The American Leonardo: A Life of Samuel F. B. Morse - Purple Mountain Press



by Carleton Mabee

Introduction to this revised edition by Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr.
Curator of American Painting, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

From Partners Gale, Vail, and "Fog" Smith:

Soon afterward Morse sent to Washington a preliminary request for a patent. It was in the form of a caveat--that is, a specification of what he intended to patent when it should be in completed form. Vail paid the thirty-dollar fee. On October 6 Commissioner of Patents Ellsworth acknowledged the receipt of the caveat in due order.

Increasing information about his telegraph was appearing in his brother's Observer and in the paper he had helped into being, the Journal of Commerce, but the caveat is his earliest detailed descriptions of his telegraph. It specified six items of apparatus which he employed to transmit and record intelligence by electromagnetism. First, a system of signs by which words are represented by numbers, and numbers in turn by marks which may be dots, lines, or punctures, 1 by one mark, 2 by two similar marks, and so on to 9 by nine similar marks. Second, a set of saw-tooth type like those he had cast when he landed fromt he Sully. Third, a portrule to hold the type. Fourth, the pendulum recorder or register, marking on sheets of paper that could be bound into volumes for permanent record. Fifth, a word-number dictionary, alphabetically arranged. Sixth, a mode of laying insulated wires through the air on "pillars," or above the ground in tubes, or in the ground on tubes.

No evidence survives that Morse hesitated to apply for letters patent. He had applied for them in the case of his other inventions. His agreements to share his rights with Gale and Vail would hardly have been of value without the assumption that a patent would be obtained. But later, probably when the Morse patent was the basis for a grasping monopoly over which he had no control, Morse felt the pressure of those who asked why he had patented his invention at all. "Personally at that time I was indifferent respecting the securing of letters patent," he recalled. "I was more solicitous that the invention would be a success and that I should be acknowledged as its inventor. It was urged upon me by my friends, to apply for letters patent and the arguement that prevailed with me to apply for them, was that only by offering a pecuniary interest, could the funds necessary for bringing the invention into the public use be obtained and this was true. Had I given it to the public, as some have since supposed to be the most magnanimous course, others would have claimed the invention, by some plausible modification; and reaped both the owner of a patent which depended on discoveries of countless men, living and dead," does not appear in Morse's statement; he passively accepted the basic conceptions of patent rights in his time. But he deserved some reward for employing the discoveries of others in a useful combination; and, like Fulton, he deserved it even more for his grilling in the campaign of promotion which followed.

In that same September of 1837 Morse also made his first effort to bring his invention to the attention of the government. In the preceding February the House of Representatives had asked Levi Woodbury, the Secretary of the Treasury in Van Buren's Cabinet, to report on the propriety of establishing a system of telegraphs for the United States. Woodbury issued a circular requesting information on possible telegraph methods.

On September 27 Morse replied, stressing as the advatages of his system: the convenient size of its sending and receiving equipment, the ease of recording the intelligence transmitted, its secrecy, its independence of time of day or weather, and its low cost in comparison with semaphores. From the first he believed that his system should be owned by the government, preferably through the Post Office Department.

Five specific proposals for telegraphs were submitted to Secretary Woodbury, four semaphoric and one electric, Morse's. It was not until the end of the year that Woodbury reported them to the House.

"Morse is difficult [as a subject], of course, because of his...varied accomplishments, but also...because of the virtually unreconcilable complexities and contradictions of his character.... It is to Carleton Mabee's great credit, and essential to the greatness of his achievement, that he was tempted neither to excuse nor reconcile them.... For the dualisms of art and science, profound conservatism and innovative creativity, aristocratic elitism and democratic populism are, after all, essential [to] Morse's being." --Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., from the introduction.

"a sound biography, urbane and agreeably handled" --The New Yorker

"excellent, authoritive, impressive" --The New York Times

"a highly palatable account of an important American inventor and painter...whatever he did carried resolution, competence, and conviction. It is a serious-minded, intense, and tremendously able Morse who takes shape in these pages.... The story is deftly and comprehensively done, highlighting the fullness...of an extraordinary career" --Yale Review

Carleton Mabee is Professor Emeritus of History, SUNY New Paltz. He has received numerous awards, including the Outstanding Book Award of the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Human Rights for his biography of Sojourner Truth. Purple Mountain Press has published his history of the Wallkill Valley Railroad: Listen to the Whistle, which is now available in a paperback edition for $22.50. His account of the earliest bridge over the Hudson south of Albany, Bridging the Hudson: The Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge and Its Connecting Rail Lines is now in its third printing.

500 pages, illustrated, 8 pages of color, 6 x 9, index, 2000
$25.00, first edition in paperback--A Purple Mountain Press original

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