The dots that dashed across time

Samuel Morse wanted to paint, but his telegraph changed the world

On May 24, 1844, Samuel F.B. Morse telegraphed a short message from the chamber of the United States Supreme Court to a colleague in Baltimore. "What hath God wrought!" he tapped out. Morse's colleague replied immediately, demonstrating to all assembled - some of the most powerful men in the country - the viability of virtually instantaneous long-distance communication.

In fact, the telegraph was matched in speed and reach only by the spread of Morse's reputation. "His name is immortalized and will remain as long as time will endure," proclaimed one congressman. It was a smart political position to take, since the public was counting Morse a national idol second only to Benjamin Franklin.

If Morse is no longer so widely admired, his life is more compelling than ever in this technological age. Kenneth Silverman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Cotton Mather, has delivered on that promise, at least to a degree: Narrow in focus and lacking in critical analysis, "Lightning Man" is nevertheless admirably thorough, a straightforward account of a life notorious for its inconsistencies.

Morse expected to be celebrated not as an inventor but an artist. And during the first half of his life, he distinguished himself accordingly, securing commissions to paint portraits of President James Monroe and the Marquis de Lafayette. More significantly, he founded and presided over the National Academy of Design, the first professional association for working artists in the United States. But none of those accomplishments sufficed, any more than he was content to copy European masterpieces to hang in the pretentious parlors of self-styled American gentlemen. He was determined, as he said, to "execute some great subject." But Silverman notes, "Morse's plans and hopes had a way of dissolving."

Blame - or credit - the telegraph. The idea had occurred to him five years before, while sailing back to the United States from Europe. During a conversation with fellow passengers about recent discoveries in electromagnetism, Morse had commented innocently that he could "see no reason why intelligence might not be transmitted instantaneously by electricity." After that, he'd worked periodically toward building such a machine, using materials he had on hand and relying entirely on his own mechanical aptitude and scientific expertise.

He had little of either, and, for fear of being laughed at, kept his awkward apparatus secret for nearly half a decade. Then, in 1837, he read that two Frenchmen had devised a system by which a message of 100 words might reach New Orleans from New York in half an hour.

As Silverman notes, such claims were staggering. "The world measured communication time in terms of transportation time.... 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."

Not unexpectedly, the press raved about this latest "achievement of human ingenuity." As it turned out, though, the Frenchmen had merely improved a series of towers with rotating armatures that could receive and send messages optically six miles at a time. Still, the announcement was enough to make Morse tip his hand.

The story of how he and a seemingly endless cast of partners and rivals developed, patented, funded, and erected the telegraph is quintessentially 19th century, a hybrid of capitalism and altruism, played out in a muddle of corruption, well described by Silverman.

"Lightning Man" also gives a thorough account of people's reaction to the invention that brought both Morse and America such acclaim. In addition to making it possible for people to play chess and wage war from afar, the telegraph would end crime, alleviate the need for money, and even lead, through total connectedness, to "a new species of consciousness."

However, while briefly noting the parallel to late 20th-century claims about the Internet, Silverman passes up the opportunity to explore what this history of unfulfilled, impossible promise can tell us about our enduring national character. The equation of technology with omnipotence set a pattern ongoing to this day. And our eagerness to embrace old claims about Morse's telegraph in the name of the Internet suggests how and why we persist in our naiveté.

• Jonathon Keats is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle.

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