Telegraph legend of a painter

Telegraph legend of a painter


On May 24, 1844, a 53-year-old professional painter sent the first telegram in human history with a simple telegraph machine he made by himself:

What hath God wrought!

It means “What has God done!” (“God has created such a miracle!”) . The original text of this sentence comes from the “Book of Numbers”, which is the fourth book of Torah (6th century BC) of the Jewish doctrine “Pentateuch” and the fourth book of the Hebrew “Bible” (5th century BC) .

The message was sent to Baltimore via a wired cable from the Capitol in Washington, USA. The sender was the painter Samuel Finley Breese Morse (April 27, 1791 ~ April 2, 1872) , and the receiver was his assistant Alfred Vail (Alfred Vail, 1807~1859) .


The painter invented the telegraph?

Yes. But the story is quite fantastic and it has to be told from the beginning.

Morse was born on April 27, 1791 in Charlestown, a suburb of Boston, USA. He is the eldest son in the family, and his mother’s name is Elizabeth Ann Finley Breese (1766-1828) . His father, Jedidiah Morse (1761~1826), was a geographer who made considerable academic achievements. He was known as the “father of geography” in the United States. His geography textbook was one of the first in the United States at that time. Set of standard teaching materials. Jedidia is also a devout and conservative pastor of the Congregational Church.

Morse had a keen interest in art since he was a child, especially like painting and sculpture. In 1799, 8-year-old Morse entered the Phillips Academy Art School. In 1805, at the age of 14, he was admitted to Yale College (the predecessor of Yale University) and became a junior college student. He majored in religious philosophy, mathematics and science (chemistry and physics) , and studied languages (French, Greek, German) and geography. He also took a special elective course in electronics. In 1810, at the age of 19, he graduated from Yale University as a Phi-Beta-Kappa top student of the National Honor Societies .

During his college years, Morse had already had many high-level paintings, and sometimes even sold them to earn some stipends. Morse often expresses his “Calvinist” emotions in his oil paintings. Calvinism, also known as Reformism, is the lifelong proposition of the French and Swiss Protestant religious reformer John Calvin (1509~1564) in the 16th century , and has won the support and inheritance of many believers. Morse’s representative work of this period is Landing of the Pilgrims ( Landing of the Pilgrims ) , which describes a group of Puritans from England on the “Mayflower” ship to Plymouth in North America in 1620 (this famous painting is preserved today). National Museum of Art in Washington) .

Telegraph legend of a painter

图1. Landing of the Pilgrims(Smithsonian American Art Museums)

This oil painting by Morse attracted the attention of poet and artist Washington Allston (1779~1843) . Alston proposed that Morse join him to visit the famous artist Benjamin West (1738~1820) in England . West was an American, but immigrated to the United Kingdom in the second half of his life and persuaded King George III to establish the Royal Academy of Arts (Royal Academy of Arts) , and West himself later became the second dean of the Royal Academy of Arts . Morse happily agreed and took his father with him. The three self-driving sailing Libya sailed on July 15, 1811 and successfully arrived in London.

In London, he entered the Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences, and received guidance from West. In 1812, his sculpture oil painting “Dying Hercule” Dying Hercule won a gold medal at the Adelphi Art Association exhibition in London.

Telegraph legend of a painter

图2. Dying Hercule(Yale University Art Galley)

Morse Another famous painting is the Judgment of Jupiter (god of the trial) . Both of his famous paintings are on display in the Art Corridor of Yale University today.

Telegraph legend of a painter

图3. Judgment of Jupiter(Yale University Art Galley)

On August 21, 1815, Morse ended his study tour in England and returned to the United States. Since then, he has determined that he will be a painter all his life. As a matter of fact, he has made numerous achievements in painting. In 1835 he became a professor of painting and sculpture at New York University, and he was the chairman of the American Academy of Fine Arts from 1826 to 1845 and 1861 to 1862. His most prestigious work is the Gallery of the Louvre (the Louvre Gallery, completed between 1831 and 1833) .

