How Samuel F.B. Morse Brought Photography to America

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Morse code creator Samuel F.B. Morse made long-distance chats almost instantaneous with his co-invention of the telegraph, which he patented in 1847. While he’s best known for revolutionizing telecommunications, Morse spent most of his career working as an artist—and he had a major influence on the future of that field, too, by introducing photography to the United States. Selfies, Instagram, and the ability to show off your vacation photos while you're still at the beach can all be traced back to Morse's vision.

Born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, on April 27, 1791, Morse was the eldest son of Jedidiah Morse, America’s leading geographer at the time. Samuel attended Yale College, where he pursued courses in religion, mathematics, and the emerging field of electromagnetism.

After graduating in 1810, Morse forged a successful career painting portraits of statesmen and other notable figures, including former U.S. president John Adams, inventor Eli Whitney, and Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette. He also co-founded New York's National Academy of Design, the first artist-run institution to teach and exhibit American fine arts, and became the school's first president in 1826. At the same time, he was tinkering with an idea for an electromagnetic communications apparatus.

Morse made regular trips to Europe to view art exhibitions. On an 1839 visit to Paris (where he also sought patents for his telegraph prototype), he heard about Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre’s new process for fixing images produced by a camera obscura—also known as Daguerreotypes—that had been announced in France at a scientific meeting earlier that year.

19th century camera obscura
Daguerre used a camera obscura, like this, to create Daguerreotypes.
Alexander Klein/Staff/Getty Images

Many viewed early photography as an aid in painting and drawing, rather than its own artistic discipline. Morse, possibly on the lookout for a new tool that would make art students’ lives easier, told a friend that he didn’t want to leave Paris without seeing Daguerre’s process. The friend arranged a meeting where Morse would demonstrate his telegraph and Daguerre would take Morse on a tour of his Diorama, an immersive gallery displaying Daguerreotypes of street scenes, Parisian architecture, and interior settings.

At the Diorama, Morse was amazed by the photographic details and clarity of (non-moving) objects in the images. "The Boulevard, so constantly filled with a moving throng of pedestrians and carriages, was perfectly solitary, except for an individual having his boots brushed," Morse marveled. "His feet were compelled, of course, to be stationary for some time, one being on the box of the boot black, and the other on the ground. Consequently his boots and legs were well defined, but he is without body or head, because these were in motion."

The next day, Daguerre spent an hour with Morse as he demonstrated the telegraph. Unfortunately, at that exact moment, Daguerre’s Diorama was destroyed in a massive fire. "His secret [for developing the pictures], indeed, is still safe with him, but the steps of his progress in the discovery and his valuable researches in science are lost to the scientific world," Morse wrote in a letter published in the United States Democratic Review.

After Morse returned to the U.S. in 1839 with one of Daguerre’s cameras, he received the Frenchman’s instructions for creating pictures. By then, Morse had accepted a position as a professor of literature and design at New York University. He removed part of the roof from the school’s Old University Building, where his office was located, and replaced it with a skylight. In the room below, Morse and another professor, John William Draper, installed cameras and created the first studio in the United States to teach the art and science of photography.

It was also in that location that Morse shot the first photograph ever taken in America. Using Daguerre’s method, Morse photographed the Unitarian Congregational Church across the street from his studio. He recorded the event in his journal:

"Put the plate in the camera, 2 minutes before 3 o’clock, sun shining bright, but the objects were in the shadows mostly. The prevailing color was grey over all objects except the brick church, which was red with sunlight upon it, striking obliquely … Time required in the camera 16 minutes. Proof a good one for all the objects in shadow, light a little over-done."

Morse operated the studio for just two years. By the early 1840s, he was busy demonstrating his telegraph, hoping to earn federal funding for intercity telegraph systems. (He also ran for mayor of New York City twice—once in 1836 and again in 1841—but lost both times.) In 1843, Morse was awarded $30,000 by Congress, which he used to construct an experimental telegraph line between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. On May 24, 1844, he tapped out the first long-distance message—"What hath God wrought"—and paved the way for ever-faster telecommunications. Meanwhile, the studio he co-founded produced some of the leading photographers of the 19th century, including Civil War photojournalist Mathew Brady.

The success of the telegraph overshadowed Morse’s other achievements, including his role in bringing photography to America. But by the time of his death in 1872, he was recognized as one of America’s most influential polymaths. "Few persons have ever lived to whom all departments of industry owe a greater debt," wrote The New York Times in his obituary. Almost a century and a half later, his influence still lurks behind your awkward family photos.

Hard Sell: A History of the Pet Rock

Amazon
Amazon

You may have heard the story of the Pet Rock, the Mexican beach stone that could be purchased in bulk for less than a penny, retailed for $3.95, and made inventor Gary Dahl a millionaire during a kind of novelty gift hysteria in late 1975. But Dahl didn’t really get rich off of the rock.

He got rich off of a cardboard box.

Dahl was working as a freelance advertising copywriter in California that year when, while having drinks at a bar with friends, the conversation turned to the destructive nature of pets. Dogs and cats ruined furniture. Worse, they required constant attention, from being walked to being fed to cleaning up after them. Dahl said that he didn’t have to worry about any of that because he had a “pet rock.”

It was, of course, a joke. And it got a laugh. But Dahl decided there could be more to it than that. He went home and began writing an owner’s manual for this hypothetical pet rock, which detailed how best to handle it, the tricks it could perform (“play dead” being the most popular), and how it could remain a faithful companion due to its “long life span.” The gag was not so much the rock itself but the way it was presented. In addition to the manual, Dahl conceived of a cardboard box with air holes that resembled the kind used by pet shops. It also bore a passing resemblance to a McDonald's Happy Meal container.

