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Morse and the Telegraph | The Nation

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Morse and the Telegraph

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The great portrait painter and inventor who will forever be memorialized in a series of dots and dashes.

About the Author

The evolution of a great idea and the patient endeavor by which it became a practical achievement.

When Samuel F. B. Morse conceived the idea of the electric telegraph, in 1832, he renounced a distinguished past. He was forty-one years old, a successful portrait painter, founder and president of the National Academy of Design. His life had been a broken one. In those days, a portrait painter was perforce an itinerant. He had not been able to live for any long time at home, and after nine short years of married happiness his young wife had been torn from him by sudden death, and their three children had gone to relatives. These vicissitudes had hardened his character for a new struggle far more bitter than any he had known. One feels this hardness in his European diaries of 1830 to 1832. He seldom relaxes in holiday vein. The superstition and the frivolity of the Europeans chiefly strike him. The Puritan asserts itself. He had gone to Europe in the hope of breaking out of the groove of portraiture, and realizing early aspirations to the historical style, but the mood is that of a tired and dissatisfied man. One would hardly credit him with the combative energy which he was to show for a bitter ten years to come.

The great idea came to him quite casually when returning to New York, on the packet Sully, in October, 1832. In the cabin one night the talk was of the new electrical discoveries. Dr. C. T. Jackson, of Boston, described the possibility of noting the current simultaneously at any part of a long circuit. Morse remarked: "If the presence of electricity can be made visible in any part of the circuit, I can see no reason why intelligence may not be transmitted instantaneously by electricity."

Unknown to Morse, others were working at the same problem, notably Wheatstone in England and Steinheil in Germany. Military and marine signaling already used the principle of the alphabet. Morse's merit was to conceive once for all the apparatus by which electrical telegraphy became practical. As he himself sensibly insisted during the unhappy controversies which accompanied the perfecting of the invention, the telegraph was not an idea, but a machine. The essentials of the machine he worked out before the Sully reached Sandy Hook.

I.

In view of subsequent controversies about the invention, it is unfortunate that the original notebook which Morse used on the Sully has disappeared. Yet there is no reason to distrust the copy which he made himself of the essential sheets. From the facsimiles in the new official biography, it is clear that Morse at once grasped the notion of the recording key. There is a sketch of a balanced lever with a stylus which bears on a moving strip of paper served from rolls. When the lever is held by the powerful magnet in the magnetic circle, the stylus scores the paper; when the circuit is broken, a weak local magnet raises the lever with its stylus from the paper. In other words, when the electric circuit was closed, a continuous line was made on the paper, and this line, by breaking the circuit for longer or shorter intervals, might be traced in dots and in dashes of any desired length. By breaking and closing the circuit at any point, the same dots and dashes would be recorded by any number of such keys. Mechanically and scientifically the apparatus was right from that moment in October, 1832, when Morse casually scrawled on pages 25, 26, and 29 of his pocket notebook. The perfecting of the invention concerned chiefly working the dots and dashes into the most convenient sort of code, and assuring circuits of sufficient power, length, and permanency. In all these later developments we enter a highly controversial field, with confusing claims and counter-claims. So we do well to remember that from the first flash of invention in Morse's mind there has been no radical change in the telegraph as an apparatus, merely refinements on Morse's principle, no change in the visible units by which the communication is made. Two of the most essential improvements have been claimed for his later partner, Alfred Vail, the alphabetic code and the relay which permits indefinite lengthening of the circuit. This matter we must consider briefly in its turn.

