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SAMUEL F. B. MORSE, — .. -..- . -.. / — . … … .- –. . … PART 2

YESTERDAY IN PART 1, we celebrated artist Samuel B. Morse with the coded title “mixed messages.” Today, in Part 2, we celebrate Morse’s technical prowess, but lament others of his life’s actions. 

A Seaboard Chat. Returning to the U.S. after European art study in 1832, Morse chatted with fellow American Charles Thomas Jackson, physician, scientist, and early proponent of electromagnetism. Morse’s invention of the telegraph, of using electric impulses to send messages by wire, grew from this meeting. Though not without controversy.

Morse’s Telegraphy. The coded impulses, known in his honor as Morse Code, initially could travel only two miles. Morse’s first telegraphy demonstration came on January 11, 1838 in Morristown, New Jersey. Wikipedia notes, “The first public transmission, with the message, “A patient waiter is no loser,” was witnessed by a mostly local crowd.”

Incorporation of relays extended telegraphy range. On May 24, 1844, Morse sent a rather more memorable “What hath God wrought?” from the Supreme Court chamber in the basement of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., to Baltimore & Ohio Railroad’s Mount Clare Station in Baltimore, Maryland. 

By 1850, more than 12,000 miles of telegraph lines had been laid, often along railway right-of-way.

Samuel F.B. Morse’s device. Image from The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Not First But Cheaper. Britishers William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone had already devised a commercial telegraph in 1836. Details are given here in SimanaitisSays in “A Well-Connected Holmes Part 2.” The Cooke/Wheatstone system had five magnetic needles that pointed around a panel of letters and numbers. 

It worked. It was even expanded throughout Britain. But Cooke/Wheatstone telegraphy was considerably more expensive than Morse’s dots and dashes. Europeans adopted Morse telegraphy by 1851. Only the British held out, well into the 20th century. 

Morse’s First Patent. In 1847, Morse’s telegraphy received a patent from the Sultan Abdülmedic I of the Ottoman Empire. Why in Istanbul and not the U.S.? 

Abdülmedic I, 1823–1861, 31st Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.

Abdülmedic was only 16 when he succeeded to the throne in 1839. Inexperienced, he strove to carry out his father’s efforts of reform. Wikipedia offers an extensive list of Abdülmedic’s reform measures, many of which were less than successful.

There’s a good legend concerning one of them: During Ireland’s Great Famine, 1845–1852, Abdülmedic planned to donate £10,000 to Ireland, but reduced it to £1000 when advised of the protocol implications of Queen Victoria having donated only £2000.  

On the other hand, Abdülmedic had personally tested the Morse system and apparently found it worthy of his royal imprimatur.

Morse with his device. Photograph by Mathew Brady, 1857.

Patent Recognition. Wikipedia notes, “In the United States, Morse held his telegraph patent for many years, but it was both ignored and contested. In 1853, The Telegraph Patent case O’Reilly v. Morse came before the U.S. Supreme Court where, after very lengthy investigation, Chief Justice Roger B. Tanley ruled that Morse had been first….”

“However,” Wikipedia continues, “in spite of this clear ruling, Morse still received no official recognition from the United States government.” 

Other More Serious Mixed Messages. Wikipedia notes, “Morse was a leader in the anti-Catholic and anti-immigration movements of the mid-19th century…. When Morse visited Rome, he allegedly refused to take his hat off in the presence of the Pope.” 

Wikipedia quotes Morse saying, “Surely American Protestants, freemen, have discernment enough to discover beneath them the cloven foot of this subtle foreign heresy. They will see that Popery is now, what it has ever been, a system of the darkest political intrigue and despotism, cloaking itself to avoid attack under the sacred name of religion.”

Even more controversial to modern views, in the 1850s Morse became well known as a defender of slavery, considering it to be sanctioned by God. In one of his treatises, Morse wrote, “Slavery per se is not sin. It is a social condition ordained from the beginning of the world for the wisest purposes, benevolent and disciplinary, by Divine Wisdom.”

Another Mathew Brady photograph of Samuel F.B. Morse, 1866. Medals, from wearer’s left to right, are from the Ottoman Empire, Portugal, Denmark, Spain, France, and Italy. Below, the Grand Cross of the Order of Isabella the Catholic (Spain).

These days with digital communication of the Internet, Morse telegraphy has a nostalgic sense about it. His artistic achievements remain highly regarded, if relatively obscure. We’re well rid of several of his other views. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021 

One comment on “SAMUEL F. B. MORSE, — .. -..- . -.. / — . … … .- –. . … PART 2

  1. Michael Rubin
    May 15, 2021

    Ah, Dennis, we may wish we were “well rid of several of his other views,” but they seem to persist and re-emerge nasty as ever.

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