Telegraph legend of a painter

图4. Gallery of the Louvre(Terra Foundation for American Art,Chicago)


In October 1832, Morse returned home for the second time in Europe. On the return boat, he met Charles Thomas Jackson (1805-1880), a young physicist from Boston . While chatting, Jackson recounted an interesting experiment by Benjamin Franklin (1706~1790) . Connecting an electric current to one end of a wire can make the other end spark and this process does not take time. This somewhat magical story allowed Morse to regain his interest when studying electronics at Yale University many years ago, and gave birth to the whimsical idea of ​​sending messages by telex.

In fact, many people have tried to transmit information by telephone .

On February 17, 1753, an old Scottish magazine “Scots Magazine” published an article entitled “An Expeditious Method of Conveying Intelligence”, signed by the author “CM”, suggesting “transmitting messages by frictional electricity”. The author envisions using 26 wires, each representing an English letter. When the wires are energized, the small piece of paper at the other end will be attracted by static electricity. Write down a letter accordingly, and then form words and sentences by letters. Passing on the information. Later generations guessed based on various clues that the author was probably Charles Morrison, a Scottish surgeon (years of birth and death are unknown) . This is the first documented “Telegram” proposal in history.

In 1774, Geneva physicist George Louis Le Sage (1724~1803) constructed a telegraph model composed of 26 wires based on the proposal of “CM”.

In 1804, the Spanish physics and meteorologist Francisco Salva y Campillo (1751~1828 ) submitted a report to the Barcelona Academy of Sciences on February 22 , suggesting a telegram scheme. At one end of the wire, a voltaic battery is used to generate current, which is sent to the other end of the wire, and then the water is electrolyzed to distinguish positive and negative information.

In 1811, German physicist Samuel Thomas von Soemmering (1755~1830) improved the battery and built a telegraph system in the Kingdom of Bavaria , completing a communication experiment at a distance of 2 miles.

In 1832, Baron Pavel Lvovitch Schilling (1786~1837), a Russian soldier working as a diplomat in Germany , designed a set of telegraph communication equipment in Berlin, using electric current to move the iron needle suspended on the coil. Indicates each letter.

In 1833, the physicist Wilhelm Eduard Weber (1804~1891) of the University of Göttingen in Germany and the mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777~1855) collaborated to design the first electrical telegraphy .

On July 25, 1837, the British inventor William Fothergill Cooke (1806~1879) and the scientist Charles Wheatstone (1802~1875) joined forces, as well as the famous “Father of Railway” civil engineering Engineer Robert Stephenson (1803~1859) assisted in setting up the first telegraph communication cable between Camden Town and London in England. However, they encountered the problem that the battery was too weak to support long-distance communication, and they were unable to do anything.

About the same time, across the Atlantic the United States, curious painter Morse try to use the relay (relay) and succeed to solve the same problem. Morse’s success was aided by the assistance and guidance of the chemist Leonard Dunnell Gale (1800~1883), especially the electromagnetic physicist Joseph Henry (1797~1878) .

After solving the power supply relay support problem, Morse immediately pondered the more critical letter communication technology problem. Unlike Wheatstone et al.’s stupid idea that 26 wires are used to transmit 26 English letters, Morse considers simply passing 26 different signals through a wire.

At this time, his smart assistant, Machinist Weil, appeared. Virgin proposes a scheme genius: with the presence or absence and the length of time to represent the different current signal, the current unit as a “point” (DOT) , the current three units as “draw” (Dash) , then Different combinations of dots and strokes are used to represent different letters and numbers.

The idea is good, but there must be a set of expression rules. The master and apprentice used their brains, and a set of rules was formulated: in each letter, the interval between dots and strokes is one unit; the interval before and after every two letters is three units; the interval between every two words is With seven units, a perfect combination is produced.

This is the first code in history, known as the “Morse code” (Morse Code) . Later, the internationally used Morse code was actually improved in 1848 by the German engineer Friedrich Clemens Gerke (1801~1888) . In 1865, experts at the International Telegraph Conference in Paris made a few changes to it, and finally it was officially approved by the International Telecommunication Union as an international standard Morse code. Today, the most widely known application of this code is the SOS signal for help in times of distress: (di di di di di di di di di di di di ) .

