.–Creed on Slavery.–Political views.–Defeated for Congress


JANUARY 8, 1855–AUGUST 14, 1856

Payment of dividends delayed.–Concern for welfare of his country.– Indignation at corrupt proposal from California.–Kendall hampered by the Vails.–Proposition by capitalists to purchase patent rights.–Cyrus W. Field.–Newfoundland Electric Telegraph Company.–Suggestion of Atlantic Cable.–Hopes thereby to eliminate war.–Trip to Newfoundland.–Temporary failure.–F.O.J. Smith continues to give trouble.–Financial conditions improve.–Morse and his wife sail for Europe.–Feted in London.– Experiments with Dr. Whitehouse.–Mr. Brett.–Dr. O’Shaughnessy and the telegraph in India.–Mr. Cooke.–Charles R. Leslie.–Paris.–Hamburg.– Copenhagen.–Presentation to king.–Thorwaldsen Museum.–Oersted’s daughter.–St. Petersburg.–Presentation to Czar at Peterhoff


AUGUST 23, 1856–SEPTEMBER 15, 1858

Berlin.–Baron von Humboldt.–London, successful cable experiments with Whitehouse and Bright.–Banquet at Albion Tavern.–Flattering speech of W. F. Cooke.–Returns to America.–Troubles multiply.–Letter to the Honorable John Y. Mason on political matters.–Kendall urges severing of connection with cable company.–Morse, nevertheless, decides to continue.–Appointed electrician of company.–Sails on U.S.S. Niagara.– Letter from Paris on the crinoline.–Expedition sails from Liverpool.– Queenstown harbor.–Accident to his leg.–Valencia.–Laying of cable begun.–Anxieties.–Three successful days.–Cable breaks.–Failure.– Returns to America.–Retires from cable enterprise.–Predicts in 1858 failure of apparently successful laying of cable.–Sidney E. Morse.–The Hare and the Tortoise.–European testimonial: considered niggardly by Kendall.–Decorations, medals, etc., from European nations.–Letter of thanks to Count Walewski


SEPTEMBER 3. 1858–SEPTEMBER 21, 1863

Visits Europe again with a large family party.–Regrets this.–Sails for Porto Rico with wife and two children.–First impressions of the tropics.–Hospitalities.–His son-in-law’s plantation.–Death of Alfred Vail.–Smithsonian exonerates Henry.–European honors to Morse.–First line of telegraph in Porto Rico.–Banquet.–Returns home.–Reception at Poughkeepsie.–Refuses to become candidate for the Presidency.–Purchases New York house.–F.O.J. Smith claims part of European gratuity.–Succeeds through legal technicality.–Visit of Prince of Wales.–Duke of Newcastle.–War clouds.–Letters on slavery, etc.–Matthew Vassar.– Efforts as peacemaker.–Foresees Northern victory.–Gloomy forebodings.– Monument to his father.–Divides part of European gratuity with widow of Vail.–Continued efforts in behalf of peace.–Bible arguments in favor of slavery


FEBRUARY 26, 1864–NOVEMBER 8, 1867

Sanitary Commission.–Letter to Dr. Bellows.–Letter on “loyalty.”–His brother Richard upholds Lincoln.–Letters of brotherly reproof.– Introduces McClellan at preelection parade.–Lincoln reelected.–Anxiety as to future of country.–Unsuccessful effort to take up art again.– Letter to his sons.–Gratification at rapid progress of telegraph.– Letter to George Wood on two great mysteries of life.–Presents portrait of Allston to the National Academy of Design.–Endows lectureship in Union Theological Seminary.–Refuses to attend fifty-fifth reunion of his class.–Statue to him proposed.–Ezra Cornell’s benefaction.–American Asiatic Society.–Amalgamation of telegraph companies.–Protest against stock manipulations.–Approves of President Andrew Johnson.–Sails with family for Europe.–Paris Exposition of 1867.–Descriptions of festivities.–Cyrus W. Field.–Incident in early life of Napoleon III.– Made Honorary Commissioner to Exposition.–Attempt on life of Czar.–Ball at Hotel de Ville.–Isle of Wight.–England and Scotland.–The “Sounder.”–Returns to Paris


NOVEMBER 28, 1867–JUNE 10. 1871

Goes to Dresden.–Trials financial and personal.–Humorous letter to E.S. Sanford.–Berlin.–The telegraph in the war of 1866.–Paris.–Returns to America.–Death of his brother Richard.–Banquet in New York.–Addresses of Chief Justice Chase, Morse, and Daniel Huntington.–Report as Commissioner finished.–Professor W.P. Blake’s letter urging recognition of Professor Henry.–Morse complies.–Henry refuses to be reconciled.– Reading by sound.–Morse breaks his leg.–Deaths of Amos Kendall and George Wood.–Statue in Central Park.–Addresses of Governor Hoffman and William Cullen Bryant.–Ceremonies at Academy of Music.–Morse bids farewell to his children of the telegraph


JUNE 14, 1871–APRIL 16, 1872

Nearing the end.–Estimate of the Reverend F.B. Wheeler.–Early poem.– Leaves “Locust Grove” for last time.–Death of his brother Sidney.– Letter to Cyrus Field on neutrality of telegraph.–Letter of F.O.J. Smith to H.J. Rogers.–Reply by Professor Gale.–Vicious attack by F.O.J. Smith.–Death prevents reply by Morse.–Unveils statue of Franklin in last public appearance.–Last hours.–Death.–Tributes of James D. Reid, New York “Evening Post,” New York “Herald,” and Louisville “Courier-Journal.”–Funeral.–Monument in Greenwood Cemetery.–Memorial services in House of Representatives, Washington.–Address of James G. Blaine.–Other memorial services.–Mr. Prime’s review of Morse’s character.–Epilogue


From a photograph.


Now in the National Museum, Washington.



Given to General Thomas S. Cummings at time of transmission by Professor S.F.B. Morse, New York University, Wednesday, January 24, 1838. Presented to the National Museum at Washington by the family of General Thomas S. Cummings of New York, February 13, 1906.


The two keys and the relay are in the National Museum, Washington. The Washington-Baltimore instrument is owned by Cornell University.

From a portrait by Daniel Huntington.



From an ambrotype.



From a photograph by Sarony.




OCTOBER 1, 1832–FEBRUARY 28, 1833

Packet-ship Sully.–Dinner-table conversation.–Dr. Charles T. Jackson.– First conception of telegraph.–Sketch-book.–Idea of 1832 basic principle of telegraph of to-day.–Thoughts on priority.–Testimony of passengers and Captain Pell.–Difference between “discovery” and “invention.”–Professor E.N. Horsford’s paper.–Arrival in New York.– Testimony of his brothers.–First steps toward perfection of the invention.–Letters to Fenimore Cooper.

The history of every great invention is a record of struggle, sometimes Heart-breaking, on the part of the inventor to secure and maintain his rights. No sooner has the new step in progress proved itself to be an upward one than claimants arise on every side; some honestly believing themselves to have solved the problem first; others striving by dishonest means to appropriate to themselves the honor and the rewards, and these sometimes succeeding; and still others, indifferent to fame, thinking only of their own pecuniary gain and dishonorable in their methods. The electric telegraph was no exception to this rule; on the contrary, its history perhaps leads all the rest as a chronicle of “envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness.” On the other hand, it brings out in strong relief the opposing virtues of steadfastness, perseverance, integrity, and loyalty.

Many were the wordy battles waged in the scientific world over the questions of priority, exclusive discovery or invention, indebtedness to others, and conscious or unconscious plagiarism. Some of these questions are, in many minds, not yet settled. Acrimonious were the legal struggles fought over infringements and rights of way, and, in the first years of the building of the lines to all parts of this country, real warfare was waged by the workers of competing companies.

It is not my purpose to treat exhaustively of any of these battles, scientific, legal, or physical. All this has already been written down by abler pens than mine, and has now become history. My aim in following the career of Morse the Inventor is to shed a light (to some a new light) on his personality, self-revealed by his correspondence, tried first by hardships, poverty, and deep discouragement, and then by success, calumny, and fame. Like other men who have achieved greatness, he was made the target for all manner of abuse, accused of misappropriating the ideas of others, of lying, deceit, and treachery, and of unbounded conceit and vaingloriousness. But a careful study of his notes and correspondence, and the testimony of others, proves him to have been a pure-hearted Christian gentleman, earnestly desirous of giving to every one his just due, but jealous of his own good name and fame, and fighting valiantly, when needs must be, to maintain his rights; guilty sometimes of mistakes and errors of judgment; occasionally quick-tempered and testy under the stress of discouragement and the pressure of poverty, but frank to acknowledge his error and to make amends when convinced of his fault; and the calm verdict of posterity has awarded him the crown of greatness.

Morse was now forty-one years old; he had spent three delightful years in France and Italy; had matured his art by the intelligent study of the best of the old masters; had made new friends and cemented more strongly the ties that bound him to old ones; and he was returning to his dearly loved native land and to his family with high hopes of gaining for himself and his three motherless children at least a competence, and of continuing his efforts in behalf of the fine arts.

From Mr. Cooper’s and Mr. Habersham’s reminiscences we must conclude that, in the background of his mind, there existed a plan, unformed as yet, for utilizing electricity to convey intelligence. He was familiar with much that had been discovered with regard to that mysterious force, through his studies under Professors Day and Silliman at Yale, and through the lectures and conversation of Professors Dana and Renwick in New York, so that the charge which was brought against him that he knew absolutely nothing of the subject, can be dismissed as simply proving the ignorance of his critics.

