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Samuel Morse : Father of American Photography

Samuel Finley Breese Morse, was born in Charlestown, Mass., April 27, 1791 to pastor Rev. Jedidiah Morse and Sidney E. Morse. Rev. Jedidiah Morse is credited with establishing the first Sunday school in America at his church.

in 1810 he graduated at Yale College. While at Yale College, Mr. Morse had paid special attention to chemistry and natural history which became a dominant pursuit with him. Setting the foundation for his later scientific discovery.

in 1811, Morse went to London with Washington Allston to study painting at in the British Royal Academy, then under our countryman, Benjamin West, for more than four years.

In 1813 he received the gold medal of the Adeiphi Society, from the Duke of Norfolk, for his model of a statue of The Dying Hercules. His first attempt at sculpture. He also received high commendations for his paintings, exhibited at the Royal Academy under circumstances which did not allow his competition for the prizes.

In 1816, Morse returned to Massachusetts to became the first superintendent of his fathers Sabbath school, and was also trying to establish himself in his profession in Boston. but, did not have much success, so he moved first to New Haven, and afterwards to New York, where he found his works and his abilities as an artist better appreciated; and was constantly employed.

in 1824-25 with some other artists of New York, he founded a drawing association in the promotion of the fine arts. After two years, the association was named the "National Academy of Design." Mr. Morse was chosen its first President, were he continued in that position for sixteen years.

In 1829 Morse visited Europe a second time to complete his studies in art, residing for more than three years in the principal cities of the continent.

In 1832, During his absence abroad he was elected to the "professorship of the literature of the arts of design" In the University of New York, where he would focus on painting and sculpture.

It was on board ship bound for Havre in 1832, and in a casual conversation with some of the passengers concerning recent discoveries in France, regarding the means of obtaining the electric spark from the magnet, that Morse's mind conceived not merely the idea of an electric, telegraph, but of an electro-magnetic recording telegraph, as it now exists. The testimony to the paternity of the idea in Morse's mind, and to his acts and drawings on board the ship is ample; so that the court and judges before whom he appeared were satisfied with his claim; the date of 1832 is therefore fixed by this evidence as the date of Morse's conception of the telegraph system which now bears his name. In the latter part of this same year he reached home, prosecuted his studies, and prepared portions of his apparatus.

In 1835 Professor Morse delivered some of the first educational art lectures in America entitled the "affinity of those arts".

He came into possession of an electro-magnet based on Sturgeon's principle which later became instrumental in the Morse Telegraph. Morse's first instrument for the purpose of communicating from and to a distant point was shown in successful operation to many in 1835 and 1836. In 1837 he completed and exhibited his whole plan at the University of New York. In 1838, Morse changed the telegraphic cipher, from a telegraphic dictionary with number code to a code for each letter. On January 6 the first telegraph was experimented and the on January 24th, Morse demonstrated the telegraph to colleges. On February 8, 1838, Morse's first public demonstration was conducted to a scientific committee at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

In the spring of 1839 Professor Morse traveled to Paris to secure a patent on his telegraphic apparatus, where he learned of the experiments of M. Daguerre. Morse was naturally anxious to hear more of this new art of painting with sunbeams, especially as he himself had made experiments to ascertain if it was possible to fix the image of the camera obscura, and had given the matter up as impracticable.

Professor Morse was preparing to leave Paris for home, when, in conversation with the American Consul, Mr. Robert Walsh, he one morning remarked, "I do not like to go home without first having seen Daguerre's results." The consul thought the matter might be easily arranged considering Morse's European reputation, and suggested that Professor Morse invite M. Daguerre to see his telegraphic apparatus, in return for which courtesy M. Daguerre would doubtless invite Professor Morse to see his pictures. The plan was successful. Professor Morse had the pleasure of seeing the wonderful results of the new discovery at the Diorama, where M. Daguerre had his laboratory, and where he gave frequent exhibitions of his pictures to the foremost scientific men of the day. The pictures were mostly views of streets, boulevards, and buildings, those of the Louvre and Notre Dame being especially fine. Interiors, still life, groups of plaster casts, and other works of art were also most successfully treated by the new process. Daguerre had not succeeded in making portraits as yet, and he told Professor Morse "that he doubted if it could be done".

Documented in The US Democratic Review, May 1839 professor Morse describes the daguerreotypes as "The impressions of interior views are Rembrandt perfected. One of Mr. D.'s plates is an impression of a spider. The spider was not bigger than the head of a large pin, but the image, magnified by the solar microscope to the size of the palm of the hand, having been impressed on the plate, and examined through a lens, was further magnified, and showed a minuteness of organization hitherto not seen to exist."

The very next day at noon following Professor Morse's visit of Daguerre's diorama, Daguerre came to see Professor Morse to witness the operations of his telegraph. During the visit which lasted more than an hour, Daguerre's Diorama burned to the ground with all his beautiful daguerreotype specimens and valuable notes and papers. Everything was destroyed.

Morse was the first to receive the process details in America directly from Daguerre. Morse states in an article in the 1872 Philadelphia reporter "In my interview with him [Daguerre], however, I requested him, as soon as his pension bill was passed, and the publication of his process was made, to send me a copy of his work, which he courteously promised to do, and accordingly in the summer of 1839 I received from him probably the first copy that came to America. From this copy, in which, of course, were the drawings of the necessary apparatus, I had constructed the first daguerreotype apparatus made in the United States. States. My first effort with it, was on a small plate of silvered copper, about the size of a playing card, procured from a hardware store; but defective as it was, I obtained a good representation of the Church of the Messiah in Broadway, taken from a back window in the New York University."

On his return to New York, in April 1839, Morse inspired his two brothers Sidney and Richard with his own enthusiasm and according to his brother Sidney, they removed the central part of the roof of their six story building, covered it with a skylight, furnished the new chamber with cameras and the other apparatus of photography, and, erected the the first "tabernacle for the sun", on the Western hemisphere. Morse took the first photograph in America from a back window of the university which was a view of the tower of the church of the Messiah, on broadway, and surrounding building on a plate the size of a playing card. Morse experimented and perfected his daguerreotype process in this studio and opened the first classroom in America to teach the art science of photography.

In 1840, Professor Morse continued his daguerreotype experiments with Dr. John Draper. Together they open a daguerreian studio and classroom in the University Building. Samuel Broadbent was also noted to have assisted Morse in his studio until about August, 1841. Within this studio, the first portraiture was taken by Morse then perfected by Draper. Morse continues to teach the process to the first generation of American photographers including Mathew Brady, Albert Sands, Southworth, and Jerimiah Gurney to name a few.

Athough Morse's photographic career lasted only two years, the impact he made by announcing the photographic process to American and then teaching the profession to the first wave of pioneering photographers is monumental.

in 1842 A application was made to Congress without success for his telegraph, but in March of 1843 he was blessed with the news that Congress, approved his plans for a telegraph and had placed at his disposal the sum of $30,000, to make the experiment between Washington and Baltimore.

In 1844 Morse's vision came true and he sent the successful telegraph message through a wire from Washington to Baltimore that echoed the world over "What hath God wrought?"

Samuel Finley Breese Morse was an artist, as well as a scientist. His scientific accomplishments are highly regarded throughout the world. But his vision and leadership in ushering in the beginning of photography to America have elevated him to an even higher regard as "The Father of American Photography". Samuel Morse died On April 2, 1872 at his home at 5 West 22nd Street, New York, New York, at the age of eighty, and was buried in the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.

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