Telegraph legend of a painter

Figure 5. International Morse code

In 1837, Morse made another key development. He designed and manufactured his first telegraph through components such as power supplies, wires, relays, and coils. On January 6, 1838, Morse successfully demonstrated his long-distance telegraph experiment at the Speedwell Steel Plant in Morristown, New Jersey. In the following years, Morse repeatedly improved his telegraph to make it simpler and more practical.

Telegraph legend of a painter

Figure 6. The first telegraph designed and built by Morse

In 1843, the U.S. Congress granted Morse $30,000 to set up a cable between Washington and Baltimore as a telegraph experiment. This move created a precedent in the history of the United States for private scientific research funded by government funding.

Finally, Morse succeeded!

On May 24, 1844, in the Washington Capitol, a group of scientists and government officials witnessed Morse sent the first complete telegram in human history with his own telegraph machine:

What hath God wrought!

The message was sent by Morse from the Supreme Court chamber in the basement of the Capitol , and Vail received it at Mount Clare Station in Baltimore. Weir immediately replied to the telegram, and Morse received it smoothly. Although the telegraph machine at the time could only send 33 letters per minute, the telegraph technology had already had a successful start.

Telegraph legend of a painter

Figure 7. Telegram from Morse to Will

The successful laying of this first cable in 1844 immediately opened the commercial operation of the telegraph. In 1845, the first public telegraph office in the United States was established. Ezra Cornell (Ezra Cornell, 1807~1874, founder of Cornell University) and Morse’s collaborator, member of Congress Francis OJ Smith (1806~1876) teamed up to build a Telegraph cables from New York to Philadelphia, Boston, Buffalo and Mississippi. In the following years, telegraph cables quickly spread across the country. By 1850, the total length of the cable had reached 12,000 miles. During the period, William Cook and his partners in the United Kingdom also established a telegraph company, Magnetic Telegraph Company, and laid many cables on the same large scale in Europe.

Telegraph legend of a painter

Figure 8. The nameplate of the First Public Telegraph Office in the United States

In 1847, Morse applied for and obtained a patent for invention of telegraph technology from France. By 1849, there were more than 20 companies engaged in telegraph operations across the United States. The U.S. Supreme Court has legislated to protect Morse’s patent rights, requiring all U.S. companies that use the Morse telegraph system, including some foreign companies, to pay royalties to Morse for technology patents. Morse made a lot of money from then on, and soon became a rich man.

When Morse died in 1872, his estate was valued at approximately $500,000. However, for the rest of his life, he contributed most of his wealth to social charities, making generous donations to Vassar College of Art, Yale University, many churches and groups, and some poor artists. He is particularly interested in the relationship between religion and science, and initiated and funded a lecture series entitled “Bible and Science”.

In 1850, the first cross-sea cable was built in the English Channel in the United Kingdom . In 1851, Europe adopted Morse’s telegraph system as a unified standard, and only the United Kingdom still retained the Cook-Wheatstone system.

In 1857, Morse invested $10,000 in businessman entrepreneur Cyrus West Field (1819~1892) to form the Atlantic Telegraph Company . Morse serves as the chairman of the board of directors and an honorary electrical engineer. Together with other consortia, he successfully laid the first transoceanic cable connecting the American and European continents in 1858. In 1858, Morse also extended cable telegraph technology to Latin America.

Telegraph inventor

After the telegraph has been used all over the world for many years, Morse went through and won a long lawsuit before he was awarded the final judgment of the (only) ” Inventor of the Telegraph ” by the U.S. Supreme Court .

Speaking of that lawsuit is complicated, because the origin, development, manufacture, and use of the telegraph went through a long process, and many of them have made more or less contributions. Also worth mentioning is the chemist Harrison Dyar (Harrison Gray Dyar, 1805~1875) . As early as the 1820s, Dell tried to transmit information over long distances. He recorded his test results: the spark generated by the current at the other end of the wire can leave a clear red mark on the designated letter on the pre-placed wet litmus test paper.