But before opening so contentious a chapter, one would willingly dwell on that flash of vision by which a difficult problem is once for all solved, a revolution effected in the turn of an eye. Of course, no such thing comes literally out of the blue. Morse had long had an intelligent interest in the new discoveries in electricity. At Yale, he writes with enthusiasm about Professor Day's experiment in the "Philosophical Chamber," and Professor Dwight's lectures. Later, in New York, he heard Prof. J.M. Dana in public lectures and demonstrations. He had never heard of Joseph Henry's researches at Princeton, which might greatly have shortened his labors and prevented the most infelicitous of his many controversies. Yet the smattering of electrical lore which he gained was enough. Men of his sort build on the broadest general principles which ordinarily they assume. Their business is with application. Their task is not that of science, but of supermechanics. Morse himself was wholly conscious of his role when he insisted that the telegraph was a machine. He was large-minded enough to distinguish between those who create and enlarge science and those who set it to work. It is a distinction that needs to be repeated and emphasized in an ego that tends to confuse the Morses and Edisons with the Faradays and Kelvins.

II.

Fenimore Cooper, with other friends of Morse's, always insisted that before the memorable voyage of the Sully he had talked about and studied telegraphy in France. Morse himself had no recollections of the alleged conversations and studies, but was unwilling to question the memories of his friends. How much such stories lie in the realm of myth it is now impossible to decide. In any case, we do not need these European stages of the legend, for Morse plainly merely represents in its highest and most accomplished type the inventive Yankee, by birth and inclination. I suppose there are few of our old New England stocks where the family skeleton in disused closet or attic is not crowded by wooden and metal contrivances which are the models of patented or patentable inventions. Generation by generation the necessity to patent or copyright something persists in such stock, usually to their financial detriment, and those who have patented nothing at least dream of so doing, and lend money to those who put such dreams into action. Often it is an unselfish desire, half artistic, or a mere expedient to secure comfort. The best solution of the problem of bifocal spectacles has been worked out by the keeper of a knicknack shop in a small New England port. He has never taken the trouble to patent it. It is enough that his own glasses no longer bother him.

Of such a line came Samuel F. B. Morse. His father was an orthodox Congregational clergyman in Charlestown, Mass., but the family prospered, not by virtue of the salary, but from a geography and a gazeteer which the Reverend Jedediah had compiled. Morse himself, in his young manhood, had invented, as preliminaries to the telegraph, a pump, a fire engine, and a machine for mechanically reproducing sculpture. What is peculiar in Morse's case is not the super-Yankee inventor, but the fact that he belonged as well to the "Brahmin class," which is generally uninventive. He had withal a massiveness and persistency of character which is again commoner in the New England urban aristocracy than in the rural class from which the inventions generally come. He was an inventor superimposed upon an artist and an intellectuel. Of all the qualities he had need, and they were put to sore test before the day of ultimate triumph.

As soon as Morse landed in New York, he began to work at his model; but there were many threads to take up, and it was not until 1835 that he fully committed himself to the new venture. His decision was precipitated by the shipwreck of his artistic ambitions. Congress had voted funds for four mural paintings to complete the decoration of the Capitol at Washington. Morse, as president of the National Academy, had the best prospects of getting one of the panels. President John Quincy Adams,however, distrustful of American talent, entered a resolution opening the competition to foreigners. This action was sharply criticized in a letter in the Evening Post, which was generally attributed to Morse. It was, in fact, the well-intentioned championship of his friend, Fenimore Cooper, which had put him out of the running. From this chagrin Morse never recovered. He came to regret his devotion to painting. It was much more than the loss of a promising commission, it was the dashing of the hopes of a lifetime to excel in the historical and monumental style. He burned his bridges, but with prudence, gradually withdrawing from portraiture as other support offered, and resigning as soon as he honorably could the presidency of the Academy. Immediately he accepted a professorship of the literature of the arts of design in the University of New York, honorable drudgery which nearly afforded a livelihood. There, from 1835 on, in the now vanished building on Washington Square, he worked out the details of the great invention. At times his poverty was extreme. He lived frugally on the provisions which he brought into his studio after nightfall. As a great personage in New York, he must conceal the narrowness of his life.

III.

