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.

Why Are We So Scared of Clowns?

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

With the recent box office-smashing success of Stephen King's It, it’s safe to say that coulrophobia (fear of clowns) isn’t a fringe phenomenon. The colorful circus performers are right up there with vampires and werewolves on the list of iconic horror villains. But unlike other movie monsters, clowns were originally meant to make kids laugh, not hide under their beds in terror. So what is it about clowns that taps into our deepest fears?

According to Yale doctoral candidate Danielle Bainbridge, the unsettling clown stereotype goes back centuries. In the inaugural episode of the PBS digital series Origin of Everything, Bainbridge explained the long history of this pervasive part of our culture.

Before clowns wore floppy shoes and threw pies at each other’s faces, early versions of the performers could be found in royal courts. The court jester wasn’t evil, but he was the only person in the kingdom who could poke fun at the monarch without fear of (literally) losing his head. The fact that fools didn’t fall within the normal social hierarchy may have contributed to the future role clowns would play as untrustworthy outsiders.

From the medieval era, clowns evolved into the harlequins of 16th-century Italian theater. Again, these weren’t bloodthirsty monsters, but they weren’t exactly kid-friendly either. The characters were often mischievous and morally bankrupt, and their strange costumes and masks only added to the creepy vibes they gave off.

Fast-forward to the 19th century, when the white-faced circus clowns we know today started gaining popularity. Unlike the jesters and harlequins that came before them, these clowns performed primarily for children and maintained a wholesome image. But as pop culture in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s showed us, that old perception we had of clowns as nefarious troublemakers never really went away. Steven King’s It, the cult classic Killer Clowns From Outer Space (1988), and that scene from Poltergeist (1982) all combined these original fears with the more modern association of clowns with children. That formula gave us one of the most frightening figures in horror media today.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

The Mongolian Princess Who Challenged Her Suitors to a Wrestling Match—and Always Won

iStock.com / SarahWouters1960
iStock.com / SarahWouters1960

In a lot of fairy tales, a disapproving father or a witch's curse stops the princess from finding Prince Charming. But things were a little different in 13th-century Mongolia. Any single lad, regardless of status or wealth, could marry the khan's daughter, Khutulun. There was just one caveat, which the princess herself decreed—you couldn't take her hand in marriage until you took her down in a wrestling match. If you lost, you had to give her a handful of prize horses.

Sounds easy, right? Nope. After all, this is the great-great-granddaughter of Genghis Khan we're talking about!

Born around 1260, Khutulun was an intimidating presence. According to The Travels of Marco Polo, the princess was "so well-made in all her limbs, and so tall and strongly built, that she might almost be taken for a giantess." She was also the picture of confidence. She had mastered archery and horsemanship in childhood and grew up to become a fearless warrior. Whenever her father, Kaidu—the leader of the Chagatai Khanate—went to battle, he usually turned to Khutulun (and not his 14 sons) for help.

Nothing scared her. Not only did Khutulun ride by her father's side into battle, she'd regularly charge headfirst into enemy lines to make "a dash at the host of the enemy, and seize some man thereout, as deftly as a hawk pounces on a bird, and carry him to her father," Marco Polo wrote. The 13th- and 14th-century historian Rashid al-Din was more direct, writing that she "often went on military campaigns, where she performed valiant deeds."

It's no surprise that Khutulun had suitors lining up and down the street asking for her hand in marriage. The princess, however, refused to marry any of them unless they managed to beat her in a wrestling match, stipulating that any loser would have to gift her anywhere between 10 to 100 horses.

Let's just put it this way: Khutulun came home with a lot of prize horses. (Some accounts say 10,000—enough to make even the emperor a little jealous.) As author Hannah Jewell writes in her book She Caused a Riot, "The Mongolian steppes were littered with the debris of shattered male egos."

On one occasion, a particularly confident suitor bet 1000 horses on a match. Khutulun's parents liked the fellow—they were itching to see their daughter get married—so they pulled the princess aside and asked her to throw the match. After carefully listening to her parents' advice, Khutulun entered the ring and, in Polo's words, "threw him right valiantly on the palace pavement." The 1000 horses became hers.

Khutulun would remain undefeated for life. According to legend, she eventually picked a husband on her own terms, settling for a man she never even wrestled. And centuries later, her story inspired François Pétis de La Croi to write the tale of Turandot, which eventually became a famed opera by the composer Giacomo Puccini. (Though the opera fudges the facts: The intrepid princess defeats her suitors with riddles, not powerslams.)

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