In 1827, he borrowed money to buy cables and successfully conducted a telegraph experiment on Long Island, New York. Later, he planned to conduct a long-distance experiment between New York and Philadelphia, but he could not get government funding. The New Jersey State Assembly, which was in charge of hearing the proposal at the time, rejected his plan on the grounds of safety. Later generations have reason to believe that Morse got inspiration from Dell, because Morse’s wife was married in 1818 and was Lucretia Pickering Walker, the sister of Charles Walker, Dell’s telegraph assistant.

Despite the various opinions, the final judgment of the Supreme Court in 1853 stated that Dell’s method was based on electrolytic properties and did not have the results of remote experiments, while Morse’s method was based on electromagnetic theory with demonstrations and records of successful experiments. However, for unknown reasons, the conclusion of the U.S. Supreme Court’s verdict that Morse was the “inventor of the telegraph” has not been formally approved and filed by the U.S. Federal Government. In any case, it is recorded in later history books that Morse was the inventor of the telegraph.


After Morse succeeded, honors followed.

In 1848, Morse was selected as a member of the American Philosophical Society.

In 1849, Morse was selected as an Associate Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences .

In 1851, the King of Prussia awarded Morse the “Prussian Gold Medal for Scientific Achievement”.

In 1852, the King of Württemberg of Germany awarded Morse the “Highest Gold Medal of Arts and Science.”

In 1855, the King of Austria awarded Morse the “Highest Gold Medal of Arts and Science.”

In 1856, the King of France awarded Morse the “Knight’s Cross of the Legion of Honor”; the King of Denmark awarded Morse the “Dannebrog Knight’s Cross”; the Queen of Spain awarded Morse the “Catholic Isabella Knight Commander’s Cross”.

In 1860, the King of Portugal awarded Morse the “Tower and Sword Medal.”

In 1864, the King of Italy awarded Morse the “Knight of the Order of Saint Maurice and Lazarus.”

Telegraph legend of a painter

Figure 9. Morse, well-known in Europe and America

In 1896, the United States issued a two-dollar bill with the portraits of inventor Robert Fulton (1765-1815) and Morse. In 1940, the United States issued another Morse photo stamp with a face value of 2 cents. In 1975, Morse was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame . His telegraph is displayed in the National Museum of History in Washington.

By 1988, the “List of IEEE Milestones” of the IEEE regulations also included Morse and Weir’s “1838 Practical Telegraph Demonstration”, recording that they “showed the key components of the telegraph system publicly for the first time…and in 1844 Commercialization began.” In addition, IEEE also listed the application of Morse code in the first wireless broadcast in 1901.

Telegraph legend of a painter

Figure 10. The 2 dollar bill in 1896 (left: Fulton, right: Morse)

Telegraph legend of a painter

Figure 11. A two-cent stamp from 1940

Speaking of “wireless”, the world’s first radio telegraph machine appeared in 1895, which allowed long-distance communication to get rid of the constraints of wired cables and greatly reduced engineering costs. In 1900, Canadian British inventor Fredrick Gorge Creed (1871~1951) created a telegraph printing system to convert input and output Morse code into text. Since then, human communication technology and business have entered a new era of rapid development.


Morse was one of the leaders of the anti-Catholic and anti-European immigration movement in the middle and old age. His political opinion back then was to support the serf system. Like the slave owners in the American South, he believed that this reality was approved by God. He enthusiastically intervened in social and political activities, and participated in the election for mayor of New York twice in 1836 and 1841, but they were unsuccessful. After that, he gradually gave up painting and politics, and went all out to maintain and promote his telegraph career.

Morse married Lucretia Pickering Walker in 1818 and had three children, but his wife died of a heart attack in 1825. Morse remarried in 1848 and raised four children with his second wife Sarah Elizabeth Griswold.

Painter and inventor Samuel Morse died in New York on April 2, 1872, at the age of 81, and was buried in the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. He left a well-known saying to the world: “Science and art are not opposed” (“Science and art are not opposed”) .

Telegraph legend of a painter

Figure 12. Bronze statue of Morse (Central Park, New York, built in 1871)

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