The First Electronic Church of America
Samuel F.B. Morse
Samuel F.B. Morse has been called "the American Leonardo," because, though he is most famed for inventing the telegraph and the dot-and-dash code used by telegraphers everywhere, he was also an accomplished artist and politician. He was, however, a very bad politician, and his art hasn't survived the ages as da Vinci's has. Calling him an American Leonardo seems, therefore, more a calumnious statement about America than an encomium for Morse. There has never been "another Leonardo" and there never will be. But back to Morse.
Morse was born on April 27, 1791, in Charlestown, Massachusetts, the son of a distinguished clergyman and geographer, and he matriculated at Yale, where he developed a passion for painting miniature portraits, and a yen to study historical painting in England. Returning to the U.S. in 1815, after four years abroad, he found no patrons for his historical canvases, and turned to portraits in order to survive in New York City.
It was in New York that he helped found the National Academy of Design, and there that he taught art (at the University of the City of New York, later New York University), and there that he entered politics. In 1836 and 1841, he ran for mayor of New York on the Nativist ticket. (He won 1,550 votes the first time, and less than 100 votes on his second attempt.) From the point of view of late 20th century America, Nativists (also called the Know-Nothings) look like a nasty lot: jingoistic, racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic. And Morse seemed a fairly rabid spokesman for the Know Nothings on all counts. Till the end of his life, he hated and feared American Catholics, he would have denied citizenship to the foreign born (especially the Irish) and he wrote pamphlets abusing those who would abolish slavery.
But Morse was a bona fide genius, and he holds a place in our pantheon of secular saints for his remarkable contributions to the age of communication. For eons, humankind had communicated over long distances in two very basic ways: by sight and by sound -- that is by beacon fires and the ringing of church bells or the pounding of jungle drums. By the early 19th century, however, the understanding of electric and magnetic phenomena had so progressed that using an electric current to communicate between two separated stations became possible. The age of the telegraph had arrived. In 1819, Hans Oersted of Holland discovered that a wire carrying an electric current deflected a magnetic needle, the sense of the deflection being reversed with reversal of the flow of the current.
William Sturgeon invented the electromagnet in 1825. The research of Michael Faraday and Joseph Henry on electromagnetic phenomena in 1831 stimulated Sam Morse to devise a telegraph receiver. In 1832, he conceived the idea of a single-circuit electro-magnetic telegraph, and he actually built one in 1835, only four years after Michael Faraday discovered the laws of magnetic induction. Morse soon enhanced his weak signal by setting up amplifiers of that signal on down the line, and by inventing devices to carry signals both ways on the same line.
In 1837, Morse solicited the partnership of Joseph Henry and Alfred Vail, and, in 1838, of Congressman, F.O. J Smith of Maine, in the belief that Smith could help him secure federal funds for the construction of a telegraph line in the U.S. -- which Congressman Smith shamelessly and openly attempted. But when Congress turned the group down, they tried to lay a line in Europe, again with no success. The great financiers of the age saw no future in sparks. Finally, after Morse's partners had given up on developing the telegraph, Morse went on alone. In 1843, he won Congressional support for a 41-mile line to the nation's capitol, and, in 1844, Morse sent the first telegraphic message, from Baltimore to Washington, D.C.: "What hath God wrought!"
The remark was apropos. The principles that lay behind the invention of the telegraph had existed in nature since the planet's creation. In a sense, God worked the primary miracle by constituting all matter as He did, in the form of electrons, but He left the likes of a Samuel Morse to figure out how to use those electrons to send messages like his, which though mere baby steps, were significant steps nonetheless.
Morse's first message from Baltimore's Mount Clare Railroad Depot to the chambers of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington was soon followed by a number of other demonstrations. Men sent their names from Baltimore and saw them repeated from Washington in less than half a minute. They reported the actions of a Democratic Convention in Baltimore and read men's immediate reactions in Washington. Congress was still in session; members of the House and Senate interrupted their business to watch messages exchanged which were true conversations. For the first time in history, a man in Washington argued with a group 40 miles away the question of his nomination for vice president, as though both parties were in the same room. Morse had not only proved that his telegraph worked. He suggested infinite possibilities for its future use in the building of America. For the telegraph would shrink the vastness of the U.S., create networks to quicken commerce, and channels for the dissemination of news.
Naturally enough, others jumped in to make profits on Morse's invention. His patents, he complained to his friend, the novelist James Fenimore Cooper, had not brought him riches but "litigation, litigation, litigation." Morse urged that the government take over the entire shebang, but that was not to be. Bureaucrats and politicians were afraid of this new beast, and there weren't too many financiers lining up to invest in it either. Soon however, some intrepid pioneers stepped up to make Morse's vision a reality. Twenty years after Morse's God-message, a flock of entrepreneurs were in the telegraph business. Ezra Cornell founded a company that became Western Union; with his profits, he founded a great university on his farm land in Ithaca, New York. Cyrus W. Field and Peter Cooper teamed up to found a company that became the American Telegraph Company, and it became the whale that would eat up all the wrasses that swam in the sea around it. By 1858, ATC was making plans to lay a transatlantic cable from Newfoundland to the coast of Ireland.
Eventually, Morse became a stockholder in ATC, the Field-Cooper enterprise, and, now mellowed by a new wife 30 years his junior, and by the four young children in his second family, he began traveling to Europe, to Scandinavia and Russia where he received one honor after another for his invention of the telegraph. Once a pamphleteer against the Church of Rome, he would soon accept from Spain the insignia of a Knight Commander of the Royal Order of Isabella the Catholic.