Thus prepared, unconsciously to himself, to receive the inspiration which was to come to him like a flash of the subtle fluid which afterwards became his servant, he went on board the good ship Sully, Captain Pell commanding, on the 1st of October, 1832. Among the other passengers were the Honorable William C. Rives, of Virginia, our Minister to France, with his family; Mr. J.F. Fisher, of Philadelphia; Dr. Charles T. Jackson, of Boston, who was destined to play a malign role in the subsequent history of the telegraph, and others. The following letter was written to his friend Fenimore Cooper from Havre, on the 2d of October:–

“I have but a moment to write you one line, as in a few hours I shall be under way for dear America. I arrived from England by way of Southampton a day or two since, and have had every moment till now occupied in preparations for embarking. I received yours from Vevay yesterday and thank you for it. Yes, Mr. Rives and family, Mr. Fisher, Mr. Rogers, Mr. Palmer and family, and a full cabin beside accompany me. What shall I do with such an _antistatistical_ set? I wish you were of the party to shut their mouths on some points. I shall have good opportunity to talk with Mr. Rives, whom I like notwithstanding. I think he has good American feeling in the main and means well, although I cannot account for his permitting you to suffer in the chambers (of the General). I will find out _that_ if I can.

“My journey to England, change of scene and air, have restored me wonderfully. I knew they would. I like John’s country; it is a garden beautifully in contrast with France, and John’s people have excellent qualities, and he has many good people; but I hate his aristocratic system, and am more confirmed in my views than ever of its oppressive and unjust character. I saw a great deal of Leslie; he is the same good fellow that he always was. Be tender of him, my dear sir; I could mention some things which would soften your judgment of his political feelings. One thing only I can now say,–remember he has married an English wife, whom he loves, and who has never known America. He keeps entirely aloof from politics and is wholly absorbed in his art. Newton is married to a Miss Sullivan, daughter of General Sullivan, of Boston, an accomplished woman and a belle. He is expected in England soon.

“I found almost everybody out of town in London. I called and left a card at Rogers’s, but he was in the country, so were most of the artists of my acquaintance. The fine engraver who has executed so many of Leslie’s works, Danforth, is a stanch American; he would be a man after your heart; he admires you for that very quality.–I must close in great haste.”

The transatlantic traveller did not depart on schedule time in 1832, as we find from another letter written to Mr. Cooper on October 5:–

“Here I am yet, wind-bound, with a tremendous southwester directly in our teeth. Yesterday the Formosa arrived and brought papers, etc., to the 10th September. I have been looking them over. Matters look serious at the South; they are mad there; great decision and prudence will be required to restore them to reason again, but they are so hot-headed, and are so far committed, I know not what will be the issue. Yet I think our institutions are equal to any crisis….

“_October 6, 7 o’clock._ We are getting under way. Good-bye.”

It is greatly to be regretted that Morse did not, on this voyage as on previous ones, keep a careful diary. Had he done so, many points relating to the first conception of his invention would, from the beginning, have been made much clearer. As it is, however, from his own accounts at a later date, and from the depositions of the captain of the ship and some of the passengers, the story can be told.

The voyage was, on the whole, I believe, a pleasant one and the company in the cabin congenial. One night at the dinner-table the conversation chanced upon the subject of electro-magnetism, and Dr. Jackson described some of the more recent discoveries of European scientists–the length of wire in the coil of a magnet, the fact that electricity passed instantaneously through any known length of wire, and that its presence could be observed at any part of the line by breaking the circuit. Morse was, naturally, much interested and it was then that the inspiration, which had lain dormant in his brain for many years, suddenly came to him, and he said: “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 instantaneously by electricity.”

The company was not startled by this remark; they soon turned to other subjects and thought no more of it. Little did they realize that this exclamation of Morse’s was to mark an epoch in civilization; that it was the germ of one of the greatest inventions of any age, an invention which not only revolutionized the methods by which intelligence was conveyed from place to place, but paved the way for the subjugation, to the uses of man in many other ways, of that mysterious fluid, electricity, which up to this time had remained but a plaything of the laboratory. In short, it ushered in the Age of Electricity. Least of all, perhaps, did that Dr. Jackson, who afterwards claimed to have given Morse all his ideas, apprehend the tremendous importance of that chance remark. The fixed idea had, however, taken root in Morse’s brain and obsessed him. He withdrew from the cabin and paced the deck, revolving in his mind the various means by which the object sought could be attained. Soon his ideas were so far focused that he sought to give them expression on paper, and he drew from his pocket one of the little sketch-books which he always carried with him, and rapidly jotted down in sketches and words the ideas as they rushed from his brain. This original sketch-book was burned in a mysterious fire which, some years later, during one of the many telegraph suits, destroyed many valuable papers. Fortunately, however, a certified copy had wisely been made, and this certified copy is now in the National Museum in Washington, and the reproduction here given of some of its pages will show that Morse’s first conception of a Recording Electric Magnetic Telegraph is practically the telegraph in universal use to-day.


His first thought was evidently of some system of signs which could be used to transmit intelligence, and he at once realized that nothing could be simpler than a point or a dot, a line or dash, and a space, and a combination of the three. Thus the first sketch shows the embryo of the dot-and-dash alphabet, applied only to numbers at first, but afterwards elaborated by Morse to represent all the letters of the alphabet.

Next he suggests a method by which these signs may be recorded permanently, evidently by chemical decomposition on a strip of paper passed along over two rollers. He then shows a message which could be sent by this means, interspersed with ideas for insulating the wires in tubes or pipes. And here I want to call attention to a point which has never, to my knowledge, been noticed before. In the message, which, in pursuance of his first idea, adhered to by him for several years, was to be sent by means of numbers, every word is numbered conventionally except the proper name “Cuvier,” and for this he put a number for each letter. How this was to be indicated was not made clear, but it is evident that he saw at once that all proper names could not be numbered; that some other means must be employed to indicate them; in other words that each letter of the alphabet must have its own sign. Whether at that early period he had actually devised any form of alphabet does not appear, although some of the depositions of his fellow passengers would indicate that he had. He himself put its invention at a date a few years after this, and it has been bitterly contested that he did not invent it at all. I shall prove, in the proper place, that he did, but I think it is proved that it must have been thought of even at the early date of 1832, and, at all events, the dot-and-dash as the basis of a conventional code were original with Morse and were quite different from any other form of code devised by others.

The next drawing of a magnet lifting sixty pounds shows that Morse was familiar with the discoveries of Arago, Davy, and Sturgeon in electro-magnetism, but what application of them was to be made is not explained.

The last sketch is to me the most important of all, for it embodies the principle of the receiving magnet which is universally used at the present day. The weak permanent magnet has been replaced by a spring, but the electro-magnet still attracts the lever and produces the dots and dashes of the alphabet; and this, simple as it seems to us “once found,” was original with Morse, was absolutely different from any other form of telegraph devised by others, and, improved and elaborated by him through years of struggle, is now recognized throughout the world as the Telegraph.

It was not yet in a shape to prove to a skeptical world its practical utility; much had still to be done to bring it to perfection; new discoveries had still to be made by Morse and by others which were essential to its success; the skill, the means, and the faith of others had to be enlisted in its behalf, but the actual invention was there and Morse was the inventor.

How simple it all seems to us now, and yet its very simplicity is its sublimest feature, for it was this which compelled the admiration of scientists and practical men of affairs alike, and which gradually forced into desuetude all other systems of telegraphy until to-day the Morse telegraph still stands unrivalled.

That many other minds had been occupied with the same problem was a fact unknown to the inventor at the time, although a few years later he was rudely awakened. A fugitive note, written many years later, in his handwriting, although speaking of himself in the third person, bears witness to this. It is entitled “Good thought”:–

“A circumstance which tends to confuse, in fairly ascertaining priority of invention, is that a subsequent state of knowledge is confounded in the general mind with the state of knowledge when the invention is first announced as successful. This is certainly very unfair. When Morse announced his invention, what was the general state of knowledge in regard to the telegraph? It should be borne in mind that a knowledge of the futile attempts at electric telegraphs previous to his successful one has been brought out from the lumber garret of science by the research of eighteen years. Nothing was known of such telegraphs to many scientific men of the highest attainments in the centres of civilization. Professor Morse says himself (and certainly he has not given in any single instance a statement which has been falsified) that, at the time he devised his system, he supposed himself to be the first person that ever put the words ‘electric telegraph’ together. He supposed himself at the time the originator of the phrase as well as the thing. But, aside from his positive assertion, the truth of this statement is not only possible but very probable. The comparatively few (very few as compared with the mass who now are learned in the facts) who were in the habit of reading the scientific journals may have read of the thought of an electric telegraph about the year 1832, and even of Ronald’s, and Betancourt’s, and Salva’s, and Lomond’s impracticable schemes previously, and have forgotten them again, with thousands of other dreams, as the ingenious ideas of visionary men; ideas so visionary as to be considered palpably impracticable, declared to be so, indeed, by Barlow, a scientific man of high standing and character; yet the mass of the scientific as well as the general public were ignorant even of the attempts that had been made. The fact of any of them having been published in some magazine at the time, whose circulation may be two or three thousand, and which was soon virtually lost amid the shelves of immense libraries, does not militate against the assertion that the world was ignorant of the fact. We can show conclusively the existence of this ignorance respecting telegraphs at the time of the invention of Morse’s telegraph.”

