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Samuel F. B. Morse was an inventor and painter from the United States. He painted portraits for half of his life and then helped invent the single-wire telegraph modeled after milt-wire European systems. He co-developed Morse code and assisted in the development of telegraphy for commercial use when he missed his wife’s death and funeral due to the slow system for transmitting messages at the time.

Youth and Education

Samuel Finley Breese Morse was born on April 27, 1791, in Charlestown, Massachusetts to parents Jedediah Morse, a pastor, and Elizabeth Anne Finley Breese. Jedediah Morse supported the American Federalist party as a Calvinist preacher. He educated his son from a young age with this Federalist mentality and through morals and prayer from his Calvinist teachings. Samuel Morse attended the Phillips Academy located in Andover, Massachusetts.

Morse graduated and enrolled in Yale to study mathematics, horses, and religious philosophy. He attended electricity lectures given by Jeremiah Day and Benjamin Silliman and joined the Society of Brother in Unity. He could afford to live by painting. Morse graduated from Yale in 1810 with Phi Beta Kappa honors. [1]

Painting Career

Samuel Morse supported his university education by painting portraits and images like the Landing of the Pilgrims. He incorporated his Calvinist beliefs through subject matter and the simple, austere faces and clothing of those he portrayed. On July 15, 1811, Morse accompanied the artist Washington Allston to England to study painting for three years and meet another well-known artist, Benjamin West.

The Royal Academy accepted Morse at the end of 1811 where he studied Renaissance artists like Raphael and Michelangelo. He produced his most famous work, the masterpiece “Dying Hercules.” Some interpreted the painting as a negative commentary on Federalist in the U.S. and the British. This occurred during the War of 1812 when loyalties conflicted between different London societies. Morse appeared to stray from his father’s federalist beliefs and took on a more anti-Federalist tone.

Another important painting he produced in England, Judgement of Jupiter, expressed Morse’s Calvinist heritage. He returned to the U.S. in August 1815 to start his professional painting career. He painted many important figures and places between 1815 and 1825 including President John Adams, President John Monroe, the Hall of Congress, the Marquis de Lafayette, and other elite across the Eastern U.S. and in Europe. Morse helped found the New York National Academy of Design in 1826 and served as its president from 1826-1845 and 1861-1862.[2]

Invention of the Electronic Telegraph

While working on the portrait of Marquis de Lafayette in Washington, D.C., Samuel Morse received a letter regarding his first wife falling ill and another informing him that she died. He felt heartbroken that he could not reach her before the funeral, so he grew interested in establishing a system for fast, long distance communication.[3] While traveling from Europe back to the U.S. in 1832, Morse met Charles Thomas Jackson, a Boston man who conducted experiments with electromagnetism. Morse witnessed several of these experiments and began formulating the idea of a single-wire telegraph.

The first problem occurred when the signal refused to carry further than over a few hundred meters of wire. Leonard Gale, a chemistry professor at New York University, helped Morse overcome this issue. He used extra circuits, also known as relays, at regular intervals along the line and could soon send a message ten miles.[4] Jackson claimed to invent the telegraph in 1837 and in September Morse filed a caveat for a patent on his telegraph. He stopped painting that December to focus on the telegraph.

Samuel Morse struggled with patent rights for his invention from the very beginning and it took several decades to secure his full rights.

On January 24, 1838, Morse showcased the telegraph to his friends at the university after he changed the telegraphic dictionary from coding words to coding individual letters. Then on February 8, Samuel Morse presented his invention to a committee of scientists at Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Eventually, he received financial support from Francis Ormand Jonathan Smith, a senator from Maine, to continue his work. In 1840, the U.S. granted Morse a patent for the telegraph.[5]

In 1843, Congress set aside $30,000 to construct a 38-mile line between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, Maryland along the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The underground lead pipes initially used failed and they instead placed the poles above the ground. On May 24, 1844, Samuel Morse sent the first successful, long-distance telegraph stating, “What hath God wrought?” In 1846, Morse’s patent faces threats from Henry O’Reilly’s company, but survives. By 1849, more than 12,000 miles of telegraph lines across the U.S. The Supreme Court verified Morse’s patent in 1854 and he began receiving royalties. On August 16, 1858, the first successful transatlantic cable arrived in England from the U.S and on September 1, Samuel Morse receives 400,000 French francs for his invention.[6]

Marriage, Later Years, and Death

Samuel Morse never lost his religious roots and spent his later years trying to identify the relationship between religion and science.

On September 29, 1818, Samuel F. B. Morse married Lucretia Pickering Walker in Concord, New Hampshire. The couple produced three children, Susan in 1819, Charles in 1823, and James in 1825. She died on February 7, 1825, soon after the birth of James. Morse married again on August 10, 1848, to Sarah Elizabeth Griswold in Utica, New York. The couple bore four children, Samuel in 1849, Cornelia in 1851, William in 1853, and Edward in 1857.[7]

Morse supported many charitable causes in his later years and donated funds to create a lectureship on “the relation of the Bible to the Sciences.”[8] He lived off the royalties from the telegraph for the rest of his life. Morse died on April 2, 1872, in New York City. His remains are buried in Brooklyn, New York in the Green-Wood Cemetery.[9]



Bellis, M. (2016, August 10). Timeline Biography of Samuel Morse, 1791 - 1872. About Money - Inventors.

Standage, T. (2014). The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers (2nd ed.). New York, NY, United States: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC.


  1. Mabee, C. (2000). The American Leonardo, a Life of Samuel F. B. Morse. Tucson, AZ, United States: Purple Mountain Press.
  2. Bellion, W. (2011). Citizen Spectator: Art, Illusion, and Visual Perception in Early National America. United States: The University of North Carolina Press.
  3. Bellis, 2016
  4. Standage, 2014
  5. Bellis, 2016
  6. Bellis, 2016
  7. Bellis, 2016
  8. Standage, 2014
  9. Find A Grave. (2001, January 1). Samuel Finley Breese Morse (1791 - 1872). Find A Grave Memorial.

Sarah Bradlee Fulton. (n.d.).[1]