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What Samuel Wrought
To him, said Morse, art had been only “a cruel jilt.” Then Providence found other work for this complex, difficult Yankee
April 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 3
At the beginning, a university colleague, Professor Leonard Gale, called Morse’s attention to Henry’s studies and publications; and from that point on Henry himself gave Morse generous encouragement and indispensable advice, including the idea for the relays which would renew and sustain faint signals over many miles of wire. Before this priceless tip, the impulse was too feeble to travel any important distance. In September, 1837, now working with the intensity battery Henry had demonstrated years ago, Morse succeeded in sending a message through seventeen hundred feet of wire that he had strung about one of the university rooms. His recording apparatus had been assembled out of oddments that came to hand—the works of dismantled clocks, an old table, a stretcher from one of the canvases he would never paint—but the success of that crude contrivance brought Morse the financial aid and the skilled mechanical help he had to have to carry on. Stephen Vail, prosperous owner of the Speedwell Iron Works in New Jersey, offered to manufacture a more refined and practical version of Morse’s device that could be shown to “the powers that be” in Washington. Vail’s son Alfred, an accomplished mechanic in his own right, entered a formal partnership with Gale and Morse that same month. According to its terms, any contributions to the success of their enterprise would be credited to and patented in Morse’s name as inventor, an agreement that ultimately obscured the magnitude of the constructive advice and practical service Alfred Vail gave to the project.
When the improved instrument was shown in Washington early in 1838, it evoked excited interest but won no tangible support. The demonstration did, however, add a fourth partner to Morse’s groupFrancis Ormond Jonathan Smith, “Fog” Smith, who as chairman of the House Committee on Commerce, sublimely indifferent to any conflict of interest in promoting the cause of the partnership in government circles, asked Congress for an appropriation of thirty thousand dollars. With Smith as companion, Morse went abroad to secure foreign patent protection for his invention there, pending more promising developments in America. He returned home in a few months empty-handed (and without having gone near the Louvre). Europe was developing its own plans for telegraphy—some were already in action—and Morse’s proposals were rejected.
Morse had to wait six more years for the success he felt must be his, six lean years during which his discouraged partners drifted away from their common objective, and Morse himself at times went hungry. But his determination was now fixed and inflexible. He continued to seek and get the advice of Henry; he went on tinkering, sending submarine messages from the Battery in New York to Governor’s Island (and prophesying the Atlantic cable)—and waiting doggedly for Congress to act.
He was still president of the National Academy, but he did not turn to painting to provide for his wants. What he did resort to was another new invention, daguerreotypy. He had met Daguerre on his last visit to Paris, had admired the new method of “drawing” invented by the French artist, and had enthusiastically and successfully proposed him as an honorary member of the National Academy. Here was a device, Morse pointed out to the academicians, that would put an end to the “sketchy, slovenly daubs” of artists who had neither the intelligence nor the skill to master details in their renderings; here, indeed, was “Rembrandt perfected.”
Such remarks sparked an immediate controversy, of course, and one that was long in subsiding, if indeed it ever has. If you listened to that sort of theory, Thomas Cole wrote a friend in 1840, “you would be led to suppose that the poor craft of painting was knocked in the head by this new machinery for making Nature take her own likeness, and we [artists] nothing to do but give up the ghost … the art of painting is creative, as well as an imitative art, and is in no danger of being superseded by any mechanical contrivance.” The irony is inescapable; Morse himself had given up the ghost concerning what he had once considered the inspired image. There was no turning back.
His efforts in daguerreotypy were successful enough, but they involved him in still another controversy. Charges of plagiarism, claims of prior developments, and other difficulties with competitors and counterclaimants arose. As a financial venture his career with a camera was a failure, but Morse is still referred to with respect as the father of American photography.
In the spring of 1843 a bid to finance a test line of telegraph started on its tortuous way through Congress. All but abandoned by his partners, though still heartily supported by Henry, Morse had continued to press his interests in Washington and in December had demonstrated his improved equipment. The bid was subjected to disparaging jokes and even crude ridicule on the floor of Congress. Morse was ready to give up all hope, pack his bags, and return to New York; he had just enough money to get there. But by what seemed almost a greater miracle than the telegraph itself, at a late hour of the last day of its session, Congress appropriated the thirty thousand dollars that Fog Smith had asked for in 1838.
The test line was to run forty-one miles between Baltimore and Washington. Smith awarded himself the contract for the construction, and Morse borrowed fifty dollars from a former pupil to buy a new hat and a new pair of pants. The partnership suddenly came to life again, and work was started.