Samuel Finley Breese Morse, the inventor of a technology that revolutionized civilization, transforming transportation, the military, foreign affairs, the very course of this world's history, was a miserable failure. He, himself, described his life as "cursed."
A prolific painter, his art was largely unappreciated and often went unsold. His neglect of his wife and children in the pursuit of his career was indecent. He was a lifelong Anglophobe (until England granted him a medal). He assured George Vail, who worked closely with him on the invention, that Vail was his "partner," but took all the glory of the results for himself. A zealous Christian, he railed against public education and church-state separation, opposed immigration from "sub standard races," attacked Roman Catholics and Irish. He vilified Abraham Lincoln as (page 410) illiterate, inhuman, wicked, and irreligious. He organized a committee for the overthrow of the Emancipation Proclamation, and argued that male domination of females and Negro slavery were God ordained. He saw Abolitionists as the hideous progeny of religious liberalism, a Christian apostasy. The concept (after the Civil War) of black suffrage and interracial marriage threw him into frenzies. He once ran for Mayor of New York City on such a platform, garnering just 78 votes out of 37,000 cast! His commercially successful telegraph brought him much wealth and many honors, but literally hundreds of lawsuits, and interminable debates in the public press. Acclaiming himself always as a "meek Christian," his favorite photograph, taken at age 72 (page 390), bedecked with medals, is best described as ludicrous.
Kenneth Silverman, a Pulitzer Prize recipient and a masterful story teller, depicts Morse in all his complexity. The book is a micro history of the exciting times of the first 75 years of the 19th century; how a world was changed, not only by the telegraph, but by other technologies. More than that, it is the very sad story of a man who truly tried to follow Christ, yet never recognized he had lost his way. Morse died in 1872, still defending his claims both in the courts and in the public press, not only a failure, but a man unfulfilled, who had lived much of his life in acrimonious legal battles.
Morse was not a scientist; he had no education or training in the sciences. Yet, at age 41, he did have one great idea, conceived (as it seems) on board the ship Sully, in October, 1832. June 20, 1840 marked the filing of his patent, "a new and useful Improvement in the mode of communicating information by signals, by the application of Electro Magnetism." (page 212). Four years of experimentation, legal fights and seeking funding followed; on May 24, 1844 the historic words, "What hath God Wrought" were flashed from Washington to Baltimore. Three days later accounts of the Democratic Convention in Baltimore were telegraphed to eager listeners in Washington. A day later political negotiations by telegraph between the two cities were underway. The world would never be the same. The impact of the technology drew a nation -- and a world -- together.
The story is exciting; I found myself unable to put the book down. I heartily recommend it to my ASA colleagues. There are lessons in humility, examples to be avoided, perspectives on 19th century civilization to be gained. Morses's harmatia (Aristotle's "fatal flaw) was that he was always sure he was "right," his biblical interpretations "truth," and in the adoption of this rigid and unyielding stance, he brought misery not only on himself but on others.
The most poignant part of the story comes in the final chapter. In 1944 the country celebrated the 100 year anniversary of the first telegraphed message. Western Union sent its last domestic telegram in 1960. Morse's invention lasted just 116 years.
Reviewed by John W. Burgeson