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Polymath's progress

Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F.B. Morse; Kenneth Silverman; Alfred A. Knopf: 504 pp., $35

October 26, 2003|Henry Petroski | Henry Petroski, the A.S. Vesic professor of civil engineering and a professor of history at Duke University, is the author of "Small Things Considered: Why There Is No Perfect Design."

Kenneth Silverman's excellent biography of Samuel Finley Breese Morse is a captivating tale of an accomplished portrait painter turned inventor of the telegraph. The privileged Finley, as he was called in his youth, was born in 1791 to the pastor of the First Congregational Church of Charlestown, Mass. -- who would neglect his ministry in favor of a career in geography -- and the granddaughter of the president of Princeton, for whom he was named. Finley was not a dedicated student, but like his father before him, the young Morse attended Yale, where he developed interests in science, literature and art. It was the last to which he was most attracted, and he was determined to become an artist in a young America where paintbrushes and other basic tools of the trade were not easy to come by.

Finley prevailed upon his father, whose geography books sold well, to allow him to study under the emerging American painter Washington Allston, who himself studied in London. Finley followed Allston back to London, where he spent several years learning to paint. His ambition was to become "a successful history painter" in the tradition of Raphael, Michelangelo and Titian, and "to be enlisted in the constellation of genius" he saw rising in America. His parents' patience and support grew thin, however, for they saw no future in such a career, and he returned home to paint portraits to earn enough money to pursue his true love.

He also began to consider marriage and family, which turned his thoughts to a steady income. Toward that end, he "tried invention," as did so many other 19th century Americans. But before the fickle Finley could strike it rich with a clever new gadget, he announced his plans for a new profession -- divinity -- for which he would abandon art. His artistic temperament did not suit him well for the ministry, however, and he soon went off to South Carolina, where he resumed painting portraits for money in Charleston. He also tried to do so in New England to be closer to his family. During his travels, he conceived of a grand painting of the U.S. House of Representatives that would include portraits of all its members. His idea was to charge admission to view the painting and thereby earn a living painting history. The public did not subscribe to the idea, though, and Finley began looking again for an alternative -- and more profitable -- career.

He briefly toyed with the idea of becoming a sculptor, aided by his invention of a marble-cutting lathe that could replicate statues and vases. But such a device had already been patented, so he abandoned the idea. In time, he tried another ambitious canvas, one depicting the Grand Gallery of the Louvre, complete with scores of famous paintings faithfully miniaturized by the artist. This too failed to attract crowds willing to pay for a view. He held out hope for a commission from Congress to paint one of the great canvases that was to be hung under the dome of the Capitol, but he never got the call. At age 41, he virtually resigned himself to a servile career painting portraits.

There was another side of Morse, as he was by then known. In 1832 he accepted an appointment as a professor of painting and sculpture at the fledgling New York University, which gave him a base of operations in that city. As a professor, he began to write and lecture -- not only on art. His politics were fiercely nationalistic. His European experiences had left him obsessively anti-Catholic, and he was also to become anti-immigrant and anti-abolitionist. His strong opinions led him into politics and to unsuccessful campaigns for mayor of New York City and for Congress. He was more successful as the president of the National Academy of Design, but his own artistic career essentially foundered.

Morse's career took another turn in 1837, when he learned that a pair of Frenchmen was demonstrating a "revolutionary system of long-distance communication." As Silverman reminds us, "News of Andrew Jackson's victory in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 took as long to reach Washington as news of Alexander the Great's victory at the Battle of Arbela took to reach his capital in 331 B.C." Morse saw immediately the implications since he had been working on such a device for five years, though few had been permitted to see the wires he had strung around his apartment or to view the telegraph apparatus he had created to send coded messages through them.

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