The rest of this note (evidently written for publication) is missing, but enough remains to prove the point.

Thus we have seen that the idea of his telegraph came to Morse as a sudden inspiration and that he was quite ignorant of the fact that others had thought of using electricity to convey intelligence to a distance. Mr. Prime in his biography says: “Of all the great inventions that have made their authors immortal and conferred enduring benefit upon mankind, no one was so completely grasped at its inception as this.”

One of his fellow passengers, J. Francis Fisher, Esq., counsellor-at-law of Philadelphia, gave the following testimony at Morse’s request:–

“In the fall of the year 1832 I returned from Europe as a passenger with Mr. Morse in the ship Sully, Captain Pell master. During the voyage the subject of an electric telegraph was one of frequent conversation. Mr. Morse was most constant in pursuing it, and _alone_ the one who seemed disposed to reduce it to a practical test, and I recollect that, for this purpose, he devised a _system of signs for letters_ to be indicated and marked by a quick succession of strokes or shocks of the galvanic current, and I am sure of the fact that it was deemed by Mr. Morse perfectly competent to effect the result stated. I did not suppose that any other person on board the ship claimed any merit in the invention, or was, in fact, interested to pursue it to maturity as Mr. Morse then seemed to be, nor have I been able since that time to recall any fact or circumstance to justify the claim of any person other than Mr. Morse to the invention.”

This clear statement of Mr. Fisher’s was cheerfully given in answer to a request for his recollections of the circumstances, in order to combat the claim of Dr. Charles T. Jackson that he had given Morse all the ideas of the telegraph, and that he should be considered at least its joint inventor. This was the first of the many claims which the inventor was forced to meet. It resulted in a lawsuit which settled conclusively that Morse was the sole inventor, and that Jackson was the victim of a mania which impelled him to claim the discoveries and achievements of others as his own. I shall have occasion to refer to this matter again.

It is to be noted that Mr. Fisher refers to “signs for letters.” Whether Morse actually had devised or spoken of a conventional alphabet at that time cannot be proved conclusively, but that it must have been in his mind the “Cuvier” referred to before indicates.

Others of his fellow-passengers gave testimony to the same effect, and Captain Pell stated under oath that, when he saw the completed instrument in 1837, he recognized it as embodying the principles which Morse had explained to him on the Sully; and he added: “Before the vessel was in port, Mr. Morse addressed me in these words: ‘Well, Captain, should you hear of the telegraph one of these days as the wonder of the world, remember the discovery was made on board the good ship Sully.'”

Morse always clung tenaciously to the date of 1832 as that of his invention, and, I claim, with perfect justice. While it required much thought and elaboration to bring it to perfection; while he used the published discoveries of others in order to make it operate over long distances; while others labored with him in order to produce a practical working apparatus, and to force its recognition on a skeptical world, the basic idea on which everything else depended was his; it was original with him, and he pursued it to a successful issue, himself making certain new and essential discoveries and inventions. While, as I have said, he made use of the discoveries of others, these men in turn were dependent on the earlier investigations of scientists who preceded them, and so the chain lengthens out.

There will always be a difference of opinion as to the comparative value of a new discovery and a new invention, and the difference between these terms should be clearly apprehended. While they are to a certain extent interchangeable, the word “discovery” in science is usually applied to the first enunciation of some property of nature till then unrecognized; “invention,” on the other hand, is the application of this property to the uses of mankind. Sometimes discovery and invention are combined in the same individual, but often the discoverer is satisfied with the fame arising from having called attention to something new, and leaves to others the practical application of his discovery. Scientists will always claim that a new discovery, which marks an advance in knowledge in their chosen field, is of paramount importance; while the world at large is more grateful to the man who, by combining the discoveries of others and adding the culminating link, confers a tangible blessing upon humanity.

Morse was completely possessed by this new idea. He worked over it that day and far into the night. His vivid imagination leaped into the future, brushing aside all obstacles, and he realized that here in his hands was an instrument capable of working inconceivable good. He recalled the days and weeks of anxiety when he was hungry for news of his loved ones; he foresaw that in affairs of state and of commerce rapid communication might mean the avoidance of war or the saving of a fortune; that, in affairs nearer to the heart of the people, it might bring a husband to the bedside of a dying wife, or save the life of a beloved child; apprehend the fleeing criminal, or commute the sentence of an innocent man. His great ambition had always been to work some good for his fellow-men, and here was a means of bestowing upon them an inestimable boon.

After several days of intense application he disclosed his plan to Mr. Rives and to others. Objections were raised, but he was ready with a solution. While the idea appeared to his fellow-passengers as chimerical, yet, as we have seen, his earnestness made so deep an impression that when, several years afterwards, he exhibited to some of them a completed model, they, like Captain Pell, instantly recognized it as embodying the principles explained to them on the ship.

Without going deeply into the scientific history of the successive steps which led up to the invention of the telegraph, I shall quote a few sentences from a long paper written by the late Professor E.N. Horsford, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and included in Mr. Prime’s biography:–

“What was needed to the _original conception_ of the Morse recording telegraph?

“1. A knowledge that soft wire, bent in the form of a horseshoe, could be magnetized by sending a galvanic current through a coil wound round the iron, and that it would lose its magnetism when the current was suspended.

“2. A knowledge that such a magnet had been made to lift and drop masses of iron of considerable weight.

“3. A knowledge, or a belief, that the galvanic current could be transmitted through wires of great length.

“These were all. Now comes the conception of devices for employing an agent which could produce reciprocal motion to effect registration, and the invention of an alphabet. In order to this invention it must be seen how up and down–reciprocal–motion could be produced by the opening and closing of the circuit. Into this simple band of vertical tracery of paths in space must be thrown the shuttle of time and a ribbon of paper. It must be seen how a lever-pen, alternately dropping upon and rising at defined intervals from a fillet of paper moved by independent clock-work, would produce the fabric of the alphabet and writing and printing.

“Was there anything required to produce these results which was not known to Morse?…

“He knew, for he had witnessed it years before, that, by means of a battery and an electro-magnet, reciprocal motion could be produced. He knew that the force which produced it could be transmitted along a wire. He _believed_ that the battery current could be made, through an electro-magnet, to produce physical results at a _distance_. He saw in his mind’s eye the existence of an agent and a medium by which reciprocal motion could be not only produced but controlled at a distance. The question that addressed itself to him at the outset was, naturally, this: ‘How can I make use of the simple up-and-down motion of opening and closing a circuit to write an intelligible message at one end of a wire, and at the same time print it at the other?’… Like many a kindred work of genius it was in nothing more wonderful than in its simplicity…. Not one of the brilliant scientific men who have attached their names to the history of electro-magnetism had brought the means to produce the practical registering telegraph. Some of them had ascended the tower that looked out on the field of conquest. Some of them brought keener vision than others. Some of them stood higher than others. But the genius of invention had not recognized them. There was needed an inventor. Now what sort of a want is this?

“There was required a rare combination of qualities and conditions. There must be ingenuity in the adaptation of available means to desired ends; there must be the genius to see through non-essentials to the fundamental principle on which success depends; there must be a kind of skill in manipulation; great patience and pertinacity; a certain measure of culture, and the inventor of a recording telegraph must be capable of being inspired by the grandeur of the thought of writing, figuratively speaking, with a pen a thousand miles long–with the thought of a postal system without the element of time. Moreover the person who is to be the inventor must be free from the exactions of well-compensated, everyday, absorbing duties–perhaps he must have had the final baptism of poverty.

“Now the inventor of the registering telegraph did not rise from the perusal of any brilliant paper; he happened to be at leisure on shipboard, ready to contribute and share in the after-dinner conversation of a ship’s cabin, when the occasion arose. Morse’s electro-magnetic telegraph was mainly an invention employing powers and agencies through mechanical devices to produce a given end. It involved the combination of the results of the labors of others with a succession of special contrivances and some discoveries of the inventor himself. There was an ideal whole almost at the outset, but involving great thought, and labor, and patience, and invention to produce an art harmonious in its organization and action.”

After a voyage of over a month Morse reached home and landed at the foot of Rector Street on November 15, 1832. His two brothers, Sidney and Richard, met him on his arrival, and were told at once of his invention. His brother Richard thus described their meeting:–

“Hardly had the usual greetings passed between us three brothers, and while on our way to my house, before he informed us that he had made, during his voyage, an important invention, which had occupied almost all his attention on shipboard–one that would astonish the world and of the success of which he was perfectly sanguine; that this invention was a means of communicating intelligence by electricity, so that a message could be written down in a permanent manner by characters at a distance from the writer. He took from his pocket and showed from his sketch-book, in which he had drawn them, the kind of characters he proposed to use. These characters were dots and spaces representing the ten digits or numerals, and in the book were sketched other parts of his electro-magnetic machinery and apparatus, actually drawn out in his sketch-book.”

The other brother, Sidney, also bore testimony:–

“He was full of the subject of the telegraph during the walk from the ship, and for some days afterwards could scarcely speak about anything else. He expressed himself anxious to make apparatus and try experiments for which he had no materials or facilities on shipboard. In the course of a few days after his arrival he made a kind of cogged or saw-toothed type, the object of which I understood was to regulate the interruptions of the electric current, so as to enable him to make dots, and regulate the length of marks or spaces on the paper upon which the information transmitted by his telegraph was to be recorded.