For several years he was on wrong tracks. He experimented with a dictionary code, the signals representing entire words and phrases. His feeling was still that the telegraph would be used only for important and secret business. But as early as the notebook of 1832, he had seen that the letter code must sometimes be used, as in proper names. For a long time, too, he made the signals by notched types which mechanically broke the current. Eventually this plan was abandoned for freehand manipulation of the key. For the key itself, after experiment with a pendulum form, he returned to the simple apparatus sketched in the memorable notebook. Before the year 1835 had closed, he had, unaided, carried the machine to the point where he could transmit messages through about forty feet of wire. It seems that he independently discovered the principle of the relay, but the difficulty persisted of obtaining current enough to record a message through a single circuit of more than forty feet. At this point a new colleague, Prof. Leonard P. Gale, came to the rescue. He was conversant with the recent discoveries of Joseph Henry. Once multicellular batteries and more powerful magnets were installed, it was easy to transmit messages over ten miles of wire.

In the late summer and autumn of 1837 Morse gave a number of demonstrations with a circuit 1,700 feet long. On September 2 there was present among greater notables Alfred Vail, a young alumnus of the University. His family owned the Speedwell Iron Works at Morristown, N.J., were prosperous and influential. He offered himself as Morse's ally, agreeing to finance the experimental stages of the invention, and to make the working models. Vail's mechanical cleverness was much superior to Morse's, and while any attempt to allot credit for the machine that finally was patented seems impossible, it is to be presumed that Vail's influence may be traced in the gradual simplification of the apparatus. It should be noticed, however, that such simplifications are invariably only so many returns to the sketch-book of 1832. The probability is, then, that at a time when Morse may have been somewhat confused by the many alternatives presented from his own teeming mind, Vail, reviewing the whole course of experimentation with greater coolness and detachment, aided substantially in the choice of the better possibilities. There is no question that he brought a great access of strength and encouragement to Morse at a critical time. It Is not easy to exaggerate the moral support he brought to his partner. He was loyal under trying circumstances.

It is not unnatural that local patriotism and the piety of descendants have created a Vail legend which credits to him the Invention of the alphabetical code and the local circuit. It should be said, however, that he never personally claimed either invention, and that the evidence seems conclusive that Morse had solved both problems before he met Vail in 1837. The claims for Vail, which have produced a considerable controversial literature, seem to the reviewer based on a misconception entirely honest but untenable. The machines which Vail unquestionably made are regarded as marking the discovery of the principles under which they were operated. The wording of his diaries often lends color to such a misinterpretation, quite innocently, for, of course, he was adventuring in a field new to him. As a matter of simple justice, however, one must insist that Vail's aid was chiefly moral and financial. Nothing that he contributed to the machine patented in 1837 was as indispensable as that counsel of Professor Gale, by which the telegraph was at once changed from an ingenious scientific toy, communicating across a room, to a practical means of communication across great spaces. And the candor with which Morse acknowledged the aid of Gale gives no color to any supposition that he consciously minimized any contribution that other associates may have made. It is well to recall that the three original partners always remained friends, and that in their lifetime there were no conflicting claims of any sort.

On January 22, Morse gave a private demonstration to many New York notables through ten miles of wire strung in his lecture-room. One of the spectators indited the bombastic yet not wholly inappropriate message: "Attention, the Universe, by kingdoms right wheel." The experiment was the occasion of intelligent and enthusiastic comment by the press, and the way of the inventor should have been thenceforth easy. As a matter of fact, it was five years before the Government sustained the project in the experimental line of 1843 between Washington and Baltimore. Meanwhile, Morse was harried by the insane claims of Dr. Jackson and by the treachery of later business associates, by the unfair and arbitrary denial of a patent in England, by the unexpected failure of a great contract with Russia. The general reception before the French Academy of Science, in 1839, where Arago explained the invention and Guy-Lussac and Alexander von Humboldt commended it, is one of the few bright spots in these years. But the French Government was as slow to move as the French savants had been quick. Morse returned disappointed to New York, where in 1840 be was within sight of death from starvation. Yet he won through, and after infinite difficulties, largely overcome through the zeal and patience of Alfred Vail, the wires were stretched from Baltimore to Washington. The test message which Morse sent from Washington to Vail at Baltimore was, "What hath God wrought!" Vail returned it correctly to the sender. Before that momentous experiment, the telegraph had sensationally proved its effectiveness by picking up from a train the news of Frelinghuysen's nomination as Vice-President, and getting it to Washington a full hour before the train's arrival. Soon the doubters in Congress and the business world were on Morse's side. At fifty-three, he had gained a new fame, this time world-wide. After eight years of poverty fortune was assured.

