Biographies & Memoirs

Coda: 1872–2000

No technological project is technological first and foremost.

—Bruno Latour, Aramis or The Love of Technology (1993)

BORN TWO YEARS after the inauguration of George Washington, Samuel F. B. Morse lived through the Civil War and the first administration of President Ulysses S. Grant. In that time, the land area of the United States quadrupled and its population grew tenfold, from four to forty million people. The nation’s newspapers printed front-page obituaries and lead editorials reviewing his long eventful life and assessing its significance. Many declared him one of the great men of American, perhaps of human, history. “If it is legitimate to measure a man by the magnitude of his achievements, the greatest man of the nineteenth century is dead” (Louisville Courier-Journal). “The first inventor of his age and century is dead!” (Patent Right Gazette). “Morse was, perhaps, the most illustrious American of his age” (New York Herald).

The encomia that followed praised Morse as, above all, a courageous benefactor. He had defied insult and injury to advance commerce, politics, journalism, and other everyday affairs—to better civilization itself. Only a few papers mentioned his influential career in painting and photography. And only a very few seem to have criticized his outspoken suspicion of immigrants and hatred of Catholics. The New York Golden Age, a weekly, recalled that he had passionately defended the right of one human being to hold another human being in chattel bondage: “Among the many … apologies for American slavery are some shameful passages from his pen.”

On April 5, Morse was buried beside his brothers Sidney and Richard amid the picturesque statuary and foliage of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, on a height overlooking the bay of New York City. His funeral occasioned a national day of mourning. Flags flew at half-mast. Telegraph operators draped their instruments in black. The New York Stock Exchange adjourned. Presses struck off elegies on Morse and Morse funeral marches. Artists gathered to express their debt for his founding of the National Academy of Design. Commenting on the nationwide outpouring of affection and praise, a speaker in Poughkeepsie offered what would have been for Morse the ultimate compliment: “Never since Washington died has such sympathetic unanimity been witnessed.”

The most imposing ceremony took place on April 16 at the House of Representatives. From its gallery hung an evergreen-wreathed portrait of Morse. Members of his family sat in the semicircle facing the Speaker’s desk, along with President Grant, his Cabinet, and justices of the United States Supreme Court. Throughout the memorial, receivers clicked off messages coming in from simultaneous meetings around the world—from telegraphers in London and in Java, Brigham Young in Salt Lake City, ex-President Millard Fillmore in Buffalo, the aldermen of Galveston, Texas. Typical was the telegram sent from a San Francisco gathering led by the city’s mayor: “Resolved. That, on behalf of the citizens of San Francisco and of the people of California, we recognize the inestimable services of Professor Samuel F. B. Morse …. His vast conception of enlisting electricity in the work of civilization was the grandest thought of time.” The collected telegrams and speeches, later published by the Government Printing Office, made a volume of 359 pages.

The often cruel controversy that had surrounded Morse’s invention lingered, mostly as a family feud. Amanda Vail hunted him for the next twenty years. Next to caring for Alfred’s children, she said, “I resolved that my life work … should be to rescue the memory of my dear husband in connection with his great work, from the oblivion into which Professor Morse had cast it.” She studied Vail’s voluminous papers and drawings, interviewed his co-workers, continued to exchange supposedly damning evidence against Morse with F. O. J. Smith and Henry O’Reilly.

Smith died in 1876, bankrupt and unlamented; O’Reilly died ten years later, an invalid. But Vail pressed on until her own death in 1894. Her accusations recent and old still made news, especially her ever more vigorous claim that Alfred had devised the dotdash code. This is extremely unlikely. In his pamphlet The American Electro Magnetic Telegraph (1845), Alfred Vail himself remarked that the alphabet of “dots, lines and spaces” was created “on board the packet Sully, by Prof. Morse.”

The feud survived into the next generation and the new century. In 1891 a Senate committee introduced a bill appropriating $10,000 to buy the “original telegraph”—invented, the committee said, by Alfred Vail. Forty-year-old Lela Morse wrote to the committee protesting the form of the bill, “as the daughter of Professor Samuel F. B. Morse, the inventor of the original telegraph instrument.” Two years later, officials of the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago set a medallion of Vail on a frieze around the Electrical Building, beside one of Morse. Objections from Morse’s family persuaded them to remove it. As late as 1912, Morse’s youngest son, Edward, publicly traded charges and countercharges with Vail’s son J. Cummings Vail, in the Century magazine.

