Thursday, February 02, 2006

What Hath Morse Wrought? (Part II)

From "Wake the Echoes," Kingston Times, February 2, 2006:
{Oddly, on the day this story was published, Western Union, a company founded in 1851, announced that it would cease to deliver telegrams. Part I, which ran in the issue dated January 26, 2006, is available below, or by direct link to:}

“Th' invention all admir'd, and each, how hee
To be th' inventer miss'd, so easie it seemd
Once found, which yet unfound most would have thought
Impossible...” JOHN MILTON, Paradise Lost, Book 6

After the death of his wife in February 1825, Samuel Finley Breese Morse returned to his easel and completed his portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette. In addition to having three young ones to support, he had a passion for the arts and a longing for fame that even personal tragedy could not detour. He also had an unquenchable organizational, administrative, and entrepreneurial instinct. After arranging for the care of his children in New Haven, he went on to create, in that same tragic year, the National Academy of the Arts of Design. As William Cullen Bryant would refer to the Academy in his funeral oration on the death of Thomas Cole in 1848:

This great enterprise, for such I must call it, was principally effected by the exertions of one who has since been lost to art, though translated perhaps, so far as the mere material interests of society are concerned, to a sphere of greater usefulness. I may speak of him, therefore, as an academician, as freely as if he had departed this life.

By that time Morse had long since abandoned the palette, but the translation of his artistic essence into pragmatic clay had not come overnight. Neither, for that matter, had the electric telegraph and Morse Code, or Telegraphic Chirography [penmanship], as it was first known. Morse’s invention proceeded not from a single brainstorm but a series, some scientific, some commercial.

In November 1826, almost certainly at Morse’s instigation, Colonel John Stevens and his sons, the foremost family of Hoboken, New Jersey — and linked in the invention of steam navigation with the late Robert Fulton — commissioned twelve paintings by six of the foremost American artists to adorn the gallery of their new steamboat Albany, which plied the Hudson from 1827 until 1845. In an 1826 letter to his mother, Morse reported that the collection was to include “historical pictures of Allston, Vanderlyn, Sully, and myself, and landscapes of the principal landscape painters.” In fact Allston, Morse’s mentor, proved not to be included, but the others were, along with Thomas Birch, Thomas Doughty, and Thomas Cole. In the years before the Civil War, this floating gallery may have presented more Americans with a glimpse of first-rank art than any gallery in New York, Boston, or Philadelphia.

(For the Albany’s gallery Vanderlyn copied his voluptuous Ariadne at Naxos, which had been exhibited scandalously to separate male and female audiences in New York in 1816. This oil on wood was yanked from the steamboat after less than one year, replaced by Robert Weir’s Landscape of Lake George. This steamy Ariadne now hangs decorously at the Senate House in Kingston.)

In 1830 Morse created an improved semaphoric code for telegraphs of the sort then prevalent in France, in which signals were relayed optically along a chain of towers radiating from Paris. Invented by the brothers Chappe in 1790, the system originally sent messages via rectangular wooden frames with five sliding panels. These panels could be displayed or obscured individually with pulleys, yielding 32 possible combinations (2 to the 5th power). From that dubious start Claude Chappe advanced to a semaphoric system consisting of a long horizontal beam with a smaller wing at each end. Military and financial signals could be transmitted from tower to tower, though not in fog, nor at night.

What the brothers Chappe failed to pick up on was the promise inherent in an earlier experiment by one of their countrymen. In 1746, according to Tom Standage in The Victorian Internet, “about 200 [Carthusian] monks arranged themselves in a long, snaking line. Each monk held one end of a twenty-five-foot iron wire in each hand, connecting him to his neighbor on either side. Together, the monks and their connecting wires formed a line over a mile long. Once the line was complete, the Abbe Jean Antonine Nollet, a noted French scientist, took a primitive electrical battery and, without warning, connected it to the line of monks — giving them all a powerful electric shock.”

The idea of electric telegraphy came to S.F.B. Morse in 1831-32 when, as James Fenimore Cooper recalled, Morse had excitedly raised the subject with him:

We pretend to no knowledge on the subject of the dates of discoveries in the arts and sciences, but well do we remember the earnestness, and single-minded devotion to a laudable purpose, with which our worthy friend first communicated to us his ideas on the subject of using the electric spark by way of a telegraph. It was in Paris and during the winter of 1831−32 and the succeeding spring, and we have a satisfaction in recording this date that others may prove better claims if they can.

