Lightning Man

Samuel Morse (1791-1872) is commonly associated with the telegraphic “code” that bears his name. He is also remembered as the man who invented the telegraph. Yet Morse’s achievements go far beyond those for which he is most famous, and he led a fascinating life that strangely has received only modest attention in published biographies.

Kenneth Silverman’s biography of Morse places his scientific achievements in the richer context of his long life. Morse was the first-born son of a Congregational minister in Massachusetts. An intelligent and ambitious man, Morse was not formally a scientist, but rather a professional artist of some accomplishment in his time. During his eighty-one years of life, Morse painted and showed various works, was a professor of painting and sculpture at the new University of the City of New York, and opened art and portraiture studios. Morse’s success with the telegraph—the U.S. Supreme Court upheld his sole ownership of the patent for the device in 1854—gradually turned his time and attention away from his art. He also ran (unsuccessfully) for public office and committed himself to some philanthropic causes.

Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F. B. Morse provides a rich, nuanced description of Morse’s life. The description of Morse’s development of the telegraph and his legal fights over its patent are engaging and read at times like a suspense novel. Other facets of Morse’s life, including his family life, health issues, political activities, and social life, provide fascinating material as well. The subtitle refers to Morse’s own assessment that his life was a failure. As portrayed by Silverman, Morse’s life indeed has its share of disappointments, but his personal accomplishments and his public contributions surely make Morse’s self-assessment an ironic one.