By that time, Morse had few immediate descendants to defend his name. For his legacy to them was not only his renown but also his neglect and inner turbulence. Of the children by his first marriage, Susan, motherless since before the age of six, had been in poor health most of her adult life, afflicted by what Morse had called “nervousness.” “I feel sometimes as if I had no desire whatever to live,” she once wrote to him. She became estranged from her husband, the Puerto Rico planter Edward Lind. Their son, Charles, the gifted young painter who was Morse’s favorite grandson, committed suicide in 1880, while in his twenties. Five years later Susan followed him into the void. Sixty-six years old, she boarded a Spanish steamer en route to Havana and disappeared. “It is supposed,” the New York Times reported, “she threw herself into the sea in a temporary fit of mental aberration.”

Morse’s son Charles, long unable to support his family, worked for Western Union during the last few years of his life. He died in 1887, having helped to establish the Morse system in Venezuela. A dozen years later, his son Bleecker, Morse’s grandson, committed suicide, at the age of fifty-one. Depressed after being let go from his job in a telephone and telegraph company, he hanged himself from a rope tied to his children’s swing.

Of the fate of Morse’s disabled son Finley there is little account, beyond his having passed away in old age, living with a relative, as he had almost his entire life.

Of Morse’s four children from his second marriage, Arthur, the once-promising violinist, died brutally in New Orleans in 1876, at the age of twenty-seven. The city’s Daily Picayune reported that on the evening of July 17 he fell (jumped?) from the platform of a car on the Pontchartrain railroad. Seeing him about to go over the guardrail, a fellow passenger grabbed at his trousers but could not hold him. Arthur dropped onto the tracks between cars. The train rolled over him, the newspaper said, “crushing one of his arms, his leg, and shattering his skull, leaving the mask only.”

Morse’s powerful, liquor-and-gun-loving son Willie made his way to Comanche territory in Texas. Around 1910 he spent eighty-four days in jail for shooting to death an Indian named Juan Amador, in Valle La Trinidad, Mexico. Released when it was proved he had acted in self-defense, he joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, as a cowboy.

Morse’s daughter Lela and his son Edward perpetuated him less destructively. Edward became a modestly successful painter. After studying in Paris with the vastly popular artist Adolphe Bouguereau, he taught for a while at the Art Students League before settling in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where he died in 1923. Lela married a British concert pianist, Franz Rummel, and became an expatriate. For some time she lived in Berlin. Sarah Morse, her mother, died while visiting her there in 1901, having recently sold Locust Grove. Lela moved permanently to Paris, where she died in 1937.

Morse’s lightning out-survived her, but not much longer. In May 1944, Allied armies were poised to advance on Rome and to land the largest invasion force in history on the beaches of Normandy. Yet on May 15, Congress paused to commemorate the opening of the country’s first telegraph line in the same month one hundred years earlier. On that astonishing occasion, Samuel F. B. Morse, in the chamber of the Supreme Court, had tapped out to Alfred Vail in Baltimore the text of Numbers 23: 23—“What hath God wrought!” The event was faithfully reenacted in 1944 with operators at the same places, and broadcast nationally over CBS and NBC. The Army Signal Corps and the Navy picked up the Washington-Baltimore message and transmitted it in two directions around the world.

Americans found many other ways of remembering. The Post Office Department issued a Morse commemorative stamp. The Metropolitan Museum of Art opened an exhibition of Morse’s paintings. A new Liberty ship was launched, christened Samuel F. B. Morse. New York University dedicated a Morse Study Hall. Topical questions were posed to contestants on such popular radio quiz shows as Dr. I. Q., Double or Nothing, and Take It or Leave It: Which came first, the telegraph or the telephone?

At the time, some two hundred million telegraph messages were being sent annually in the United States. But the telephone and Teletype had already taken over much of the work of the telegraph. And after the war telegraphy largely disappeared as an important information technology. Western Union sent its last Morse telegram in 1960. Scores of transatlantic cables had been laid since Cyrus Field’s first success. But the last of them was abandoned in 1966, the insulated copper conducting wires giving way to digital fiber-optic cables of vast capacity capable of transmitting live TV and e-mail.

In the 1990s the U.S. military and coast guard phased out Morse code in their operations. Eliminating human watchkeepers, they replaced it with the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS), using satellites and computers. Commercial Morse in North America—dotdash messages between ships and coastal stations—ended in 1999.

In the new millennium, the code continues in use among radio amateurs. And it is being revived as a means of communication for persons who have little or no ability to move, or who cannot speak or sign—who are ventilator-dependent or who suffer from severe cerebral palsy or some other devastating impairment.

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