A superbly rendered life of the painter, sculptor, and photographer best known for his invention of the electromagnetic telegraph.
When he wasn’t busy inventing or making art, Samuel Morse fretted about the nature of God, the shortcomings of those closest to him, and the hidden agenda of Abraham Lincoln. That he was brilliant, suggests Silverman (Houdini, 1996, etc.), is beyond doubt: though his early academic record was mediocre, he distinguished himself as a student at Yale, learning the mysteries of “galvanic electricity” and polishing his skills as a painter, one of the best of his time. He also left school with a mountain of debts, establishing a theme that figures throughout Silverman’s pages: brilliant though he was, Morse seemed incapable of handling money, and it was not until late in his long life that he finally was able to make a living from his considerable inventions. He worried about this lack of financial ability, but about many other things as well: that his parents would think him “a terrible harum-scarum fellow” for having gotten quickly engaged to a woman whose fondness for waltzing and Unitarian leanings troubled him (“She believes in the truth of the gospel, but I fear it is only a speculative belief”); that French inventors were conspiring to rob him of his patents; that America was so hostile to artists that he would have to relocate to Mexico, where the upper classes appreciated good painting. Having hit on the happy idea that “intelligence might . . . be transmitted instantaneously by electricity,” however, Morse stumbled into fame and eventually fortune. Morse’s well-known telegraph—of “What hath God wrought?”—was, writes Silverman, “the subject of relatively as much discussion in the newspapers and magazines of the mid-1840s as the Internet became in the mass media of the 1990s,” and even more transformative.
A first-rate, well-balanced blend of personal and cultural history.