LIGHTNING MAN: The Accursed Life of Samuel F. B. Morse

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LIGHTNING MAN: The Accursed Life of Samuel F. B. Morse. By Kenneth Silverman. Knopf. 503 pp. $35

In 1844, Samuel F. B. Morse demonstrated his new telegraph in the Supreme Court chamber of the U.S. Capitol. From Odd Fellows Hall in Baltimore, Morse’s aide Alfred Vail sent word that the Democratic Party had just nominated dark horse James K. Polk for president. With everyone in the court electrified over both the news and the means of its arrival, Morse and Vail ended their session with a 19th-century instant message:

V: Have you had your dinner

M: yes have you

V: yes what had you

M: mutton chop and strawberries

Small talk has always had its place beside great events in long-distance communication.

Kenneth Silverman, the author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Cotton Mather, tells the life of Morse (1791–1872) through many such precise and contrasting details. The inventor was born outside Boston to a stout, nononsense mother and a father who preferred mapmaking to his work as a minister. As a young man, Morse, too, divided his time between two pursuits, tinkering with inventions and painting portraits.

His results in both were mixed. A prototype fire engine failed in a public demonstration, prompting one spectator to write: "Mr Morse better stick to his brush, he will do well enough then but as to Engines he’d better let them alone." Morse did become a prosperous artist, but when his most ambitious, meticulously detailed works failed to establish him as a serious painter, he decided to concentrate on the inventions, including an idea for a long-distance communications device. One way or another, he felt sure, greatness was his destiny.

In 1837, Morse read a newspaper article about two French inventors working on a concept that he had thought existed solely in his notes. Alarmed, he retraced his steps, even going so far as to write to fellow passengers on a transatlantic crossing he had made in 1832, some of whom responded that, yes, they recalled his having talked of his telegraph notion. Along with establishing his primacy, he was struggling to figure out where the idea might have slid from his fingers—an example of what might be Morse’s real curse, a personality given to obsessing over both detail and reputation. He spent the rest of his life locked in a grudge match with other inventors over telegraph patents, funding, and fame.

Through Silverman’s curatorial eye, Morse’s story shifts from sweetness (the feckless young painter) to tragedy (his artistic projects fail, his young wife dies, his paternity claim to his greatest invention is called spurious), and finally to irony (xenophobic Morse promotes the idea of a transatlantic cable). Along the way, the biographer capably explores such topics as intellectual property rules, early-19th-century tastes in art, government funding of commercial projects, and the vagaries of electric communication. The book is a triumph for Silverman and his readers, as well as, belatedly, for Morse.

—Alexander Chee


 

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