On this date in 1840 Samuel Morse filed US Patent 1,647, “Improvement in the mode of communicating information by signals by the application of electro-magnetism.” It was the first in a string of patents filed by Morse that made effective telegraphy a reality. There were a number of other people in the game at the time, but Morse’s system (working with several collaborators) as well as his code for transmitting messages (also worked on with others) was the one that ultimately triumphed.
Morse, because of the code that bears his name, will forever be associated with the telegraph, but he actually had a well established career as a painter before he switched, midstream, to the communications field. Many of his portraits and classical images enshrining the political values of the young nation had earned him national fame, and were commissioned for public display. He worked professionally full time as a painter from around 1808 (supporting himself whilst a student at Yale) to 1825 (and part time until 1837). In 1825, the city of New York commissioned Morse for $1,000 to paint a portrait in Washington of Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette (a general under George Washington in the Continental Army). While Morse was painting, a horse messenger delivered a letter from his father containing one line, “Your dear wife is convalescent.” Morse immediately left Washington for his home at New Haven, leaving the portrait of Lafayette unfinished. By the time he arrived, his wife had already been buried. Heartbroken in the knowledge that for days he was unaware of his wife’s failing health and her lonely death, he moved on from painting to the creation of a means of rapid long distance communication.
During the 1830’s there was fierce competition between British scientists (notably Charles Wheatstone, inventor of the English concertina), and Morse to develop a commercially viable telegraph system. The British team filed patents and opened telegraph lines several years before Morse, but their system had two drawbacks: they could not transmit over very long distances, and their use of electromagnetically controlled needles to point to letters on a dial was cumbersome. Morse understood that the use of a single telegraph wire with a single battery had severe limitations because the resistance in the wire weakened the signal over distance. With the assistance of chemistry professor Leonard Gail (and, later, researcher and backer Alfred Vail), Morse developed a line that used battery powered relays at frequent intervals along the line to continually boost the signal. In theory such a system had no distance limits. In addition Morse’s team developed transmitting and receiving keys. At first the keys read punched tape strips at one end, and punched identical tapes at the other end using a code of dots and dashes. But when it was discovered that the punching/receiving key emitted clicks as it punched the tape, the tape was abandoned in favor of the audible clicks.
Initially Morse had difficulty getting federal funding to support his work, so he set up a number of demonstrations, the most impressive of which occurred on May 1, 1844, when news of the Whig Party’s nomination of Henry Clay for U.S. President was telegraphed from the party’s convention in Baltimore to the Capitol Building in Washington. Subsequently Morse traveled extensively in Europe and Latin America to promote his telegraph and to apply for patents and, in turn, received international fame. It was only in Britain that his system was rejected in favor of the older use of electromagnetic needles. In time, however, the Morse system and the Morse code became, and remain, international standards.
Morse spent a great deal of the next 30 years both promoting his system and defending himself legally against endless patent infringements at home and abroad. However, he lived comfortably despite receiving only a fraction of his due financially. It is also notable that he was honored more abroad than at home. The photo above, taken by Mathew Brady in 1866 shows him wearing from his right to left — top row: Nichan Iftikhar (Ottoman); Order of the Tower and Sword (Portugal); Order of the Dannebrog (Denmark); Gold Medal of Art and Science (Württemberg); Gold Medal of Science (Austria); Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus (Italy). Bottom row: Order of Isabella the Catholic (Spain). A United States honor is conspicuous by its absence.
My recipe to celebrate Samuel Morse is a bit of a cheat, but only a bit of one. There’s not a whole lot you can cook with dots and dashes. But Morse’s invention was made possible by the huge strides being made in electromagnetism in general at the time. The electromagnetic spectrum ranges over all manner of waves including visible light, X-rays, radio waves . . . and microwaves. I tend not to use a microwave oven for much more than rapid defrosting of frozen foods and reheating leftovers. But a microwave, with a little ingenuity, can produce excellent dishes. Here is a recipe for salmon that is superb (akin to the dishwasher recipe in my post on Dalí: May 11). The only catch is that the power of microwave ovens varies so much that to get this recipe right will require a bit of experimentation with times and intensities. Fortunately there is a fair degree of latitude. It is very important that the parchment cooking pouch is tightly sealed before cooking to prevent the escape of moisture. When chilled, the cooking liquids make a delectable aspic.
-… — -. / .- .–. .–. . – .. – (I had to learn Morse Code in the Boy Scouts – you’ll figure it out. Hint: the first word is a giveaway).
Cold Salmon from the Microwave
2 lbs (1 kg) fresh salmon
1/3 cup (.8 dl) melted butter
juice of ½ a lemon
1/3 cup (.8 dl) dry, white vermouth
salt and pepper, to taste
2 or 3 sprigs fresh dill
thin lemon slices
thin cucumber slices
Lay a large sheet of baking parchment into an 8 inch (20 cm) square glass dish.
Lay the salmon on the parchment and brush it with melted butter.
Pull up the sides of the parchment, shaping it into a bag.
Pour in the lemon juice and vermouth, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Arrange the dill sprigs on top of salmon.
Close the bag tightly, folding the top pieces over each other several times, but keeping as big an air pocket inside as possible.
Microwave for 20 minutes on medium/high (high is too intense).
Leave the package to rest for 20 minutes.
DO NOT unwrap the salmon.
Let the package cool to room temperature and then refrigerate it for 12 hours.
Unwrap and serve the salmon over lettuce leaves.
Garnish with parsley sprigs, lemon and cucumber slices.
Note: If you do not have baking parchment you can use 2 thicknesses of waxed paper.