 

Dahl's motivation in making a serious effort to monetize his pet rock idea was due in large part to his precarious financial situation at the time—he was struggling to keep up with his bills. He recruited George Coakley and John Heagerty, two colleagues, to come on as investors. They both signed on, with Coakley investing $10,000—a not-inconsiderable sum in 1975, especially when the intention was to sell virtually worthless rocks.

The Pet Rock packaging is pictured
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dahl, however, knew what he was marketing. Like chattering teeth, the Hula Hoop, and other fads, the Pet Rock was the beneficiary of good timing. Vietnam had ended but Watergate was still fresh; the country’s mood was slightly downcast, and Dahl believed people would see the inane nature of the Pet Rock and recognize the humor of it. He boxed the rocks with the manual and packed them in excelsior, which may be best known as comic book legend Stan Lee’s catchphrase but also means a softwood shaving pile meant for protecting fragile items. The rocks were purchased from a local sand and gravel company, which sourced them from Mexico’s Rosarita Beach. Dahl debuted the rock at a gift show in San Francisco in August of 1975, then waited for a reaction.

He got one. People understood the appeal right away and he began taking orders. Neiman Marcus wanted 1000 rocks. Bloomingdale’s later signed on. Newsweek did a story with a picture, which spread the word. Dahl had retail and media credibility for what was superficially a nonsense product. His bar joke was turning into a national phenomenon.

When the holiday season arrived, Dahl estimated he was selling up to 100,000 Pet Rocks a day. Ultimately, he would sell between 1.3 and 1.5 million of them within a period of just a few months. Coakley made $200,000 back on his initial $10,000 investment. Dahl gifted both Coakley and Heagerty with Mercedes. Making 95 cents in profit on each Pet Rock sold, Dahl earned over $1 million. He launched his own firm, Rock Bottom Productions, which was itself another joke. “You’ve reached Rock Bottom” is how the receptionist answered their phone.

 

The fad did not last—by definition, they’re not designed to—but Dahl was satisfied. His two investors were not; they "claimed they had received too small a share of the profits" and later sued Dahl for more revenue. After a judgment in the investors' favor, Dahl wrote them a six-figure check.

The Pet Rock is pictured
Amazon

There were attempts to prolong the life of the rock by offering a Bicentennial version in 1976—it had the American flag painted on it—and mail-order college degrees for them. Dahl sold Pet Rock T-shirts and Pet Rock shampoo. There were also copycat gifts, since Dahl could not really patent a rock. (He might have been able to obtain a utility patent because of the rock’s particular purpose as a companion, but he did not.) The humor was transient, however, and people had moved on.

Dahl had other ideas. There was the Official Sand Breeding Kit, which claimed to provide guidance on growing sand, and Canned Earthquake, which consisted of a coffee can that had a wind-up mechanism that caused it to jump around on a table. Neither was particularly successful. Dahl’s real passion, though, was buying and renovating a bar in Los Gatos, which he named Carrie Nation’s Saloon.

This was not without its problems, as people who believed they had the next Pet Rock would often stop by the bar to try and secure an audience with Dahl for his insight. Many times, their idea consisted of packaging bull or elephant excrement. There were also proposals to market a pet stick. Dahl had no patience for these inventors, believing the Pet Rock could not be duplicated. Later, he went back to advertising after taking what he described as an “eight-year vacation” following the success of his project.

The Pet Rock can still be found online, though it’s no longer Dahl’s business. He died in 2015. Of the unsold rocks he had left over at the end of the fad, he was indifferent. If they didn’t sell, he said, he would just use them to repave his driveway.

Submarine Expedition Reveals Parts of the Titanic Have Fully Decayed

NOAA/Institute for Exploration/University of Rhode Island
NOAA/Institute for Exploration/University of Rhode Island

In 1985, oceanographers Robert Ballard, Jean-Louis Michel, and their crew located the wreck of the RMS Titanic at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Images of the shipwreck have since become as iconic as photographs of the ocean liner taken before the 1912 tragedy. But the ruin's time in the ocean is limited. As part of an upcoming documentary, a crew of scientists carried out the first manned expedition to the wreck in 14 years and discovered the Titanic is rapidly decaying, BBC reports.

After it sank, the Titanic settled in two parts on the seafloor about 370 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. Most of the wreck is still intact, but a lot has changed since 2005, when it was last visited by a human-occupied submersible.

While working on a film for Atlantic Productions London, an exploration team from Triton Submarines visited the wreck five times over eight days and discovered that entire sections of the ship have disappeared. The starboard side of the officer's quarters has deteriorated, and the captain's bathtub is totally gone. The deck house on the same side and the sloping lounge roof of the bow are also on the brink of collapse, according to the crew.

Unlike other artifacts and historic sites, there's no way to preserve the wreckage of the Titanic for future generations. Churning ocean currents, corrosive salt, and metal-eating bacteria will continue to break down the steel behemoth until it becomes part of the sea. Some experts estimate that by 2030, it's likely that no part of the wreck will remain.

Whether that projection is off by years or decades, these findings suggest that every new team that visits the Titanic may find something different than the team before them. On this most recent expedition, the Triton Submarines exploration team was able to film the wreck in 4K for the first time. That footage may end up being some of the last ever captured of many elements of the ship.

[h/t BBC]

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