Picture This: Samuel Morse (Part Two)
God Prepares Samuel Morse
As I traced the threads of Samuel Morse’s life, I was struck by what God had done in and for and through him.
God wove different people and opportunities into his life.
When studying at Yale College, Samuel attended lectures on the little known subject of electricity.
He married Lucretia Pickering Walker in 1818 in New Hampshire. Samuel Morse lost her in 1825 after the birth of their third child. He was away doing a portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette. By the time he learned she was ill, she had already died. By the time he made it home, she was already buried. This tragedy was the seed of his ideas for the telegraph.
Samuel Morse was in Europe several times to study painting. He had been in Paris, preparing miniatures for his painting, The Gallery of the Louvre. On the ship on his way home in 1832, he met a doctor who explained to Morse what he’d learned about electromagnetism.
Morse set aside his painting and devoted himself to improving the telegraph and developing Morse Code. He focused for more than twenty years on these major turning points in global communication. These inventions are what we remember him for.
Because of the tragic loss of his first wife, Morse felt the need for faster communication. His memory of separation from her at the time of her death must have been a strong motivation for him.
“What Hath God Wrought?”
Leonard Gale, a chemistry professor, helped Samuel Morse send telegraphic signals over a long distance. Alfred Vail joined them in their work and helped finance it. Morse developed Morse Code and Vail made improvements to it. By January 1838, Morse and Vail sent a message over two miles in Morristown, New Jersey.
In a letter to his brother Sidney, Samuel Morse described the moment when he demonstrated the telegraph on May 24, 1844. Annie Ellsworth suggested the text: “What hath God wrought?” (from Numbers 23:23 ) Morse sent the message from the basement of the U. S. Capitol to Alfred Vail in a Baltimore train station. Morse recalled: “That sentence of Annie Ellsworth’s was divinely [inspired], for it is in my thoughts day and night, ‘What hath God wrought.’ It is his work, and he alone could have carried me thus far through all my trials, and enabled me to triumph over the obstacles physical and moral which opposed me . . . have I not occasion to exclaim, ‘What hath God wrought’?”
Morse knew what he needed nineteen years earlier. God brought together his tragic experience, knowledgable people, and developing technology to start the telecommunication revolution.
Telegraphy grew with the railroads, improving communication and time tables.
In Morse’s lifetime:
- In 1846, the Associated Press was born. Five New York newspapers pooled payments to receive telegraphed news reports.
- Western Union organized in 1852 to send telegraphs. They completed a transcontinental telegraph line in 1861.
- By 1866, the first transatlantic cable connected the U. S. to Europe.
The telephone followed the telegraph in 1876, two years after Morse’s death. (Only thirty-two years after Morse’s successful message from Washington to Baltimore.)
What If Samuel Morse Lived Today?
What would Samuel Morse be doing today? He would:
- recognize an opportunity to meet a great need
- pursue the potential of new technology
- partner with others to advance telegraphy
- be willing to step away from his normal occupation for a time
- recognize God’s hand in what he was able to do
People remember Samuel Morse, the artist, only as an inventor. He was an established artist who ventured out into another world. He was willing to explore and develop new technology. He found people who wanted to develop telegraphy with him. He worked with people who offered knowledge, skills, and resources.
The telegraph was the beginning of electronic communication. Because of the acceleration of discoveries, we almost forget about this transformational invention. Messages measured in miles by horseback arrived in minutes by telegraph. Today, news and knowledge travel in seconds over the Internet. Texting, video chats, emails, and more have their roots in the telegraph.
I imagine Samuel Morse would be fascinated today by how creativity travels electronically through pictures and videos.
Samuel Morse finished The Gallery of the Louvre. Thanks to the Internet, watch this video for a “tour of his gallery.” His miniature reproductions of art treasures include works by Rembrandt, DaVinci, Rubens, and Raphael. As an art professor, he considered these important for Americans to know. Now you can know them, too.
Did you have a life-changing event that has shaped your motivations?
Are you willing to follow God’s opportunities even when He leads you in a new direction?
Do you partner with others so your combined skills make an impact?
Are you willing to pursue new uses for technology?
- The Picture This series will feature people of the past in light of today’s world.
- Read Part One about Samuel Morse: Samuel Morse, the Artist. We looked at Morse’s career as an artist and professor of art. We saw how Morse also partnered with others through his field of art. He also:
- cultivated his God-given creativity
- was a teacher and influencer
- partnered with others
- to start the National Academy of Design
- to introduce photography to America
- gave generously to God’s work
- Samuel Morse did marry again, in 1848. He had four children with his wife, Sarah.
- See the original paper strip with “What has God wrought” in this History Channel video. Later, Morse realized the code could be recognized by ear so the paper tape was eliminated.
- We know people were important to Samuel Morse. The people in The Gallery of the Louvre include Samuel Morse, James Fenimore Cooper, and other friends.
- For April Fool’s 2012, Google announced a new keyboard to send Gmail through Morse Code on your phone. Morse’s great-great-grandnephew, a Google engineer, was instrumental in the spoof. See the YouTube video.
- My sources for Samuel Morse’s life story (1791 – 1872):
- Samuel F.B. Morse: American artist and inventor (Britannica)
- Who Made America? Samuel Morse (PBS)
- Morse Code & the Telegraph (The History Channel)
- Samuel Morse and the Quest for the Daguerreotype Portrait (The MIT Press Reader)
- The Inventor of the Telegraph Was Also America’s First Photographer (Smithsonian)
- Samuel Morse (Wikipedia) documents some of the negatives of Morse’s life. I give him the benefit of the doubt, knowing the times he lived in, and his upbringing, were different from today.
The painting of The Gallery of the Louvre by Morse is in the public domain in the United States. The original is in the collection of the Terra Foundation in Chicago.