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.

5 Fast Facts About Muhammad Ali

Kent Gavin/Getty Images
Kent Gavin/Getty Images

Muhammad Ali is one of the most important athletes and cultural figures in American history. Though he passed away in 2016, the heavyweight boxing champ was larger than life in and outside of the ring. The man who coined the phrase "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” won 37 knockout victories. Here are five more fast facts about Muhammad Ali, a.k.a. The Greatest.

1. Cassius Clay was named for a white abolitionist.

Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. and named after his father, who had in turn been named for a white abolitionist. The original Cassius Clay was a wealthy 19th-century planter and politician who not only published an anti-slavery newspaper, but also emancipated every slave he inherited from his father. Cassius Clay also served as a minister to Russia under President Abraham Lincoln.

2. Muhammad Ali's draft evasion case went to the Supreme Court.

In the early 1960s, Clay converted to Islam, joined the Nation of Islam, and took the name Muhammad Ali. According to his religious beliefs, Ali refused to serve in the Vietnam War when he was drafted in April 1967. He was arrested and stripped of his boxing license and heavyweight title. On June 20, 1967, he was convicted of draft evasion and banned from fighting while he remained free on appeal. His case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously overturned his conviction in 1971.

3. He received a replacement gold medal.

At the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Ali won the gold medal for boxing in the light heavyweight division. But, as he wrote in his 1975 autobiography, The Greatest: My Own Story (edited by Toni Morrison!), he supposedly threw his medal into the Ohio River in frustration over the racism he still experienced in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Some historians dispute this story and suggest that Ali just lost the medal. Either way, he was given a replacement when he lit the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

4. Muhammad Ali was an actual superhero.

In 1978, DC Comics published Superman vs. Muhammad Ali—an oversize comic in which Muhammad Ali defeats Superman and saves the world. In real life, Ali did save a man from suicide. In 1981, a man threatened to jump from the ninth story of a building in L.A.’s Miracle Mile neighborhood. Ali’s friend Howard Bingham witnessed the unfolding drama and called the boxer, who lived nearby. Ali rushed into the building and successfully talked the man down from the ledge.

5. Muhammad Ali starred in a Broadway show.

In Oscar Brown, Jr.'s 1969 musical adaptation of Joseph Dolan Tuotti's play Big Time Buck White, Ali played a militant black intellectual who speaks at a political meeting. The play ran for only five nights at the George Abbot Theatre in New York. His Playbill bio reported that Ali "is now appealing his five-year prison conviction and $10,000 fine for refusing to enter the armed services on religious grounds. The Big Time Buck White role that he has accepted is much like the life he lives off stage in reality.”

Why Do Brides Traditionally Wear White? You Can Thank Queen Victoria

The royal family has been setting fashion standards since long before Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle became household names. More than 175 years ago, the wedding dress Queen Victoria wore when she married Prince Albert in 1840 made a major statement. Victoria's off-the-shoulder satin gown was covered in delicate lace, but most impressively of all, it was the color of snow.

Wedding dress styles have changed a great deal since the Victorian era, but the light color palette has more or less remained a constant, according to Vanity Fair. White wasn’t always the obvious choice, though.

Prior to Queen Victoria’s royal wedding, red and other bright hues were the go-to colors for would-be brides. While Queen Victoria is largely credited with being the person who popularized the white wedding dress tradition as we know it today, she wasn’t the first woman to wear white on her wedding day—or even the first royal bride to don the the color (Mary, Queen of Scots opted for white when she married the Dauphin of France in 1558).

While some accounts have suggested that Queen Victoria wore white as a symbol of her sexual purity, historians have pointed out that wearing white was more of a status symbol. Wealthy brides wore the color to flaunt the fact that they could afford to have the dress cleaned—a task that was notoriously difficult in those days.

"Before bleaching techniques were mastered, white was a rare and expensive color, more a symbol of wealth than purity,” biographer Julia Baird wrote in Victoria: The Queen. “Victoria was not the first to wear it, but she made it popular by example. Lace makers across England were thrilled by the sudden surge in the popularity of their handiwork."

Eventually, white weddings became the standard—particularly once synthetic fibers became widely available (and cheaper than satin). With that, the “definitive democratization of the white wedding gown” was complete, Carol Wallace wrote in All Dressed in White: The Irresistible Rise of the American Wedding.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER