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Biography of Samuel Morse 1791 - 1872



Sketch by Samuel Morse

Sketch by Samuel Morse

Self Portrait by Samuel Morse


On April 27, Samuel Finley Breese Morse is born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, the first child of Jedidiah Morse, a Congregational minister and geographer, and Elizabeth Ann Finley Breese.


Morse enters Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts.


Alessandro Volta of Italy creates the "voltaic pile," a battery that produces a reliable, steady current of electricity.


Samuel Morse enters Yale College at age fourteen. He hears lectures on electricity from Benjamin Silliman and Jeremiah Day. While at Yale, he earns money by painting small portraits of friends, classmates, and teachers. A profile goes for one dollar; and a miniature portrait on ivory sells for five dollars.


Samuel Morse graduates from Yale College and returns to Charlestown, Massachusetts. Despite his wishes to be a painter and encouragement from the famed American painter Washington Allston, Morse's parents plan for him to be a bookseller's apprentice. He becomes a clerk for Daniel Mallory, his father's Boston book publisher.


In July, Morse's parents relent and let him set sail for England with Washington Allston. He attends the Royal Academy of Arts in London and receives instruction from the famed Pennsylvania-born painter Benjamin West. In December, Morse rooms with Charles Leslie of Philadelphia, who is also studying painting. They become friends with the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. While in England, Morse also befriends the American painter Charles Bird King, the American actor John Howard Payne, and the English painter Benjamin Robert Haydon.


Samuel Morse models a plaster statuette of The Dying Hercules, which wins a gold medal at the Adelphi Society of Arts exhibition in London. His subsequent 6' x 8' painting of The Dying Hercules is exhibited at the Royal Academy and receives critical acclaim.


In October, Samuel Morse returns to the United States and Morse opens an art studio in Boston.


In search of portrait commissions to support himself, Morse travels to New Hampshire. In Concord, he meets Lucretia Pickering Walker, aged sixteen, and they are soon engaged to be married.


While in Charlestown, Samuel Morse and his brother Sidney patent a flexible-piston man-powered water pump for fire engines. They demonstrate it successfully, but it is a commercial failure.

Morse spends the rest of the year painting in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.


On September 29, Lucretia Pickering Walker and Morse are married in Concord, New Hampshire. Morse spends the winter in Charleston, South Carolina, where he receives many portrait commissions. This is the first of four annual trips to Charleston.


On September 2, Morse's first child, Susan Walker Morse, is born. The city of Charleston commissions Morse to paint a portrait of President James Monroe.


The Danish physicist Hans Christian Oersted discovers that electric current in a wire generates a magnetic field that can deflect a compass needle. This property will eventually be used in the design of some electromagnetic telegraph systems.


While living with his family in New Haven, Morse paints such distinguished individuals as Eli Whitney, Yale president Jeremiah Day, and his neighbor Noah Webster. He also paints in Charleston and Washington, D.C.


Samuel Morse invents a marble-cutting machine that can carve three dimensional sculpture in marble or stone. He discovers that it is not patentable because it infringes on an 1820 design by Thomas Blanchard.

Morse finishes an eighteen-month project to paint The House of Representatives, an oversize scene of the Rotunda of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. It contains more than eighty portraits of members of Congress and justices of the Supreme Court, but loses money during its public exhibition.


On March 17, a second child, Charles Walker Morse, is born. Morse opens an art studio in New York City.


The Marquis de Lafayette makes his last visit to the United States. The City of New York commissions Morse to paint a portrait of Lafayette for $1,000. On January 7, a third child, James Edward Finley Morse, is born. On February 7, Morse's wife, Lucretia, dies suddenly at age twenty-five. By the time he is notified and returns home to New Haven, she has already been buried. In November, artists in New York City form a drawing cooperative, the New York Drawing Association, and elect Morse president. It is run by and for artists, and its goals include art instruction.

William Sturgeon invents the electromagnet, which will be a key component of the telegraph.


January in New York, Samuel Morse becomes a founder and first president of the National Academy of Design, which has been established in reaction to the conservative American Academy of Fine Arts. Morse is president on and off for nineteen years. On June 9, his father, Jedidiah Morse, dies.


Morse helps launch the New York Journal of Commerce and publishes Academics of Art.

Professor James Freeman Dana of Columbia College gives a series of lectures on electricity and electromagnetism at the New York Athenaeum, where Morse also lectures. Through their friendship, Morse becomes more familiar with the properties of electricity.

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