“He proposed at that time a single circuit of wire, and only a single circuit, and letters, words, and phrases were to be indicated by numerals, and these numerals were to be indicated by dots and other marks and spaces on paper. It seemed to me that, as wire was cheap, it would be better to have twenty-four wires, each wire representing a letter of the alphabet, but my brother always insisted upon the superior advantages of his single circuit.”

Thus we see that Morse, from the very beginning, and from intuition, or inspiration, or whatever you please, was insistent on one of the points which differentiated his invention from all others in the same field, namely, its simplicity, and it was this feature which eventually won for it a universal adoption. But, simple as it was, it still required much elaboration in order to bring it to perfection, for as yet it was but an idea roughly sketched on paper; the appliances to put this idea to a practical test had yet to be devised and made, and Morse now entered upon the most trying period of his career. His three years in Europe, while they had been enjoyed to the full and had enabled him to perfect himself in his art, had not yielded him large financial returns; he had not expected that they would, but based his hopes on increased patronage after his return. He was entirely dependent on his brush for the support of himself and his three motherless children, and now this new inspiration had come as a disturbing element. He was on the horns of a dilemma. If he devoted himself to his art, as he must in order to keep the wolf from the door, he would not have the leisure to perfect his invention, and others might grasp the prize before him. If he allowed thoughts of electric currents, and magnets, and batteries to monopolize his attention, he could not give to his art, notoriously a jealous mistress, that worship which alone leads to success.

An added bar to the rapid development of his invention was the total lack (hard to realize at the present day) of the simplest essentials. There were no manufacturers of electrical appliances; everything, even to the winding of the wires around the magnets, had to be done laboriously by hand. Even had they existed Morse had but scant means with which to purchase them.

This was his situation when he returned from Europe in the fall of 1832, and it is small wonder that twelve years elapsed before he could prove to the world that his revolutionizing invention was a success, and the wonder is great that he succeeded at all, that he did not sink under the manifold discouragements and hardships, and let fame and fortune elude him. Unknown to him many men in different lands were working over the same problem, some of them of assured scientific position and with good financial backing; is it then remarkable that Morse in later years held himself to be but an instrument in the hands of God to carry out His will? He never ceased to marvel at the amazing fact that he, poor, scoffed at or pitied, surrounded by difficulties of every sort, should have been chosen to wrest the palm from the hands of trained scientists of two continents. To us the wonder is not so great, for we, if we have read his character aright as revealed by his correspondence, can see that in him, more than in any other man of his time, were combined the qualities necessary to a great inventor as specified by Professor Horsford earlier in this chapter.

In following Morse’s career at this critical period it will be necessary to record his experiences both as painter and inventor, for there was no thought of abandoning his profession in his mind at first; on the contrary, he still had hopes of ultimate success, and it was his sole means of livelihood. It is true that he at times gave way to fits of depression. In a letter to his brother Richard before leaving Europe he had thus given expression to his fears:–

“I have frequently felt melancholy in thinking of my prospects for encouragement when I return, and your letter found me in one of those moments. You cannot, therefore, conceive with what feelings I read your offer of a room in your new house. Give me a resting-place and I will yet move the country in favor of the arts. I return with some hopes but many fears. Will my country employ me on works which may do it honor? I want a commission from Government to execute two pictures from the life of Columbus, and I want eight thousand dollars for each, and on these two I will stake my reputation as an artist.”

It was in his brother Richard’s house that he took the first step towards the construction of the apparatus which was to put his invention to a practical test. This was the manufacture of the saw-toothed type by which he proposed to open and close the circuit and produce his conventional signs. He did not choose the most appropriate place for this operation, for his sister-in-law rather pathetically remarked: “He melted the lead which he used over the fire in the grate of my front parlor, and, in his operation of casting the type, he spilled some of the heated metal upon the drugget, or loose carpeting, before the fireplace, and upon a flagbottomed chair upon which his mould was placed.”

He was also handicapped by illness just after his return, as we learn from the following letter to his friend Fenimore Cooper. In this letter he also makes some interesting comments on New York and American affairs, but, curiously enough, he says nothing of his invention:

“_February 21, 1833._ Don’t scold at me. I don’t deserve a scolding if you knew all, and I do if you don’t know all, for I have not written to you since I landed in November. What with severe illness for several weeks after my arrival, and the accumulation of cares consequent on so long an absence from home, I have been overwhelmed and distracted by calls upon my time for a thousand things that pressed upon me for immediate attention; and so I have put off and put off what I have been longing (I am ashamed to say for weeks if not months) to do, I mean to write to you.

“The truth is, my dear sir, I have so much to say that I know not where to commence. I throw myself on your indulgence, and, believing you will forgive me, I commence without further apology.

“First, as to things at home. New York is _improved_, as the word goes, wonderfully. You will return to a strange city; you will not recognize many of your acquaintances among the old buildings; brand-new buildings, stores, and houses are taking the place of the good, staid, modest houses of the early settlers. _Improvement_ is all the rage, and houses and churchyards must be overthrown and upturned whenever the Corporation plough is set to work for the widening of a narrow, or the making of a new, street.

“I believe you sometimes have a fit of the blues. It is singular if you do not with your temperament. I confess to many fits of this disagreeable disorder, and I know nothing so likely to induce one as the finding, after an absence of some years from home, the great hour-hand of life sensibly advanced on all your former friends. What will be your sensations after six or seven years if mine are acute after three years’ absence?

“I have not been much in society as yet. I have many visitations, but, until I clear off the accumulated rubbish of three years which lies upon my table, I must decline seeing much of my friends. I have seen twice your sisters the Misses Delancy, and was prevented from being at their house last Friday evening by the severest snow-storm we have had this season. Our friends the Jays I have met several times, and have had much conversation with them about you and your delightful family. Mr. P.A. Jay is a member of the club, so I see him every Friday evening. Chancellor Kent also is a member, and both warm friends of yours….

“My time for ten or twelve days past has been occupied in answering a pamphlet of Colonel Trumbull, who came out for the purpose of justifying his opposition to measures which had been devised for uniting the two Academies. I send you the first copy hot from the press. There is a great deal to dishearten in the state of feeling, or rather state of no feeling, on the arts in this city. The only way I can keep up my spirits is by resolutely resisting all disposition to repine, and by fighting perseveringly against all the obstacles that hinder the progress of art.

“I have been told several times since my return that I was born one hundred years too soon for the arts in our country. I have replied that, if that be the case, I will try and make it but fifty. I am more and more persuaded that I have quite as much to do with the pen for the arts as the pencil, and if I can in my day so enlighten the public mind as to make the way easier for those that come after me, I don’t know that I shall not have served the cause of the fine arts as effectively as by painting pictures which might be appreciated one hundred years after I am gone. If I am to be the Pioneer and am fitted for it, why should I not glory as much in felling trees and clearing away the rubbish as in showing the decorations suited to a more advanced state of cultivation?…

“You will certainly have the blues when you first arrive, but the longer you stay abroad the more severe will be the disease. Excuse my predictions…. The Georgia affair is settled after a fashion; not so the nullifiers; they are infatuated. Disagreeable as it will be, they will be put down with disgrace to them.”

In another letter to Mr. Cooper, dated February 28, 1833, he writes in the same vein:–

“The South Carolina business is probably settled by this time by Mr. Clay’s compromise bill, so that the legitimates of Europe may stop blowing their twopenny trumpets in triumph at our _disunion_. The same clashing of interests in Europe would have caused twenty years of war and torrents of bloodshed; with us it has caused three or four years of wordy war and some hundreds of gallons of ink; but no necks are broken, nor heads; all will be in _statu ante bello_ in a few days….

“My dear sir, you are wanted at home. I want you to encourage me by your presence. I find the pioneer business has less of romance in the reality than in the description, and I find some tough stumps to pry up and heavy stones to roll out of the way, and I get exhausted and desponding, and I should like a little of your sinew to come to my aid at such times, as it was wont to come at the Louvre….

“There is nothing new in New York; everybody is driving after money, as usual, and there is an alarm of fire every half-hour, as usual, and the pigs have the freedom of the city, as usual; so that, in these respects at least, you will find New York as you left it, except that they are not the same people that are driving after money, nor the same houses burnt, nor the same pigs at large in the street…. You will all be welcomed home, but come prepared to find many, very many things in taste and manners different from your own good taste and manners. Good taste and good manners would not be conspicuous if all around possessed the same manners.”



Still painting.–Thoughts on art.–Picture of the Louvre.–Rejection as painter of one of the pictures in the Capitol.–John Quincy Adams.–James Fenimore Cooper’s article.–Death blow to his artistic ambition.– Washington Allston’s letter.–Commission by fellow artists.–Definite abandonment of art.–Repayment of money advanced.–Death of Lafayette.– Religious controversies.–Appointed Professor in University of City of New York.–Description of first telegraphic instrument.–Successful experiments.–Relay.–Address in 1853.

It was impossible for the inventor during the next few years to devote himself entirely to the construction of a machine to test his theories, impatient though he must have been to put his ideas into practical form. His two brothers came nobly to his assistance, and did what lay in their power and according to their means to help him; but it was always repugnant to him to be under pecuniary obligations to any one, and, while gratefully accepting his brothers’ help, he strained every nerve to earn the money to pay them back. We, therefore, find little or no reference in the letters of those years to his invention, and it was not until the year 1835 that he was able to make any appreciable progress towards the perfection of his telegraphic apparatus. The intervening years were spent in efforts to rouse an interest in the fine arts in this country; in hard work in behalf of the still young Academy of Design; and in trying to earn a living by the practice of his profession.

