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THE first house erected in Charlestown after the destruction of the village by fire in 1775 (the coup d'état which immediately followed the battle of Bunker Hill, it will be remembered), is that which is here given as the birthplace of Samuel Finley Breese Morse, the inventor of the electric telegraph. The house is still standing at 203 Main Street, and in the front chamber of the second story, on the right of the front door of the entrance, visitors still pause to render tribute to the memory of the babe that there drew his first breath on April 27, 1791.
It was, however, quite by accident that the house became doubly famous, for it was during the building of the parsonage, Pastor Morse's proper home, that his little son came to gladden his life. Reverend Jedediah Morse became minister of the First Parish Church on April 30, 1789, the very, date of Washington's inauguration in New York as President of the United States, and two weeks later married a daughter of Judge Samuel Breese, of New York. Shortly afterward it was determined to build a parsonage, and during the construction of this dwelling Doctor Morse accepted the hospitality of Mr. Thomas Edes, who then owned the "oldest" house. And work on the parsonage being delayed. beyond expectation, Mrs. Morse's little son was born in the Edes house.
Apropos of the brief residence of Doctor Morse in this house comes a quaint letter from Reverend Jeremy Belknap, the staid old doctor of divinity, and the founder of the Massachusetts Historical Society, which shows that girls over a hundred years ago were quite as much interested in young unmarried ministers as nice girls ought ever to be. Two or three months before the settlement of Mr. Morse in Charlestown, Doctor Belknap wrote to his friend, Ebenezer Hazard, of New York, who was a relative of Judge Breese:
"You said in one of your late letters that probably Charlestown people would soon have to build a house for Mr. Morse. I let this drop in a conversation with a daughter of Mr. Carey, and in a day or two it was all over Charlestown, and the girls who had been setting their caps for him are chagrined. I suppose it would be something to Mr. Morse's advantage in point of bands and handkerchiefs, if this report could be contradicted; but if it cannot, oh, how heavy will be the disappointment. When a young clergyman settles in such a town as Charlestown, there is as much looking out for him as there is for a thousand-dollar prize in a lottery; and though the girls know that but one can have him, yet `who knows but I may be that one ?'"1
Doctor Morse's fame has been a good deal obscured by that of his distinguished son, but he seems none the less to have been a good deal of a man, and it is perhaps no wonder that the feminine portion of a little place like Charlestown looked forward with decided interest to his settling among them. We can even fancy that the girls of the sewing society studied geography with ardour when they learned who was to be their new minister. For geography was Doctor Morse's passion; he was, indeed, the Alexis Frye of his period. This interest in geography is said to have been so tremendous with the man that once being asked by his teacher at a Greek recitation where a certain verb was found, he replied, "On the coast of Africa." And while he was a tutor at Yale the want of geographies there induced him to prepare notes for his pupils, to serve as text-books, which he eventually printed.
Young Morse seconded his father's passion for geography by one as strongly marked for drawing, and the blank margin of his Virgil occupied far more of his thoughts than the text. The inventor came indeed only tardily to discover in which direction his real talent lay. All his youth he worshipped art and followed (at considerable distance) his beloved mistress. His penchant for painting, exhibited in much the same manner as Allston's, his future master, did not meet with the same encouragement.
A caricature (founded upon some fracas among the students at Yale), in which the faculty were burlesqued, was seized during Morse's student days, handed to President Dwight, and the author, who was no other than our young friend, called up. The delinquent received a severe lecture upon his waste of time, violation of college laws, and filial disobedience, without exhibiting any sign of contrition; but when at length Doctor Dwight said to him, "Morse, you are no painter; this is a rude attempt, a complete failure," he was touched to the quick, and could not keep back the tears.
The canvas, executed by Morse at the age of nineteen, of the landing of the Pilgrims, which may be seen at the Charlestown City Hall, is certainly not a masterpiece. Yet the lad was determined to learn to paint, and to this end accompanied Allston to Europe, where he became a pupil of West, and, it is said, also of Copley.
West had become the foremost painter of his time in England when our ambitious young artist was presented to him, but from the beginning he took a great interest in the Charlestown lad, and showed him much attention. Once in after years Morse related to a friend this most interesting anecdote of his great master: "I called upon Mr. West at his house in Newman Street one morning, and in conformity to the order given to his servant Robert always to admit Mr. Leslie and myself even if he was engaged in his private studies, I was shown into his studio.
"As I entered a half-length portrait of George III. stood before me on an easel, and Mr. West was sitting with his back toward me copying from it upon canvas. My name having been mentioned to him, he did not turn, but pointing with the pencil he had in his hand to the portrait from which he was copying, he said, 'Do you see that picture, Mr. Morse?'