How weary he was of the struggle, how moderate were his personal ambitions may be understood from his offer to the nation of his controlling interest in the telegraph for $110,000. A month after the brilliant test of the Washington-Baltimore message he would gladly have exchanged prospects of wealth for a modest competence. The refusal of Congress to entertain the proposal must be reckoned as one of the major instances of official shortsightedness. If Morse was easily satisfied on the financial aide, as regards the telegraph itself, he was consumed with a zeal of perfection. He tried every possibility, constantly revising the mechanism and its accessories, even in the vexatious times when the experimental line was being built. Shortly before the successful test, he discovered the principle of duplex telegraphy. In the summer of 1842, as the result of actual tests, he confidently predicted transoceanic telegraphy in a public report to the Secretary of the Treasury. Other improvements, such as reading by ear, had come almost as a matter of course.

IV.

To trace the remaining career of Morse is unnecessary. It was varied by frequent European trips, in which he received the highest social and official honors. A happy second marriage in 1848 brought tardily the domestic joys which fate had earlier denied him. He settled down in a delightful country place at Poughkeepsie, an impressive and venerated figure. Fate still reserved sore trials for him, partly in the defection of business associates, partly in harassing controversies concerning the credit for the invention of the telegraph. Of these the most gratuitous and deplorable was the feud with Joseph Henry, which was occasioned by a needless oversight on Alfred Vail's part. Morse took these infelicities the harder, that he held a fairly mystical idea of himself as individually inspired by Providence. From the first, he dwells upon the benefits of the telegraph to society. In 1855, when the cable was being laid, he writes to a friend:

The affects of the Telegraph on the interests of the world, political, social, and commercial, have, as yet, scarcely begun to be apprehended, even by the most speculative minds. I trust that one of its effects will be to bind man to his fellowman in such bonds of amity as to put an end to war. I think I can predict this effect as in a not distant future.

So speaks in old age the man who in youth had aspired to equal Raphael, Michael Angelo, and Titian. To perceive how much delusion may accompany the highest character and the greatest practical capacity should work toleration even in a critic. As a matter of fact, the generous youth had died very early in Morse. It is pathetic to find the patriot of the War of 1812 merely disgusted with the Civil War, declaring that there was glory for neither side, and willing to accept peace at any price. Throughout Morse appears more admirable than amiable. In his letters and journals there is seldom a touch of humor or sentiment, often something hard and schoolmasterly in quality. To his most faithful associates he was none too considerate; he had suffered too much from faithless allies. Yet in a man of his moral massiveness and tenacity we can hardly expect the more adaptive graces. A certain Olympian detachment is not compatible with full charity. It is odd and instructive to find Morse at the very moment when his invention needed all his forces, wasting himself in pamphleteering against a wholly Imaginary conspiracy of the Roman Catholics. Yet it was, however mistakenly, a question with him both of his religion and loyalty. The converse of the positive strength of such a character is its capacity for moral repulsion. The penalty of such concentration is narrowing the vision and distorting it. In Morse unquestionably there was some sacrifice of the man to the inventor. Yet this self-imposed restriction has its austere nobility. It hardened the fibre for a particular work, and the justification of a process in which an able artist perished utterly and a man of culture was warped into a particular mould must be found in the sure immortality which Morse won for himself among the great inventors and benefactors of the race.

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