The Accursed Life of Samuel F. B. Morse
In this brilliantly conceived and written biography, Pulitzer Prize–winning Kenneth Silverman gives us the long and amazing life of the man eulogized by the New York Herald in 1872 as “perhaps the most illustrious American of his age.”
Silverman presents Samuel Morse in all his complexity. There is the gifted and prolific painter (more than three hundred portraits and larger historical canvases) and pioneer photographer, who gave the first lectures on art in America, became the first Professor of Fine Arts at an American college (New York University), and founded the National Academy of Design. There is the republican idealist, prominent in antebellum politics, who ran for Congress and for mayor of New York. But most important, there is the inventor of the American electromagnetic telegraph, which earned Morse the name Lightning Man and brought him the fame he sought.
In these pages, we witness the evolution of the great invention from its inception as an idea to its introduction to the world—an event that astonished Morse’s contemporaries and was considered the supreme expression of the country’s inventive genius. We see how it transformed commerce, journalism, transportation, military affairs, diplomacy, and the very shape of daily life, ushering in the modern era of communication.
But we discover as well that Morse viewed his existence as accursed rather than illustrious, his every achievement seeming to end in loss and defeat: his most ambitious canvases went unsold; his beloved republic imploded into civil war, making it unlivable for him; and the commercial success of the telegraph engulfed him in lawsuits challenging the originality and ownership of his invention.
Lightning Man is the first biography of Samuel F. B. Morse in sixty years. It is a revelation of the life of a fascinating and profoundly troubled American genius.
The New York Heraldmay have eulogized the inventor of the telegraph in 1872 as "perhaps the most illustrious American of his age," but Samuel Morse may have concluded otherwise: he thought his life a failure. Hence the subtitle of this painstakingly researched, gracefully and soberly told life. Silverman, who won the Pulitzer and Bancroft prizes for his 1984 biography of Cotton Mather, presents us with a fool's progress of sorts. Morse seems to have fallen into inventing by way of a mediocre painting career. He was a disappointment to his pious Protestant parents, who envisioned a respectable career for their son but got a dreamer instead. By the age of 41, Morse was still dreaming of a commission from Congress to be hung in the Capitol dome and still undecided as to his calling in life. He dabbled in inventing, considered a career as a minister, became an art teacher at New York University, ran unsuccessful candidacies for mayor and for Congress on anti-immigration platforms and wrote screeds against Catholic conspiracies to undermine the American republic. He dabbled in a new technology, photography, and of course, promoted his electromagnetic telegraph, battling domestic and foreign competitors and, after finally achieving commercial success, a tide of lawsuits. Silverman's vivid portrait is of a na ve, restless man who stays a dreamer all his life and dies disappointed. The author writes in a narrative style as staid and temperate as the Protestant bourgeoisie he writes about. This should appeal as both history of science and stolid biography. 49 photos and illus.