“During this time,” he says, “I never lost faith in the practicability of the invention, nor abandoned the intention of testing it as soon as I could command the means.” But in order to command the means, he was obliged to devote himself to his art, and in this he did not meet with the encouragement which he had expected and which he deserved. His ideals were always high, perhaps too high for the materialistic age in which he found himself. The following fugitive note will illustrate the trend of his thoughts, and is not inapplicable to conditions at the present day:–

“Are not the refining influences of the fine arts needed, doubly needed, in our country? Is there not a tendency in the democracy of our country to low and vulgar pleasures and pursuits? Does not the contact of those more cultivated in mind and elevated in purpose with those who are less so, and to whom the former look for political favor and power, necessarily debase that cultivated mind and that elevation of purpose? When those are exalted to office who best can flatter the low appetites of the vulgar; when boorishness and ill manners are preferred to polish and refinement, and when, indeed, the latter, if not avowedly, are in reality made an objection, is there not danger that those who would otherwise encourage refinement will fear to show their favorable inclination lest those to whom they look for favor shall be displeased; and will not habit fix it, and another generation bear it as its own inherent, native character?”

That he was naturally optimistic is shown by a footnote which he added to this thought, dated October, 1833:–

“These were once my fears. There is doubtless danger, but I believe in the possibility, by the diffusion of the highest moral and intellectual cultivation through every class, of raising the lower classes in refinement.”

But while in his leisure moments he could indulge in such hopeful dreams, his chief care at that time, as stated at the beginning of this chapter, was to earn money by the exercise of his profession. His important painting of the Louvre, from which he had hoped so much, was placed on exhibition, and, while it received high praise from the artists, its exhibition barely paid expenses, and it was finally sold to Mr. George Clarke, of Hyde Hall, on Otsego Lake, for thirteen hundred dollars, although the artist had expected to get at least twenty-five hundred dollars for it. In a letter to Mr. Clarke, of June 30, 1834, he says:–

“The picture of the Louvre was intended originally for an exhibition picture, and I painted it in the expectation of disposing of it to some person for that purpose who could amply remunerate himself from the receipts of a well-managed exhibition. The time occupied upon this picture was fourteen months, and at much expense and inconvenience, so that that sum [$2500] for it, if sold under such circumstances, would not be more than a fair compensation.

“I was aware that but few, if any, gentlemen in our country would be willing to expend so large a sum on a single picture, although in fact they would, in this case, purchase seven-and-thirty in one.

“I have lately changed my plans in relation to this picture and to my art generally, and consequently I am able to dispose of it at a much less price. I have need of funds to prosecute my new plans, and, if this picture could now realize the sum of twelve hundred dollars it would at this moment be to me equivalent in value to the sum first set upon it.”

The change of plans no doubt referred to his desire to pursue his electrical experiments, and for this ready money was most necessary, and so he gladly, and even gratefully, accepted Mr. Clarke’s offer of twelve hundred dollars for the painting and one hundred dollars for the frame. Even this was not cash, but was in the form of a note payable in a year! His enthusiasm for his art seems at this period to have been gradually waning, although he still strove to command success; but it needed a decisive stroke to wean him entirely from his first love, and Fate did not long delay the blow.

His great ambition had always been to paint historical pictures which should commemorate the glorious events in the history of his beloved country. In the early part of the year 1834 his great opportunity had, apparently, come, and he was ready and eager to grasp it. There were four huge panels in the rotunda of the Capitol at Washington, which were still to be filled by historical paintings, and a committee in Congress was appointed to select the artists to execute them.

Morse, president of the National Academy of Design, and enthusiastically supported by the best artists in the country, had every reason to suppose that he would be chosen to execute at least one of these paintings. Confident that he had but to make his wishes known to secure the commission, he addressed the following circular letter to various members of Congress, among whom were such famous men as Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, and John Quincy Adams, all personally known to him:–

March 7, 1834.

MY DEAR SIR,–I perceive that the Library Committee have before them the consideration of a resolution on the expediency of employing four artists to paint the remaining four pictures in the Rotunda of the Capitol. If Congress should pass a resolution in favor of the measure, I should esteem it a great honor to be selected as one of the artists.

I have devoted twenty years of my life, of which seven were passed in England, France, and Italy, studying with special reference to the execution of works of the kind proposed, and I must refer to my professional life and character in proof of my ability to do honor to the commission and to the country.

May I take the liberty to ask for myself your favorable recommendation to those in Congress who have the disposal of the commissions?

With great respect, Sir,
Your most obedient servant,

While this letter was written in 1834, the final decision of the committee was not made until 1837, but I shall anticipate a little and give the result which had such a momentous effect on Morse’s career. There was every reason to believe that his request would be granted, and he and his friends, many of whom endorsed by letter his candidacy, had no fear as to the result; but here again Fate intervened and ordered differently.

Among the committee men in Congress to whom this matter was referred was John Quincy Adams, ex-President of the United States. In discussing the subject, Mr. Adams submitted a resolution opening the competition to foreign artists as well as to American, giving it as his opinion that there were no artists in this country of sufficient talent properly to execute such monumental works. The artists and their friends were, naturally, greatly incensed at this slur cast upon them, and an indignant and remarkably able reply appeared anonymously in the New York “Evening Post.” The authorship of this article was at once saddled on Morse, who was known to wield a facile and fearless pen. Mr. Adams took great offense, and, as a result, Morse’s name was rejected and his great opportunity passed him by. There can be no reasonable doubt that, had he received this commission, he would have deferred the perfecting of his telegraphic device until others had so far distanced him in the race that he could never have overtaken them.

Instead of his having been the author of the “Evening Post” article, it transpired that he had not even heard of Mr. Adams’s resolution until his friend Fenimore Cooper, the real author of the answer, told him of both attack and reply.

This was the second great tragedy of Morse’s life; the first was the untimely death of his young wife, and this other marked the death of his hopes and ambitions as an artist. He was stunned. The blow was as unexpected as it was overwhelming, and what added to its bitterness was that it had been innocently dealt by the hand of one of his dearest friends, who had sought to render him a favor. The truth came out too late to influence the decision of the committee; the die was cast, and his whole future was changed in the twinkling of an eye; for what had been to him a joy and an inspiration, he now turned from in despair. He could not, of course, realize at the time that Fate, in dealing him this cruel blow, was dedicating him to a higher destiny. It is doubtful if he ever fully realized this, for in after years he could never speak of it unmoved. In a letter to this same friend, Fenimore Cooper, written on November 20, 1849, he thus laments:–

“Alas! My dear sir, the very name of _pictures_ produces a sadness of heart I cannot describe. Painting has been a smiling mistress to many, but she has been a cruel jilt to me. I did not abandon her, she abandoned me. I have taken scarcely any interest in painting for many years. Will you believe it? When last in Paris, in 1845, I did not go into the Louvre, nor did I visit a single picture gallery.

“I sometimes indulge a vague dream that I may paint again. It is rather the memory of past pleasures, when hope was enticing me onward only to deceive me at last. Except some family portraits, valuable to me from their likenesses only, I could wish that every picture I ever painted was destroyed. I have no wish to be remembered as a painter, for I never was a painter. My ideal of that profession was, perhaps, too exalted–I may say is too exalted. I leave it to others more worthy to fill the niches of art.”

Of course his self-condemnation was too severe, for we have seen that present-day critics assign him an honorable place in the annals of art, and while, at the time of writing that letter, he had definitely abandoned the brush, he continued to paint for some years after his rejection by the committee of Congress. He had to, for it was his only means of earning a livelihood, but the old enthusiasm was gone never to return. Fortunately for himself and for the world, however, he transferred it to the perfecting of his invention, and devoted all the time he could steal from the daily routine of his duties to that end.

His friends sympathized with him most heartily and were indignant at his rejection. Washington Allston wrote to him:–

I have learned the disposition of the pictures. I had hoped to find your name among the commissioned artists, but I was grieved to find that all my efforts in your behalf have proved fruitless. I know what your disappointment must have been at this result, and most sincerely do I sympathize with you. That my efforts were both sincere and conscientious I hope will be some consolation to you.

But let not this disappointment cast you down, my friend. You have it still in your power to let the world know what you can do. Dismiss it, then, from your mind, and determine to paint all the better for it. God bless you.

Your affectionate friend

The following sentences from a letter written on March 14, 1837, by Thomas Cole, one of the most celebrated of the early American painters, will show in what estimation Morse was held by his brother artists:–

“I have learned with mortification and disappointment that your name was not among the _chosen_, and I have feared that you would carry into effect your resolution of abandoning the art and resigning the presidency of our Academy. I sincerely hope you will have reason to cast aside that resolution. To you our Academy owes its existence and present prosperity, and if, in after times, it should become a great institution, your name will always be coupled with its greatness. But, if you leave us, I very much fear that the fabric will crumble to pieces. You are the keystone of the arch; if you remain with us time may furnish the Academy with another block for the place. I hope my fears may be vain, and that circumstances will conspire to induce you to remain our president.”

Other friends were equally sympathetic and Morse did retain the presidency of the Academy until 1845.

