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