There are many ways to reveal one’s age. Not long ago, I was showing my daughter the scrapbook my mother kept of my earliest years. On the front page were several yellowing papers with the logo of Western Union across the top. “What are those?” she asked.
How old am I? I am so old that my birth was acknowledged by telegram.
I explained to her what they were, and that the inventor of the telegraph, Samuel F.B. Morse, was as important and as famous in his day as Steve Jobs is in ours. Both changed the way we communicate with one another, and communication is often the change-agent of a generation. The telegraph, I told her, laughably quaint in an age of literal instant messaging, was in fact the smart phone of the mid-19th century.
But there is much more to Morse, who used the wealth gained from his invention to buy Locust Grove, his home in Poughkeepsie, than the telegraph and the transmission code that bears his name. For starters, he was for much of his life better known for his first job: fine artist. Old as I am, I didn’t know that Morse was one of the most accomplished painters of his time long before he began tinkering with electromagnetism.
Samuel Finley Breese Morse (April 27, 1791-April 2, 1872) was born in Charlestown, Mass. He was already making a living as a painter when he graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Yale. His work earned him a three-year stay in England to study under the artists Washington Allston and Benjamin West, and at the end of his apprenticeship, in 1811, he was admitted to the Royal Academy. He stayed in Europe until 1815, producing two of his best-known paintings, Dying Hercules and Judgment of Jupiter.
Back in America, he was commissioned to paint portraits of the likes of former Presidents John Adams and James Monroe, the Marquis de Lafayette, wealthy patrons of Charleston, S.C., and the House of Representatives. He was one of the founders of the National Academy of Design, and served as its President from 1826 to 1845 and again from 1861 to 1862. Not a bad first career — yet completely overshadowed by his second career.
That career was set in motion by tragedy. In 1825, while in Washington, D.C., to paint Lafayette, he received a letter telling him his wife was dead. By the time he got to his home in New Haven, she had already been buried. Shaken by the fact that he had not known of his wife’s illness and death until it was too late, he vowed to find a way to improve long-distance communication.
In 1832, he was sailing home from Europe when he met a man named Charles Thomas Jackson, who had studied electromagnetism. Morse visited Jackson and watched him work with an electromagnet. Intrigued, Morse put away his paintbrushes and began tinkering with a way to transmit electric signals over a wire. He wasn’t alone, however. Two English inventors had created a telegraph before Morse, and got a patent for one in 1837. Morse, who first demonstrated his version in 1838, earned his patent in 1840. By then, he knew of the English telegraph, but with $30,000 from the federal government, he set up a 38-mile experimental line between Washington and Baltimore. He first demoed his telegraph on May 1, 1844, when he sent news of the Whig Party’s nomination of Henry Clay for U.S. President from the party’s convention in Baltimore to the Capitol Building. A few weeks later, on May 24, 1844, the line was officially opened with Morse’s now-famous words, “What hath God wrought,” transmitted from the Supreme Court chamber in the basement of the U.S. Capitol to the B&O Railroad’s Mount Clare Station in Baltimore.
In May 1845 Morse formed the Magnetic Telegraph Company, and began building telegraph lines from New York to Philadelphia, Boston, Buffalo, and beyond. And he got rich.
Morse never had his own home until the telegraph took off. When it did, he bought an old farm in Poughkeepsie, in 1847. The house was a fixer-upper, and he began fixing it up almost immediately, especially after he remarried in 1848. By 1852 he had turned what Kenneth F. Snodgrass, executive director of Locust Grove Estate, calls “a pretty plain, white box — Morse’s line was that it had ‘no pretensions to taste’” — into an ornate, Italianate-style home that “reflected his style as one of the best known artists of his time. I call it the house that the telegraph built.”
Morse had given up painting by now and concentrated fulltime on his invention — more accurately, the fight to secure his claim as its rightful, legal inventor. “His initial idea was to live here year round, but he was always traveling to deal with lawsuits,” Snodgrass says.
In typical 19th century tradition, Morse was a gentleman landscaper. “He was always tinkering with the gardens, and he would write letters to guide his workers on plantings, moving walls, and what to do with produce,” Snodgrass says. His architect was the estimable Alexander Jackson Davis, but Morse had his own opinions and was not shy to share them. “I find the collaboration between them fascinating,” Snodgrass says. “They bickered back and forth on how things should be laid out and designed.” Many of those letters survive, both at Locust Grove and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Locust Grove was primarily Morse’s private getaway — his townhome in New York was for formal entertaining — but he was an involved citizen of Poughkeepsie. He was on the founding Board of Trustees of Vassar College, and was an advisor for its museum and friend of Vassar, whose home was just down the street. He was a donor to both the Children’s Home in Poughkeepsie — to which he also had his farm’s produce delivered — and the First Presbyterian Church. And he ran, unsuccessfully, to represent Poughkeepsie in the House of Representatives in 1854.
The year before, Morse’s patent case was settled by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that his system was the first design to result in a practical telegraph. He died, on April 2, 1872, in New York City, and is buried at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. At the time of his death, his estate was valued at nearly $10 million in today’s money. And though he could rightfully be called an artistic visionary, most of his paintings are still labeled, Snodgrass says, as “By the father of the telegraph.”
Although Locust Grove is hardly changed on the outside from Morse’s 1850s renovations, nothing of his time is left inside, says Snodgrass. His children sold his possessions and papers to the Library of Congress, and, by the 1880s, the house was empty. Fortunately, it was purchased in 1895 by the Young family, who were interested in historic preservation. “Their furniture and paintings from 1895 to 1915 are frozen in time,” Snodgrass says. The estate was turned into a museum in 1975.
Today, visitors can tour the mansion and view collections from Morse’s two careers — painting and telegraphy. They can also enjoy miles of hiking over the scenic grounds. Visit Locust Grove’s website to confirm opening hours and programs.