Today’s post comes from Megan Huang, an intern in the National Archives History Office.
Today we’re shining the spotlight on Samuel Morse, with his Walt Whitman-esque beard that’s a bit all over the place. It could be appropriate, though, since the two careers Morse chose in his lifetime tend to be associated with eccentricity.
Morse is well-known for his association with the telegraph and Morse code, but in his earlier years, he had actually spent quite some time on an artistic path. He studied painting at Yale and gained a reputation as a skilled portraitist. At 32, he executed a work of the House of Representatives in session on a massive 7- by 11-foot canvas.
He later traveled to Paris to paint an imaginary gallery that would be filled with miniature versions of real-life masterpieces on display the Louvre.
Becoming a renowned painter, however, was not in the cards for Morse. A series of failures and disappointments led to the collapse of his artistic endeavors, forcing him to find a new way for himself when he was already middle-aged. He found this in invention.
Morse was one of the many innovators who experimented on the telegraph. His improvements to the electromagnetic telegraph, with the development of a system of electromagnetic relays, were crucial in lifting restrictions on the distance over which a message could be sent, a key breakthrough. This was further supplemented with a scheme that translated letters into dots and dashes.
Morse and his associates worked in a New Jersey factory and elsewhere in the state, but also Philadelphia, and at the Capitol Building in Washington, DC, where he had an office and sent messages back and forth between the House and Senate wings.
In 1838 he decided his device was ready for a demonstration before Congress. Spooling 10 miles’ worth of wire around the House Committee of Commerce chamber, Morse spent the next days putting on a show for senators, representatives, and even President Martin Van Buren and his cabinet.
His success in impressing lawmakers afforded him the funding he needed to construct a telegraph line from Washington to Baltimore. On May 24, 1844, just outside the Supreme Court Chamber in the Capitol and again before a congressional audience, he inaugurated the line by sending the first official telegraph message, “What hath God wrought?”
Telegraph lines were soon established across the country, following railroads and becoming features of community hubs like post offices. A new era of communication had begun. When a transatlantic line was established, the world was more connected than ever before, and widespread adoption of Morse code ensured that it would be used for years to come.