Samuel Morse

Samuel Morse was an inventor and a painter. Samuel Morse is best known for inventing the single wire telegraph and developing Morse code, but he was also responsible for other inventions including fire engine pumps and marble cutting machines. His true passion was art.

He was born in 1791 in Charlestown, Massachusetts. In 1805, at the age of 14, he entered Yale. He heard lectures on electricity from Jeremiah Day and Benjamin Stillman. While at college, he earned money by painting portraits of friends and teachers.

Art continued to be a big part of his life for many years. In 1811 he left for London with the famous artist Washington Allston to attend the Royal Academy of Arts. The following year, his plaster statue of the Dying Hercules won a gold medal at the Adelphi Society of Arts Exhibit.

In 1815 he returned to the United States and opened an art studio in Boston. He was married in 1818. He began making annual trips to Charleston, SC to sell portraits and was commissioned to paint a portrait of President James Monroe. He and his wife had three children, but she died suddenly in 1825 at the age of 25. Morse was in the midst of painting a portrait that he had been commissioned for when he received a letter delivered by horse messenger from his father stating simply “Your wife is dead”. Morse had been unaware of her failing health, and he became motivated to pursue a means of rapid long-distance communication. Without a means of rapid communication, it was often too difficult to find people who needed to receive important messages.

Morse took a tour of Italy, France, and Switzerland from 1830-1832. On his return voyage to the United States, he met Charles Thomas Jackson who was an expert in electromagnetism. By observing Jackson’s electromagnetic experiments, Morse came up with the idea of a single wire telegraph. The original telegraph was a large machine that designed to transmit over 26 wires. Morse reduced the large bundle of wires into a single wire.

Along with the single wire telegraph, Morse developed the Morse code, which was a means of communication using dots and dashes.

On January 6, 1838, Samuel Morse first demonstrated the electric telegraph. For the first time in history, messages could be sent electronically. The first formal message sent was “What hath God wrought.”


Samuel Morse was as brilliant a painter as he was an inventor. Learn more about Morse through the following resources:

The telegraph was in the making for over twelve years. In spite of Morse’s brilliance in art and other inventions, the telegraph remains his most widely known accomplishment.

Morse died of pneumonia in 1872.