To emphasize further their regard for him, a number of artists, headed by Thomas S. Cummings, unknown to Morse, raised by subscription three thousand dollars, to be given to him for the painting of some historical subject. General Cummings, in his “Annals of the Academy,” thus describes the receipt of the news by the discouraged artist:–

“The effect was electrical; it roused him from his depression and he exclaimed that never had he read or known of such an act of professional generosity, and that he was fully determined to paint the picture–his favorite subject, ‘The Signing of the First Compact on board the Mayflower,’–not of small size, as requested, but of the size of the panels in the Rotunda. That was immediately assented to by the committee, thinking it possible that one or the other of the pictures so ordered might fail in execution, in which case it would afford favorable inducements to its substitution, and, of course, much to Mr. Morse’s profit; as the artists from the first never contemplated taking possession of the picture so executed. It was to remain with Mr. Morse, and for his use and benefit.”

The enthusiasm thus roused was but a flash in the pan, however; the wound he had received was too deep to be thus healed. Some of the money was raised and paid to him, and he made studies and sketches for the painting, but his mind was now on his invention, and the painting of the picture was deferred from year to year and finally abandoned. It was characteristic of him that, when he did finally decide to give up the execution of this work, he paid back the sums which had been advanced to him, with interest.

Another grief which came to him in the summer of 1834 (to return to that year) was the death of his illustrious friend General Lafayette. The last letter received from him was written by his amanuensis and unsigned, and simply said:–

“General Lafayette, being detained by sickness, has sent to the reporter of the committee the following note, which the said reporter has read to the House.”

The note referred to is, unfortunately, missing. This letter was written on April 29 and the General died on May 20. Morse sent a letter of sympathy to the son, George Washington Lafayette, a member of the Chamber of Deputies, in which the following sentiments occur:–

“In common with this whole country, now clad in mourning, with the lovers of true liberty and of exalted philanthropy throughout the world, I bemoan the departure from earth of your immortal parent. Yet I may be permitted to indulge in additional feelings of more private sorrow at the loss of one who honored me with his friendship, and had not ceased, till within a few days of his death, to send to me occasional marks of his affectionate remembrance. Be assured, my dear Sir, that the memory of your father will be especially endeared to me and mine.”

Morse’s admiration of Lafayette was most sincere, and he was greatly influenced in his political feelings by his intercourse with that famous man. Among other opinions which he shared with Lafayette and other thoughtful men, was the fear of a Roman Catholic plot to gain control of the Government of the United States. He defended his views fearlessly and vigorously in the public press and by means of pamphlets, and later entered into a heated controversy with Bishop Spaulding of Kentucky.

I shall not attempt to treat exhaustively of these controversies, but think it only right to refer to them from time to time, not only that the clearest possible light may be shed upon Morse’s character and convictions, but to show the extraordinary activity of his brain, which, while he was struggling against obstacles of all kinds, not only to make his invention a success, but for the very means of existence, could yet busy itself with the championing of what he conceived to be the right.

To illustrate his point of view I shall quote a few extracts from a letter to R.S. Willington, Esq., who was the editor of a journal which is referred to as the “Courier.” This letter was written on May 20, 1835, when Morse’s mind, we should think, would have been wholly absorbed in the details of the infant telegraph:–

“With regard to the more important matter of the Conspiracy, I perceive with regret that the evidence which has been convincing to so many minds of the first order, and which continues daily to spread conviction of the truth of the charge I have made, is still viewed by the editors of the ‘Courier’ as inconclusive. My situation in regard to those who dissent from me is somewhat singular. I have brought against the absolute Governments of Europe a charge of conspiracy against the liberties of the United States. I support the charge by facts, and by reasonings from those facts, which produce conviction on most of those who examine the matter…. But those that dissent simply say, ‘I don’t think there is a conspiracy’; yet give no reasons for dissent. The Catholic journals very artfully make no defense themselves, but adroitly make use of the Protestant defense kindly prepared for them….

“No Catholic journal has attempted any refutation of the charge. It cannot be refuted, for it is true. And be assured, my dear sir, it is no extravagant prediction when I say that the question of Popery and Protestantism, or Absolutism and Republicanism, which in these two opposite categories are convertible terms, is fast becoming and will shortly be the _great absorbing question_, not only of this country but of the whole civilized world. I speak not at random; I speak from long and diligent observation in Europe, and from comparison of the state of affairs in this country with the state of public opinion in Europe.

“We are asleep, sir, when every freeman should be awake and look to his arms…. Surely, if the danger is groundless, there can be no harm in endeavoring to ascertain its groundlessness. If you were told your house was on fire you would hardly think of calling the man a maniac for informing you of it, even if he should use a tone of voice and gestures somewhat earnest and impassioned. The course of some of our journals on the subject of Popery has led to the belief that they are covertly under the control of the Jesuits. And let me say, sir, that the modes of control in the resources of this insidious society, notorious for its political arts and intrigues, are more numerous, more powerful, and more various than an unsuspicious people are at all conscious of….

“Mr. Y. falls into the common error and deprecates what he calls a _religious_ controversy, as if the subject of Popery was altogether religious. History, it appears to me, must have been read to very little purpose by any one who can entertain such an error in regard to the cunningest political despotism that ever cursed mankind. I must refer you to the preface of the second edition, which I send you, for my reasonings on that point. If they are not conclusive, I should be glad to be shown wherein they are defective. If they are conclusive, is it not time for every patriot to open his eyes to the truth of the fact that we are politically attacked under guise of a religious system, and is it not a serious question whether our political press should advocate the cause of foreign enemies to our government, or help to expose and repel them?”

It was in the year 1835 that Morse was appointed Professor of the Literature of the Arts of Design in the University of the City of New York, and here again we can mark the guiding hand of Fate. A few years earlier he had been tentatively offered the position of instructor of drawing at the United States Military Academy at West Point, but this offer he had promptly but courteously declined. Had he accepted it he would have missed the opportunity of meeting certain men who gave him valuable assistance. As an instructor in the University he not only received a small salary which relieved him, in a measure, from the grinding necessity of painting pot-boilers, but he had assigned to him spacious rooms in the building on Washington Square, which he could utilize not only as studio and living apartments, but as a workshop. For these rooms, however, he paid a rent, at first of $325 a year, afterwards of $400.

Three years had clasped since his first conception of the invention, and, although burning to devote himself to its perfecting, he had been compelled to hold himself in check and to devote all his time to painting. Now, however, an opportunity came to him, for he moved into the University building before it was entirely finished, and the stairways were in such an embryonic state that he could not expect sitters to attempt their perilous ascent. This enforced leisure gave him the chance he had long desired and he threw himself heart and soul into his electrical experiments. Writing of this period in later years he thus records his struggles:–

[Illustration: FIRST TELEGRAPH INSTRUMENT, 1837 Now in the National Museum, Washington]

“There I immediately commenced, with very limited means, to experiment upon my invention. My first instrument was made up of an old picture or canvas frame fastened to a table; the wheels of an old wooden clock moved by a weight to carry the paper forward; three wooden drums, upon one of which the paper was wound and passed over the other two; a wooden pendulum, suspended to the top piece of the picture or stretching-frame, and vibrating across the paper as it passes over the centre wooden drum; a pencil at the lower end of the pendulum in contact with the paper; an electro-magnet fastened to a shelf across the picture or stretching frame, opposite to an armature made fast to the pendulum; a type rule and type, for breaking the circuit, resting on an endless band composed of carpet-binding; which passed over two wooden rollers, moved by a wooden crank, and carried forward by points projecting from the bottom of the rule downward into the carpet-binding; a lever, with a small weight on the upper side, and a tooth projecting downward at one end, operated on by the type, and a metallic fork, also projecting downward, over two mercury cups; and a short circuit of wire embracing the helices of the electro-magnet connected with the positive and negative poles of the battery and terminating in the mercury cups.”

This first rude instrument was carefully preserved by the inventor, and is now in the Morse case in the National Museum at Washington. A reproduction of it is here given.

I shall omit certain technical details in the inventor’s account of this first instrument, but I wish to call attention to his ingenuity in adapting the means at his disposal to the end desired. Much capital has been made, by those who opposed his claims, out of the fact that this primitive apparatus could only produce a V-shaped mark, thus–

__ __ _
\/|__| |/\/ |/\/|__/

–and not a dot and a dash, which they insist was of later introduction and by another hand. But a reference to the sketches made on board the Sully will show that the original system of signs consisted of dots and lines, and that the first conception of the means to produce these signs was by an up-and-down motion of a lever controlled by an electro-magnet. It is easy to befog an issue by misstating facts, but the facts are here to speak for themselves, and that Morse temporarily abandoned his first idea, because he had not the means at his disposal to embody it in workable form and had recourse to another method for producing practically the same result, only shows wonderful ingenuity on his part. It can easily be seen that the waving line traced by the first instrument–thus,

__ __ _
\/|__| |/\/ |/\/|__/ –can be translated by reading the lower part into

a i u
. – . . . . – of the final Morse alphabet.

The beginnings of every great invention have been clumsy and uncouth compared with the results attained by years of study and elaboration participated in by many clever brains. Contrast the Clermont of Fulton with the floating palaces of the present day, the Rocket of Stephenson with the powerful locomotives of our mile-a-minute fliers, and the hand-press of Gutenberg with the marvellous and intricate Hoe presses of modern times. And yet the names of those who first conceived and wrought these primitive contrivances stand highest in the roll of fame; and with justice, for it is infinitely easier to improve on the suggestion of another than to originate a practical advance in human endeavor.

