Inventions: Morse Code

Dinner Topics for Monday

International_Morse_CodeSamuel Finley Breese Morse (April 27, 1791 – April 2, 1872) was an American inventor. He contributed to the invention of a single-wire telegraph system based on European telegraphs, was a co-inventor of the Morse code, and also an accomplished painter.

Birth and education

Samuel F.B. Morse was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, the first child of the pastor Jedidiah Morse (1761–1826)—who was also a geographer—and Elizabeth Ann Finley Breese (1766–1828).[1] His father was a great preacher of the Calvinist faith and supporter of the American Federalist party. He thought it helped preserve Puritan traditions (strict observance of Sabbath, among other things), and believed in the Federalist support of an alliance with Britain and a strong central government. Morse strongly believed in education within a Federalist framework, alongside the instillation of Calvinist virtues, morals and prayers for his first son.

After attending Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, Samuel Morse went on to Yale College to receive instruction in the subjects of religious philosophy, mathematics and science of horses. While at Yale, he attended lectures on electricity from Benjamin Silliman and Jeremiah Day. He supported himself by painting. In 1810, he graduated from Yale with Phi Beta Kappa honors.[2]


In 1825, the city of New York commissioned Morse for $1,000 to paint a portrait of Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette, in Washington. While Morse was painting, a horse messenger delivered a letter from his father that read one line, “Your dear wife is convalescent“. Morse immediately left Washington for his home at New Haven, leaving the portrait of Lafayette unfinished. By the time he arrived, his wife had already been buried.[7] Heartbroken in the knowledge that for days he was unaware of his wife’s failing health and her lonely death, he moved on from painting to pursue a means of rapid long distance communication.[8]

On the sea voyage home in 1832, Morse encountered Charles Thomas Jackson of Boston, a man who was well schooled in electromagnetism. Witnessing various experiments with Jackson’s electromagnet, Morse developed the concept of a single-wire telegraph, and The Gallery of the Louvre was set aside. The original Morse telegraph, submitted with his patent application, is part of the collections of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution.[9] In time the Morse code would become the primary language of telegraphy in the world, and is still the standard for rhythmic transmission of data.

Samuel_Morse_1840Meanwhile, William Cooke and Professor Charles Wheatstone learned of the Wilhelm Weber and Carl Gauss electromagnetic telegraph in 1833, and had reached the stage of launching a commercial telegraph prior to Morse, despite starting later. In England, Cooke became fascinated by electrical telegraphy in 1836, four years after Morse, but with greater financial resources. Cooke abandoned his primary subject of anatomy and built a small electrical telegraph within three weeks. Wheatstone also was experimenting with telegraphy and (most importantly) understood that a single large battery would not carry a telegraphic signal over long distances, and that numerous small batteries were far more successful and efficient in this task (Wheatstone was building on the primary research of Joseph Henry, an American physicist). Cooke and Wheatstone formed a partnership and patented the electrical telegraph in May 1837, and within a short time had provided the Great Western Railway with a 13-mile (21 km) stretch of telegraph. However, Cooke and Wheatstone’s multiple-wire signaling method would be overtaken by Morse’s cheaper method within a few years.

In a letter to a friend, Morse describes how vigorously he fought to be called the sole inventor of the electromagnetic telegraph despite the previous inventions.[10] (1848).[11]

I have been so constantly under the necessity of watching the movements of the most unprincipled set of pirates I have ever known, that all my time has been occupied in defense, in putting evidence into something like legal shape that I am the inventor of the Electro-Magnetic Telegraph!! Would you have believed it ten years ago that a question could be raised on that subject?


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