Samuel Finley Breese Morse was born on April 27, 1791, in Charlestown, Massachusetts. He was the first child of Jedidiah Morse (1761-1826) and his wife Elizabeth Ann Finley Breese (1766-1828). His father was a pastor who preached the Calvinist faith; he wanted to preserve Puritan traditions including strict observance of the Sabbath Day. He was also a geographer who supported the American Federalist party; he believed in the party’s support of an alliance with Great Britain as well as a strong central government. He also believed that his first son should be educated within a Federalist framework and have the Calvinist virtues, morals, and prayers instilled in him and. Samuel’s siblings were Sidney Edwards Morse and Richard Cary Morse.
Samuel Morse attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, before moving up to Yale College where he received instruction in religious philosophy, mathematics, and science of horses. While he was at Yale, he attended lectures on electricity and belonged to the Society of Brothers in Unity. He painted to support himself and graduated from Yale in 1810 with Phi Beta Kappa honors.
After graduating from Yale, Morse became a clerk for a book publisher in Boston, but his interest remained in painting. In 1811and with his parents’ help, he went to England to study painting for three years at the Royal Academy of Arts. Great Britain and the United States went to war again in 1812, and Morse became very patriotic and pro-American. He adopted “English artistic standards, including the `historical’ style of painting – the romantic portrayal of legends and historical events with personalities gracing the foreground in grand poses and brilliant colours.”
When Morse returned to America in 1815, he discovered that “Americans did not appreciate his historical canvases;” he “reluctantly” began painting portraits to pay for his living expenses.
Morse married Lucretia Walker (m. 1818-1825). He married a second time to Elizabeth Griswold (m. 1848-1872). Morse was the father of Edward Morse, James Morse, Susan Morse, William Morse, Cornelia Morse, Samuel Morse, and Charles Morse.
After being an itinerant painter in New England, New York, and South Carolina, he settled in New York City in 1825; there “he painted some of the finest portraits ever done by an American artist. He combined technical competence and a bold rendering of his subjects’ character with a touch of the Romanticism he had imbibed in England.”
Morse often did not have a lot of money in those early years, but he did have a lot of friends among “the intellectuals, the wealthy, the religiously orthodox, and the politically conservative. In his middle years he became friends with “the French hero of the American Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette, and the novelist James Fennimore Cooper. Among his many gifts, Morse had the gifts of friendship and leadership.
After studying art again in Europe, Morse returned to America in 1832. While on the ship “Morse conceived the idea of an electric telegraph” after “hearing a conversation about the newly discovered electromagnet.” Morse thought he had an original idea, but “the idea of an electric telegraph had been put forward before 1800.”
Morse continued to devote “most of his time to painting, teaching art at the University of the City of New York (later New York University), and to politics; however, he “made his first working model by 1835” and “turned his full attention to the new invention” by 1837.
Morse had the help of a colleague at the university who “showed him a detailed description of an alternative model proposed in 1831” and a friend who provided “materials and labor to build models in his family’s ironworks.” The two men became Morse’s partners and shared his telegraph rights. “By 1838 he had developed the system of dots and dashes that became known throughout the world as the Morse Code.” Congress was note interested in building a telegraph line, but a congressman was interested in becoming an additional partner. Without cooperation from his partners, Morse obtained “financial support from Congress for the first telegraph line in the United States, Baltimore to Washington.” The line was completed in 1844, and he sent the first message, “What hath God wrought!”
Rival inventors and his partners brought legal claims against Morse. After a series of legal battles, the U.S. Supreme Court established his patent rights in 1854. His wealth and fame grew as telegraph lines grew in America and Europe.
By 1847 he had purchased Locust Grove, an estate that overlooked the Hudson River near Poughkeepsie, New York. He built an Italian villa-style mansion there in the 1850s and spent his summers there with his large family of children and grandchildren. He returned each winter to New York City where he lived in a brownstone home.
In his later years Morse had a long flowing beard and became a philanthropist. Vassar College (where he was a founder and trustee), Yale College (his alma mater), churches, theological seminaries, Bible societies, mission societies, temperance societies, and poor artists all benefitted from his generous donations. He watched the world change as a result of his telegraph.
Morse passed away on April 2, 1872, in New York City, New York. After his death the inventions of the telephone, radio, and television obscured his fame as the inventor of the telegraph, but his reputation as an artist continued to grow. Even though he did not wish to be remembered as a portrait painter, his portraits have been exhibited throughout the United States. His 1837 telegraph instrument is preserved by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Locust Grove, his family estate, is now a national historical landmark.