Returning again to Morse’s own account of his early experiments I shall quote the following sentences:–

“With this apparatus, rude as it was, and completed before the first of the year 1836, I was enabled to and did mark down telegraphic, intelligible signs, and to make and did make distinguishable sounds for telegraphing; and, having arrived at that point, I exhibited it to some of my friends early in that year, and among others to Professor Leonard D. Gale, who was a college professor in the University. I also experimented with the chemical power of the electric current in 1836, and succeeded, in marking my telegraphic signs upon paper dipped in turmeric and solution of the sulphate of soda (as well as other salts) by passing the current through it. I was soon satisfied, however, that the electro-_magnetic_ power was more available for telegraphic purposes and possessed many advantages over any other, and I turned my thoughts in that direction.

“Early in 1836 I procured forty feet of wire, and, putting it in the circuit, I found that my battery of one cup was not sufficient to work my instrument. This result suggested to me the probability that the magnetism to be obtained from the electric current would diminish in proportion as the circuit was lengthened, so as to be insufficient for any practical purposes at great distances; and, to remove that probable obstacle to my success, I conceived the idea of combining two or more circuits together in the manner described in my first patent, each with an independent battery, making use of the magnetism of the current on the first to close and break the second; the second the third; and so on.”

Thus modestly does he refer to what was, in fact, a wonderful discovery, the more wonderful because of its simplicity. Professor Horsford thus comments on it:–

“In 1835 Morse made the discovery of the _relay_, the most brilliant of all the achievements to which his name must be forever attached. It was a discovery of a means by which the current, which through distance from its source had become feeble, could be reenforced or renewed. This discovery, according to the different objects for which it is employed, is variously known as the registering magnet, the local circuit, the marginal circuit, the repeater, etc.”

Professor Horsford places the date of this discovery in the year 1835, but Morse himself, in the statement quoted above, assigned it to the early part of 1836.

It is only fair to note that the discovery of the principle of the relay was made independently by other scientists, notably by Davy, Wheatstone, and Henry, but Morse apparently antedated them by a year or two, and could not possibly have been indebted to any of them for the idea. This point has given rise to much discussion among scientists which it will not be necessary to enter into here, for all authorities agree in according to Morse independent invention of the relay.

“Up to the autumn of 1837,” again to quote Morse’s own words, “my telegraphic apparatus existed in so rude a form that I felt a reluctance to have it seen. My means were very limited–so limited as to preclude the possibility of constructing an apparatus of such mechanical finish as to warrant my success in venturing upon its public exhibition. I had no wish to expose to ridicule the representative of so many hours of laborious thought.

“Prior to the summer of 1837, at which time Mr. Alfred Vail’s attention became attracted to my telegraph, I depended upon my pencil for subsistence. Indeed, so straitened were my circumstances that, in order to save time to carry out my invention and to economize my scanty means, I had for months lodged and eaten in my studio, procuring my food in small quantities from some grocery, and preparing it myself. To conceal from my friends the stinted manner in which I lived, I was in the habit of bringing my food to my room in the evenings, and this was my mode of life for many years.”

Nearly twenty years later, in 1853, Morse referred to this trying period in his career at a meeting of the Association of the Alumni of the University:–

“Yesternight, on once more entering your chapel, I saw the same marble staircase and marble floors I once so often trod, and so often with a heart and head overburdened with almost crushing anxieties. Separated from the chapel by but a thin partition was that room I occupied, now your Philomathean Hall, whose walls–had thoughts and mental struggles, with the alternations of joys and sorrows, the power of being daguerreotyped upon them–would show a thickly studded gallery of evidence that there the Briarean infant was born who has stretched forth his arms with the intent to encircle the world. Yes, that room of the University was the birthplace of the Recording Telegraph. Attempts, indeed, have been made to assign to it other parentage, and to its birthplace other localities. Personally I have very little anxiety on this point, except that the truth should not suffer; for I have a consciousness, which neither sophistry nor ignorance can shake, that that room is the place of its birth, and a confidence, too, that its cradle is in hands that will sustain its rightful claim.”

The old building of the University of the City of New York on Washington Square has been torn down to be replaced by a mercantile structure; the University has moved to more spacious quarters in the upper part of the great city; but one of its notable buildings is the Hall of Fame, and among the first names to be immortalized in bronze in the stately colonnade was that of Samuel F.B. Morse.



First exhibitions of the Telegraph.–Testimony of Robert G. Rankin and Rev. Henry B. Tappan.–Cooke and Wheatstone.–Joseph Henry, Leonard D. Gale, and Alfred Vail.–Professor Gale’s testimony.–Professor Henry’s discoveries.–Regrettable controversy of later years.–Professor Charles T. Jackson’s claims.–Alfred Vail.–Contract of September 23, 1837.–Work at Morristown. New Jersey.–The “Morse Alphabet.”–Reading by sound.– first and second forms of alphabet.

In after years the question of the time when the telegraph was first exhibited to others was a disputed one; it will, therefore, be well to give the testimony of a few men of undoubted integrity who personally witnessed the first experiments.

Robert G. Rankin, Esq., gave his reminiscences to Mr. Prime, from which I shall select the following passages:–

“Professor Morse was one of the purest and noblest men of any age. I believe I was among the earliest, outside of his family circle, to whom he communicated his design to encircle the globe with wire….

“Some time in the fall of 1835 I was passing along the easterly walk of Washington Parade-Ground, leading from Waverly Place to Fourth Street, when I heard my name called. On turning round I saw, over the picketfence, an outstretched arm from a person standing in the middle or main entrance door of the unfinished University building of New York, and immediately recognized the professor, who beckoned me toward him. On meeting and exchanging salutations,–and you know how genial his were,– he took me by the arm and said:

“‘I wish you to go up in my sanctum and examine a piece of mechanism, which, if you may not believe in, _you_, at least, will not laugh at, as I fear some others will. I want you to give me your frank opinion as a friend, for I know your interest in and love of the applied sciences.'”

Here follow a description of what he saw and Morse’s explanation, and, then he continues:–

“A long silence on the part of each ensued, which was at length broken by my exclamation: ‘Well, professor, you have a pretty play!–theoretically true but practically useful only as a mantel ornament, or for a mistress in the parlor to direct the maid in the cellar! But, professor, _cui bono?_ In imagination one can make a new earth and improve all the land communications of our old one, but my unfortunate practicality stands in the way of my comprehension as yet.’

“We then had a long conversation on the subject of magnetism and its modifications, and if I do not recollect the very words which clothed his thoughts, they were substantially as follows.

“He had been long impressed with the belief that God had created the great forces of nature, not only as manifestations of his own infinite power, but as expressions of good-will to man, to do him good, and that every one of God’s great forces could yet be utilized for man’s welfare; that modern science was constantly evolving from the hitherto hidden secrets of nature some new development promotive of human welfare; and that, at no distant day, magnetism would do more for the advancement of human sociology than any of the material forces yet known; that he would scarcely dare to compare spiritual with material forces, yet that, analogically, 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 forces of the world…. He said he had felt as if he was doing a great work for God’s glory as well as for man’s welfare; that such had been his long cherished thought. His whole soul and heart appeared filled with a glow of love and good-will, and his sensitive and impassioned nature seemed almost to transform him in my eyes into a prophet.”

It required, indeed, the inspirational vision of a prophet to foresee, in those narrow, skeptical days, the tremendous part which electricity was to play in the civilization of a future age, and I wish again to lay stress on the fact that it was the telegraph which first harnessed this mysterious force, and opened the eyes of the world to the availability of a power which had lain dormant through all the ages, but which was now, for the first time, to be brought under the control of man, and which was destined to rival, and eventually to displace, in many ways, its elder brother steam. Was not Morse’s ambition to confer a lasting good on his fellowmen more fully realized than even he himself at that time comprehended?

The Reverend Henry B. Tappan, who in 1835 was a colleague of Morse’s in the New York University and afterwards President of the University of Michigan, gave his testimony in reply to a request from Morse, and, among other things, he said:–

“In 1835 you had advanced so far that you were prepared to give, on a small scale, a practical demonstration of the possibility of transmitting and recording words through distance by means of an electro-magnetic arrangement. I was one of the limited circle whom you invited to witness the first experiments. In a long room of the University you had wires extended from end to end, where the magnetic apparatus was arranged.

“It is not necessary for me to describe particulars which have now become familiar to every one. The fact which I recall with the liveliest interest, and which I mentioned in conversation at Mr. Bancroft’s as one of the choicest recollections of my life, was that of the first transmission and recording of a telegraphic dispatch.

“I suppose, of course, that you had already made these experiments before the company arrived whom you had invited. But I claim to have witnessed _the first transmission and recording of words_ by lightning ever made public…. The arrangement which you exhibited on the above mentioned occasion, as well as the mode of receiving the dispatches, were substantially the same as those you now employ. I feel certain that you had then already grasped the whole invention, however you may have since perfected the details.”

Others bore testimony in similar words, so that we may regard it as proved that, both in 1835 and 1836, demonstrations were made which, uncouth though they were, compared to present-day perfection, proved that the electric telegraph was about to emerge from the realms of fruitless experiment. Among these witnesses were Daniel Huntington, Hon. Hamilton Fish, and Commodore Shubrick; and several of these gentlemen asserted that, at that early period, Morse confidently predicted that Europe and America would eventually be united by an electric wire.