As things turned out, Cooper’s recollection was to prove helpful as others indeed made such claims. Morse’s sketchbook revealed that he had formed his first thoughts about electric telegraphy on a voyage back from Europe to America in 1832 in which he had exchanged insights with fellow passenger Dr. Charles T. Jackson, who later sued him for stealing his ideas. Jackson lost. In that same sketchbook Morse prototyped an electromagnetic recording telegraph and a dot-and-dash code system (a signaling alphabet).

Morse never claimed to have invented any electrical principle but simply the first mechanical device that effectively sent messages on electromagnetic principles. All the same, the formidable scientist Joseph Henry tangled with Morse by asserting to have been the first to unlock the secrets of electromagnetism — although earlier claims might be made for the Danish physicist Hans Christian Oersted in 1819-20. Accidentally placing a magnetic compass next to an electrical wire, he noticed that whenever current flowed through the circuit, the compass needle swung 90 degrees to the line of the wire. Thus Oersted discovered the direct link between electricity and magnetism, though it was left to Louis Ampere to explain precisely what was occurring. The upshot was that pulsing an electric current through the circuit could be used to make things happen at the other end of the circuit — the basic principle of the electric telegraph.
In 1835 Morse gave a demonstration of wire as a conductor of electricity at Castle Garden, New York’s entertainment hall that still stands at the Battery. In 1836 he demonstrated the ability of a telegraph system to transmit information over wires by combining short signals (originally referred to as dits and represented as dots) and long signals (referred to as dahs and represented as dashes). But progress was slow and when, in 1837, Morse read a newspaper article about two French inventors working on a concept that he had thought existed solely in his notes, he was thrown into a panic. Impoverished and about to see glory whisked out from under his feet, wrote to fellow passengers on that ocean voyage of 1832, some of whom responded that they recalled mention of his telegraph notion.

With his grand-scale painting a failure and his invention not yet assured of success, Morse struggled to maintain appearances:

My telegraphic apparatus existed in so rude a form that I felt a reluctance to have it seen. My means were very limited--so limited as to preclude the possibility of constructing an apparatus of such mechanical finish as to warrant my success in venturing upon its public exhibition. I had no wish to expose to ridicule the representative of so many hours of laborious thought....

Prior to the summer of 1837, at which time Mr. Alfred Vail’s attention became attracted to my telegraph, I depended upon my pencil for subsistence. Indeed, so straitened were my circumstances that, in order to save time to carry out my invention and to economize my scanty means, I had for months lodged and eaten in my studio, procuring my food in small quantities from some grocery, and preparing it myself. To conceal from my friends the stinted manner in which I lived, I was in the habit of bringing my food to my room in the evenings, and this was my mode of life for many years.

Vail’s personal fortune permitted Morse to construct a superior prototype, and the wolf was barred from the door. Yet by 1844, when Morse transmitted to Vail his famous message of “What hath God wrought” and success finally seemed assured, the lawsuits came flying in. Although he emerged victorious and personally unsullied, the constant struggle took its toll. As his son Edward Lind Morse wrote in Samuel F. B. Morse, His Letters and Journals:

While thus harassed on all sides by those who would filch from him his good name as well as his purse, his reward was coming to him for the patience and equanimity with which he was bearing his crosses. The longing for a home of his own had been intense all through his life and now, in the evening of his years, this dream was to be realized. He thus announces to his brother the glorious news:

July 30, 1847.

In my last I wrote you that I had been looking out for a farm in this region, and gave you a diagram of a place which I fancied. Since then I was informed of a place for sale south of this village 2 miles, on the bank of the river, part of the old Livingston Manor, and far superior. I have this day concluded a bargain for it. There are about one hundred acres. I pay for it $17,500.

I am almost afraid to tell you of its beauties and advantages. It is just such a place as in England could not be purchased for double the number of pounds sterling. Its “capabilities,” as the landscape gardeners would say, are unequalled. There is every variety of surface, plain, hill, dale, glens, running streams and fine forest, and every variety of different prospect; the Fishkill Mountains towards the south and the Catskills towards the north; the Hudson with its varieties of river craft, steamboats of all kinds, sloops, etc., constantly showing a varied scene.

By the following year Morse was sufficiently confident of a turn in the tide of his fortune that he married again, this time to the 26-year-old Sarah Elizabeth Griswold, with whom he would have four children. With the help of architect Alexander Jackson Davis, Morse remodeled the house in the then-popular Tuscan style, and it remains a splendid home and landscape well worth a visit.

--John Thorn


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