Samuel Morse, the artistic son of a preacher, was born 27 April
1791. Though a painter by trade, he had been tinkering in the world
of invention since at least 1817. Ever on the lookout for the chance
to create an invention, Morse was receptive to a shipboard
demonstration while crossing the Atlantic in 1832.
As luck would have it, Dr. Charles Jackson, a fellow passenger,
had a keen interest in the workings of electricity. During a
conversation on the subject, Jackson suggested electricity could
travel instantly from one point to another. He then went to his
cabin, and came back with the means to prove that claim to Morse.
The 41-year-old painter, then a professor or arts and design at
New York University, became obsessed with the idea of sending
instant messages over the wires. Morse operated largely unaware of
other advances made in that field, and concentrated more on
developing a transmission code than on the practical problems of
making the electric telegraph work.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Morse was able to stage his first
demonstration a mere five years after having his epiphany on the
Atlantic. His system was problematic, however, and so he sought out
the expertise and financial backing of others who might improve upon
Leonard Gale, a chemistry professor at New York University, was
among the first to answer his call. Gale fitted Morse’s device with
a new battery to ramp up the power, and a stronger electromagnet.
These changes gave the telegraph enough power to send electricity
through kilometres of wire.
Alfred Vail, a machinist who served as an assistant to Morse,
quickly followed Gale’s lead and contributed to the redesign of
Morse's invention. The son of a wealthy industrialist, Vail, in
exchange for a portion of the patent, used his money and knowledge
to build increasingly effective prototypes for Morse.
The newest design, which incorporated the telegraph key, was much
simpler than earlier versions. Morse had also created a new code
that did away with the need for numbered codebooks. His efforts were
so successful that Morse code was commercially available until the
1970s, and is still practised today by a group of aficionados and
Morse did not stop there, however; he championed the telegraph as
a viable means of global communication, and pushed for the
construction of a transatlantic cable as well as for better local
Morse became the wealthy recipient of many honours for his
tireless work, before dying at the age of 81 on 2 April 1872.
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