How Samuel F.B. Morse Brought Photography to America
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.
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.