A Closer Look at Samuel Morse's Interesting Life of Painting and Invention

Samuel Morse didn't just invent the code that keeps his namesake, he did much, much more.
Trevor English

Chances are you know the name Samuel Morse, either from his inventions or the code that keeps his namesake. He was an American inventor who worked to practically invent electrical communication methods. One thing you might not have known about him, though, is that he was perhaps an even more renowned painter than inventor.

Born in 1791 in Massachusetts, Samuel Morse went on to study at Yale University. During his studies, he gained a particular interest in the subject of electricity, while also enjoying painting portraits in his spare time.


After graduating, Morse became a clerk for a book publisher, but just a year later, he decided to go to England to pursue painting under the direction of a painter by the name of Washington Allston.

A Closer Look at Samuel Morse's Interesting Life of Painting and Invention
Morse's Painting of the Gallery at the Louvre. Public Domain/Wikimedia

During this time studying abroad, he honed his skills of portrait painting, but upon his return, he found his style wasn't appreciated by the American public. He struggled to make ends meet with his main passion, so he turned to his other interest, electricity.

It was this subject of study that would in large part bring him international acclaim during his life, and his paintings would help lock in his memory after his death. 

In order to understand just the impact that Samuel Morse had on the world, let's take a closer look at just what he accomplished.

The Telegraph

Morse finished his education at the perfect historical time, a period right after electromagnetism had been discovered but before many of it's uses had been ironed out. He first devised of electromagnetism as a means of communication in 1832 during a sea voyage.

He learned that the discovery of electromagnetism and other pioneering electricity findings made sending signals through a wire instantaneously over great distances was possible. Based off of this, Morse started devising a way of creating a single-wire telegraph for direct and easy communication. 

Morse developed a successful design shortly after his first conception. It's important to note that he did this relatively independently, at least without knowledge or help from European inventors working on the same device. 

German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gause and Wilhelm Weber actually managed to build a commercial electromagnetic telegraph in 1833, a year before Morse was able to build his first prototype. 

A Closer Look at Samuel Morse's Interesting Life of Painting and Invention
Morse's Telegraph. Public Domain/Wikimedia.

William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone, English Inventors, managed to secure financial resources to build a working telegraph model very fast as well. 

Morse was working against hefty competition which had greater financial resources and perhaps greater ability to bring the telegraph to market. Morse started working with Leonard Gale, a professor at New York University, who helped him advance his telegraph design's ability to send information over great distances, 10 miles to be exact.

This discovery or rather advancement prompted morse to team up with Inventor Alfred Vail, who offered financial backing for the first demonstration of Morse's telegraph.

Morse demonstrated the telegraphs ability to relay messages over two miles without anything more than a battery on his machine. The first message was "A patient waiter is no loser".

After several years of unsuccessful financial and government backing of his telegraph design, in 1842 he deployed his system between two Capital rooms in Washington D.C. This earned him a $30,000 contract to connect the congressional buildings between Washington D.C. and Baltimore. He would go on to deploy several other telegraph systems for the US. Notably, in 1844, a message was sent from D.C. to Baltimore saying the words, "What hath God wrought," which many pinpoint as the moment the telegraph system began expanding all over the world.

Samuel Morse's telegraph system spread across America while he struggled to get the rights to a patent for the machine. It was actually after a long legal battle that he secured the ability to be called the Inventor of the telegraph, and finally, in 1847, the Sultan Abdülmecid gave Morse the patent in Istanbul. 

Morse's telegraph system became recognized as the standard across the world and the rest is history.

Morse's Code

After inventing the telegraph system, Morse realized it had a fatal flaw in its ability to propagate as a communication method: it only transmitted electrical pulses.

This ultimately meant that Morse would need to develop a new means of transmitting data across a telegraph that wasn't raw speech or language. He developed a code that translated numbers into pulses. 

A code was developed by none other than Samuel Morse to translate electrical pulses back into the original message. Alfred Vaile helped him expand the code to include letters and even special characters. 

The code assigned letters, numbers, and symbols to specific patterns of electrical pulses with 2 lengths, short and long. Later these pulses would be thought of as dots and dashes.

Morse's code also had a built-in adjustable cadence, meaning that it could be sped up or slowed down based upon the sender's liking. Each "dot" or short pulse served as the basis of time for the code. Every "dash" was equivalent to the length of three dots. After each character is communicated, there's a one dot pause. All of this allows for a code that can go as slow as a snail or as fast as a jet and the proper syntax can still be kept.

More thought was also put into the code in determining how to assign the patterns to each letter. Morse and Vail studied the English language and determined a list of the most used characters. They then assigned the shortest codes to the most used letters and the longest codes to the least used letters. E, the most common English letter, for example, is represented by a single dot.

You can learn a little more about How morse code works in the video below.


As Samuel Morse was working on his telegraph design, he hit a snag – he couldn't get the signal to carry over more than a few hundred yards. Professor Leanard Gale helped him solve this problem through the use of relays in his circuit. 

Officially, Joseph Henry invented the Relay, but the first time one appeared in a patent was Samuel Morse's telegraph patent.

Relays utilized in telegraph circuits essentially operate as repeaters, they help refresh the signal so it can travel further

This operation was crucial to Morse's and Vails first public demonstration of the telegraph, which otherwise could never have worked. 


Aside from Morse's inventions, his true passion was painting. In 1811 after studying under Washington Allston, he was actually able to gain acceptance to the Royal Academy of Arts, a prestigious institution. 

Morse's paintings served as an outlet for him to reflect his religious and political views, a practice common of many historical painters. 

Morse was commissioned over the years to paint several famous American historical figures, like John Adams, James Monroe - the 5th president of the U.S., and Eli Whitney.

This video from the Smithsonian goes into a little bit of greater detail into Samuel Morse's history as a rather accomplished painter.

Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board