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The Communication Revolution

Samuel Morse & The Telegraph


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The word "telegraph" is derived from Greek and means "to write far"; so it is a very exact word, for to write far is precisely what we did when we sent a telegram.

At the height of it use, telegraph technology involved a worldwide system of wires with stations and operators and messengers, that carried messages and news by electricity faster than any other invention before it.


The first crude telegraph system was made without electricity. It was a system of semaphores, or tall poles with movable arms, and other signaling apparatus, set within physical sight of one another.

There was such a telegraph line between Dover and London at during the Battle of Waterloo; that related the news of the battle, which had come to Dover by ship, to an anxious London, when a fog set in (obscuring the line of sight) and the Londoners had to wait until a courier on horseback arrived.

Electrical Telegraph

The electrical telegraph is one of America's gifts to the world. The honor for this invention falls to Samuel Finley Breese Morse. Other inventors had discovered the principles of the telegraph, but Samuel Morse was the first to perceive the practical significance of those facts; and was the first to take steps to make a practical invention; which took him twelve long years of work.

Samuel Morse - Early Life

Samuel Morse was born in 1791, in Charlestown, Massachusetts. His father was a Congregational minister and a scholar of high standing, who was able to send his three sons to Yale College. Samuel (or Finley, as he was called by his family) attended Yale at the age of fourteen and was taught by Benjamin Silliman, Professor of Chemistry, and Jeremiah Day, Professor of Natural Philosophy, later President of Yale College, whose teaching gave Samuel the education which in later years led to the invention of the telegraph.

"Mr. Day's lectures are very interesting," the young student wrote home in 1809; "they are upon electricity; he has given us some very fine experiments, the whole class taking hold of hands form the circuit of communication and we all receive the shock apparently at the same moment."

Samuel Morse - The Painter

Samuel Morse was gifted as an artist; in fact, he earned a part of his college expenses painting miniatures at five dollars apiece. He even decided at first to become an artist rather than an inventor.

Fellow student Joseph M. Dulles of Philadelphia wrote the following about Samuel, "Finley [Samuel Morse] bore the expression of gentleness entirely... with intelligence, high culture, and general information, and with a strong bent to the fine arts."

Soon after graduating from Yale, Samuel Morse made the acquaintance of Washington Allston, an American artist. Allston was then living in Boston, but was planning to return to England, he arranged for Morse to accompany him as his pupil. In 1811, Samuel Morse went to England with Allston and returned to America four years later an accredited portrait painter, having studied not only under Allston but under the famous master, Benjamin West. He opened a studio in Boston, taking commissions for portraits


Samuel Morse married Lucretia Walker in 1818. His reputation as a painter increased steadily, and in 1825 he was in Washington painting a portrait of the Marquis La Fayette, for the city of New York, when he heard from his father the bitter news of his wife's death. Leaving the portrait of La Fayette unfinished, the heartbroken artist made his way home.

Artist or Inventor

Two years after his wife's death, Samuel Morse was again obsessed with the marvels of electricity, as he had been in college, after attending a series of lectures on that subject given by James Freeman Dana at Columbia College. The two men became friends. Dana visited Morse's studio often, where the two men would talk for hours.

However, Samuel Morse was still devoted to his art, he had himself and three children to support, and painting was his only source of income. In 1829, he returned to Europe to study art for three years.

Then came the turning point in the life of Samuel Morse. In the autumn of 1832, while travelling home by ship, Samuel Morse joined a conversation with a few scientists scientific men who were on board. One of the passengers asked this question: "Is the velocity of electricity reduced by the length of its conducting wire?" One of the men replied that electricity passes instantly over any known length of wire and referred to Franklin's experiments with several miles of wire, in which no appreciable time elapsed between a touch at one end and a spark at the other.

This was the seed of knowledge that led the mind of Samuel Morse to invent the telegraph.

In November of 1832, Samuel Morse found himself on the horns of a dilemma. To give up his profession as an artist meant that he would have no income; on the other hand, how could he continue wholeheartedly painting pictures while consumed with the idea of the telegraph? He would have to go on painting and develop his telegraph in what time he could spare.

His brothers, Richard and Sidney, were both living in New York and they did what they could for him, giving him a room in a building they had erected at Nassau and Beekman Streets.

Samuel Morse's Poverty

How very poor Samuel Morse was about this time is indicated by a story told by General Strother of Virginia who hired Morse to teach him how to paint:

I paid the money [tuition], and we dined together. It was a modest meal, but good, and after he [Morse] had finished, he said, "This is my first meal for twenty-four hours. Strother, don't be an artist. It means beggary. Your life depends upon people who know nothing of your art and care nothing for you. A house dog lives better, and the very sensitiveness that stimulates an artist to work keeps him alive to suffering."

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