The letters written by Morse during these critical years have become hopelessly dispersed, and but few have come into my possession. His brothers were both in New York, so that there was no necessity of writing to them, and the letters written to others cannot, at this late day, be traced. As he also, unfortunately, did not keep a journal, I must depend on the testimony of others, and on his own recollections in later years for a chronicle of his struggles. The pencil copy of a letter written to a friend in Albany, on August 27, 1837, has, however, survived, and the following sentences will, I think, be found interesting:–

“Thanks to you, my dear C—-, for the concern you express in regard to my health. It has been perfectly good and is now, with the exception of a little anxiety in relation to the telegraph and to my great pictorial undertaking, which wears the furrows of my face a little deeper. My Telegraph, in all its essential points, is tested to my own satisfaction and that of the scientific gentlemen who have seen it; but the machinery (all which, from its peculiar character, I have been compelled to make myself) is imperfect, and before it can be perfected I have reason to fear that other nations will take the hint and rob me both of the credit and the profit. There are indications of this in the foreign journals lately received. I have a defender in the ‘Journal of Commerce’ (which I send you that you may know what is the progress of the matter), and doubtless other journals of our country will not allow foreign nations to take the credit of an invention of such vast importance as they assign to it, when they learn that it certainly belongs to America.

“There is not a thought in any one of the foreign journals relative to the Telegraph which I had not expressed nearly five years ago, on my passage from France, to scientific friends; and when it is considered how quick a hint flies from mind to mind and is soon past all tracing back to the original suggester of the hint, it is certainly by no means improbable that the excitement on the subject in England has its origin from my giving the details of the plan of my Telegraph to some of the Englishmen or other fellow-passengers on board the ship, or to some of the many I have since made acquainted with it during the five years past.”

In this he was mistaken, for the English telegraph of Cooke and Wheatstone was quite different in principle, using the deflection, by a current of electricity, of a delicately adjusted needle to point to the letters of the alphabet. While this was in use in England for a number of years, it was gradually superseded by the Morse telegraph which proved its decided superiority. It is also worthy of note that in this letter, and in all future letters and articles, he, with pardonable pride, uses a capital T in speaking of his Telegraph.

One of the most difficult of the problems which confront the historian who sincerely wishes to deal dispassionately with his subject is justly to apportion the credit which must be given to different workers in the same field of endeavor, and especially in that of invention; for every invention is but an improvement on something which has gone before. The sail-boat was an advance on the rude dugout propelled by paddles. The first clumsy steamboat seemed a marvel to those who had known no other propulsive power than that of the wind or the oar. The horse-drawn vehicle succeeded the litter and the palanquin, to be in turn followed by the locomotive; and so the telegraph, as a means of rapidly communicating intelligence between distant points, was the logical successor of the signal fire and the semaphore.

In all of these improvements by man upon what man had before accomplished, the pioneer was not only dependent upon what his predecessors had achieved, but, in almost every case, was compelled to call to his assistance other workers to whom could be confided some of the minutiae which were essential to the successful launching of the new enterprise.

I have shown conclusively that the idea of transmitting intelligence by electricity was original with Morse in that he was unaware, until some years after his first conception, that anyone else had ever thought of it. I have also shown that he, unaided by others, invented and made with his own hands a machine, rude though it may have been, which actually did transmit and record intelligence by means of the electric current, and in a manner entirely different from the method employed by others. But he had now come to a point where knowledge of what others had accomplished along the same line would greatly facilitate his labors, and when the assistance of one more skilled in mechanical construction was a great desideratum, and both of these essentials were at hand. It is quite possible that he might have succeeded in working out the problem absolutely unaided, just as a man might become a great painter without instruction, without a knowledge of the accumulated wisdom of those who preceded him, and without the assistance of the color-maker and the manufacturer of brushes and canvas. But the artist is none the less a genius because he listens to the counsels of his master, profits by the experience of others, and purchases his supplies instead of grinding his own colors and laboriously manufacturing his own canvas and brushes.

The three men to whom Morse was most indebted for material assistance in his labors at this critical period were Professor Joseph Henry, Professor Leonard D. Gale, and Alfred Vail, and it is my earnest desire to do full justice to all of them. Unfortunately after the telegraph had become an assured success, and even down to the present day, the claims of Morse have been bitterly assailed, both by well-meaning persons and by the unscrupulous who sought to break down his patent rights; and the names of these three men were freely used in the effort to prove that to one or all of them more credit was due than to Morse.

Now, after the lapse of nearly three quarters of a century, the verdict has been given in favor of Morse, his name alone is accepted as that of the Inventor of the Telegraph, and in this work it is my aim to prove that the judgment of posterity has not erred, but also to give full credit to those who aided him when he was most in need of assistance. My task in some instances will be a delicate one; I shall have to prick some bubbles, for the friends of some of these men have claimed too much for them, and, on that account, have been bitter in their accusations against Morse. I shall also have to acknowledge some errors of judgment on the part of Morse, for the malice of others fomented a dispute between him and one of these three men, which caused a permanent estrangement and was greatly to be regretted.

The first of the three to enter into the history of the telegraph was Leonard D. Gale, who, in 1836, was a professor in the University of the City of New York, and he has given his recollections of those early days. Avoiding a repetition of facts already recorded I shall quote some sentences from Professor Gale’s statement. After describing the first instrument, which he saw in January of 1836, he continues:–

“During the years 1836 and beginning of 1837 the studies of Professor Morse on his telegraph I found much interrupted by his attention to his professional duties. I understood that want of pecuniary means prevented him from procuring to be made such mechanical improvements, and such substantial workmanship, as would make the operation of his invention more exact.

“In the months of March and April, 1837, the announcement of an extraordinary telegraph on the visual plan (as it afterwards proved to be), the invention of two French gentlemen of the names of Gonon and Servell, was going the rounds of the papers. The thought occurred to me, as well as to Professor Morse and some others of his friends, that the invention of his electro-magnetic telegraph had somehow become known, and was the origin of the new telegraph thus conspicuously announced. This announcement at once aroused Professor Morse to renewed exertions to bring the new invention creditably before the public, and to consent to a public announcement of the existence of his invention. From April to September, 1837, Professor Morse and myself were engaged together in the work of preparing magnets, winding wire, constructing batteries, etc., in the University for an experiment on a larger, but still very limited scale, in the little leisure that each had to spare, and being at the same time much cramped for funds….

“The latter part of August, 1887, the operation of the instruments was shown to numerous visitors at the University….

“On Saturday, the 2d of September, 1837, Professor Daubeny, of the English Oxford University, being on a visit to this country, was invited with a few friends to see the operation of the telegraph, in its then rude form, in the cabinet of the New York University, where it had then been put up with a circuit of seventeen hundred feet of copper wire stretched back and forth in that long room. Professor Daubeny, Professor Torrey, and Mr. Alfred Vail were present among others. This exhibition of the telegraph, although of very rude and imperfectly constructed machinery, demonstrated to all present the practicability of the invention, and it resulted in enlisting the means, the skill, and the zeal of Mr. Alfred Vail, who, early the next week, called at the rooms and had a more perfect explanation from Professor Morse of the character of the invention.”

It was Professor Gale who first called Morse’s attention to the discoveries of Professor Joseph Henry, especially to that of the intensity magnet, and he thus describes the interesting event:–

“Morse’s machine was complete in all its parts and operated perfectly through a circuit of some forty feet, but there was not sufficient force to send messages to a distance. At this time I was a lecturer on chemistry, and from necessity was acquainted with all kinds of galvanic batteries, and knew that a battery of one or a few cups generates a large quantity of electricity capable of producing heat, etc., but not of projecting electricity to a great distance, and that, to accomplish this, a battery of many cups is necessary. It was, therefore, evident to me that the one large cup-battery of Morse should be made into ten or fifteen smaller ones to make it a battery of intensity so as to project the electric fluid…. Accordingly I substituted the battery of many cups for the battery of one cup. The remaining defect in the Morse machine, as first seen by me, was that the coil of wire around the poles of the electro-magnet consisted of but a few turns only, while, to give the greatest projectile power, the number of turns should be increased from tens to hundreds, as shown by Professor Henry in his paper published in the ‘American Journal of Science,’ 1831…. After substituting the battery of twenty cups for that of a single cup, we added some hundred or more turns to the coil of wire around the poles of the magnet and sent a message through two hundred feet of conductors, then through one thousand feet, and then through ten miles of wire arranged on reels in my own lecture-room in the New York University in the presence of friends.”

This was a most important step in hastening the reduction of the invention to a practical, workable basis and I wish here to bear testimony to the great services of Professor Henry in making this possible. His valuable discoveries were freely given to the world with no attempt on his part to patent them, which is, perhaps, to be regretted, but much more is it to be deplored that, in, the litigation which ensued a few years later, Morse and Henry were drawn into a controversy, fostered and fomented by others for their own pecuniary benefit, which involved the honor and veracity of both of these distinguished men. Both were men of the greatest sensitiveness, proud and jealous of their own integrity, and the breach once made was never healed. Of the rights and wrongs of this controversy I may have occasion later on to treat more in detail, although I should much prefer to dismiss it with the acknowledgment that there was much to deplore in what was said and written by Morse, although he sincerely believed himself to be in the right, and much to regret in some of the statements and actions of Henry.