"'Yes, sir,' I said, 'I perceive it is the portrait of the king.'
"'Well,' said Mr. West, 'the king was sitting to me for that portrait when the box containing the American Declaration of Independence was handed to him.'
"'Indeed,' I answered; 'and what appeared to be the emotions of the king? What did he say?'
"'His reply,' said Mr. West, 'was characteristic of the goodness of his heart: "If they can be happier under the government they have chosen than under me, I shall be happy." '" 2
Morse returned to Boston in the autumn of 1815, and there set up a studio. But he was not too occupied in painting to turn a hand to invention, and we find him the next winter touring New Hampshire and Vermont trying to sell to towns and villages a fire-engine pump he had invented, while seeking commissions to paint portraits at fifteen dollars a head. It was that winter that he met in Concord, New Hampshire, Miss Lucretia P. Walker, whom he married in the autumn of 1818, and whose death in February, 1825, just after he had successfully fulfilled a liberal com-mission to paint General Laf ayette, was the great blow of his young manhood.
The National Academy of Design Morse helped to found in New York in 1826, and of this institution he was first president. About the same time we find him renewing his early interest in electrical experiments. A few years later he is sailing for Europe, there to execute many copying commissions. And on his return from this stay abroad the idea of the telegraph suggested itself to him.
Of the exact way in which Morse first conceived the idea of making electricity the means of conveying intelligence, various accounts have been given, the one usually accepted being that while on board the packet-ship Sully, a fellow passenger related some experiments he had witnessed in Paris with the electro-magnet, a recital which made such an impression upon one of his auditors that he walked. the deck the whole night. Professor Morse's own statement was that he gained his knowledge of the working of the electro-magnet while attending the lectures of Doctor J. Freeman Dana, then professor of chemistry in the University of New York, lectures which were delivered before the New York Atheneum.
"I witnessed," says Morse, "the effects of the conjunctive wires in the different forms described by him in his lectures, and exhibited to his audience. The electromagnet was put in action by an intense battery; it was made to sustain the weight of its armature, when the conjunctive wire was connected with the poles of the battery, or the circuit was closed; and it was made to 'drop its load' upon opening the circuit."
Yet after the inventor had made his discovery he had the greatest difficulty in getting a chance to demonstrate its worth. Heartsick with despondency, and with his means utterly exhausted, he finally applied to the Twenty-seventh Congress for aid to put his invention to the test of practical illustration, and his petition was carried through with a majority of only two votes. These two votes to the good were enough, however, to save the wonderful discovery, perhaps from present obscurity, and with the thirty thousand dollars appropriated by Congress Morse stretched his first wires from Washington to Baltimore – wires, it will be noted, because the principle of the ground circuit was not then known, and only later discovered by accident. So that a wire to go and another to return between the cities was deemed necessary by Morse to complete his first circuit. The first wire was of copper.
The first message, now in the custody of the Connecticut Historical Society, was dictated by Miss Annie G. Ellsworth, and the words of it were "What hath God wrought?" The telegraph was at first regarded with superstitious dread in some sections of the country. In a Southern State a drought was attributed to its occult influences, and the people, infatuated with the idea, levelled the wires to the ground. And so common was it for the Indians to knock off the insulators with their rifles in order to gratify their curiosity in regard to the "singing cord," that it was at first extremely difficult to keep the lines in repair along the Pacific Railway.
To the man who had been so poor that he had had a very great struggle to provide bread for his three motherless children, came now success. The impecunious artist was liberally rewarded for his clever invention, and in 1847 he married for his second wife Miss Sarah E. Griswold, of Poughkeepsie, the daughter of his cousin.
She was twenty-five when they were married, and he fifty-six, but they lived very happily together on the two-hundred acre farm he had bought near Poughkeepsie, and it was there that he died at the age of seventy-two, full of honours as an inventor, and loving art to the end.
Even after he became a great man, Professor Morse, it is interesting to learn, cherished his fondness for the house in which he was born, and one of his last visits to Charlestown was on the occasion when he took his young daughter to see the old place. And that same day, one is a bit amused to note, he took her also to the old parsonage, then still standing, in what is now Harvard Street, between the city hall and the church – and there painted out to her with pride some rude sketches he had made on the wall of his sleeping-room when still a boy. So, though it is as an inventor we remember and honour Samuel Finley Breese Morse today, it was as a painter that he wished first, last, and above all to be famous. But in the realm of the talents as elsewhere man proposes and God disposes.
1 Drake's "Historic Fields and Mansions of Middlesex." Little, Brown & Co., publishers.
2 Beacon Biographies : S. F. B. Morse, by John Trowbridge; Small, Maynard & Co.
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