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Painter, inventor, unhappy genius

Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F. B. Morse

By Kenneth Silverman

Knopf, 503 pp., illustrated, $35

The first half of the 19th century saw the everyday world made new. The technology of ordinary life had not changed much in previous eras, and the 18th century's major contribution had been carriage springs, which made riding on the awful roads of the time much more comfortable. The last big change before that had been the chimney, invented in the High Middle Ages.

But the early 19th century saw the introduction of a slew of new things. Gaslight made city streets safer, and evenings congenial times for entertaining and reading. Cookstoves made food preparation much easier; running water made bathing commonplace for the first time; central heating made winters more comfortable. Steamboats and railroads made goods cheaper and travel far faster and less expensive than before. Photography made it possible to preserve the likeness of ordinary people for the first time.

One of the major figures in this extraordinary time was Samuel F. B. Morse (1791-1872). Morse began his career as an artist at a time when art was in its infancy in America and ended it as the most celebrated American inventor of his day, the man who gave the world the telegraph.

One would think that Morse, who was from a prominent family, was well connected from an early age with what passed for an establishment in early 19th-century America, and died rich and world famous, would have been a happy man. He wasn't; hence the ''accursed life" in the subtitle of Kenneth Silverman's biography, ''Lightning Man."

Morse was the son of an unreconstructed Calvinist, the Rev. Jedediah Morse, known as the father of American geography. But Morse did not bear the burden of a famous father and his Calvinist upbringing easily. He was prickly, sincerely Protestant to the point of being rabidly anti-Catholic, self-absorbed even by the standards of genius, and always capable of seeing the glass as half empty when it was two-thirds full. He lost his wife early and mourned her sincerely while feeling sorry for himself for many years. But he doesn't seem to have been capable of feeling sorry for anyone else. He had no hesitation in dumping his three young, motherless children with relatives and going off to study art for three years in Europe.

Morse had trained as an artist after attending Yale, and developed a sort of genius for portraiture. But painting portraits was considered rather low market by Morse, who always thought of himself as a high-market person. Instead of portraits, Morse longed to paint large historical canvases, which were then very much in fashion. He produced two that are well known today, one an evening session of the House of Representatives and the other a gallery of the Louvre.

In Morse's day, it was common for such pictures to be exhibited for a fee, and many artists (such as Frederic Church) made handsome incomes from this source. Morse did not. He kept himself financially afloat by teaching at New York University, serving as president of the National Academy of Design, which he helped to found, and running unsuccessfully for political office. Had he not turned to telegraphy in middle age, Samuel Morse today would be little more than a footnote in the history of American art.

The telegraph was something very new under the sun indeed when it began to spread across the landscape of the Western world in the 1840s, as it was the first invention to put electricity to practical use. Since time immemorial, communication had been largely limited to the speed of a horse or sailing ship. The Battles of Lexington and Concord, for instance, took place on April 19, 1775. But news of the clashes did not reach George Washington at Mount Vernon until April 26. George III didn't know until May 28. But by the time Morse died, news from San Francisco could reach as far as India in a matter of hours, thanks to the telegraph, and the global village we have lived in ever since was rapidly coming into existence.

Morse was not the only inventor of the telegraph by any means, although, not surprisingly, he was inclined to think so. The idea that information could be conveyed at blazing speed down a wire by electricity dated to the mid-18th century, when men like Benjamin Franklin were doing the basic science of what had been an utterly mysterious force. By the 1830s, many were working on developing telegraph systems, notably William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone in England, who patented a system in 1837. And Morse, while a gifted tinkerer, was lacking in both technical background and practical mechanical experience. He needed the help of Joseph Henry, the leading American scientist of the day, and Alfred Vail, who turned Morse's ideas into reality at his iron foundry in New Jersey.

But Morse's system was technically the simplest and, thanks to the Morse code -- the only part of Morse's system wholly original with Morse -- the easiest to use. Telegraphy's many fathers spent much time and energy devising a means of automatically writing down the electrical signals received, including Morse. But the Morse code, which assigned dots and dashes according to the frequency of the letters in English, turned out to be easily interpretable by ear. The code remains in limited use even to this day.

Morse sent what remains the most famous of all telegrams (''What hath God wrought!") on May 24, 1844, when he was 53 -- a remarkably old age for an inventor to hit the big time. But it would be another 10 years before Morse won a protracted legal struggle and emerged as the undisputed father of telegraphy and very rich. Not even success and fame mellowed him, however. He remained ill-tempered and inclined to feel sorry for himself to the end.

While Morse comes across as an unpleasant man in Silverman's book, the first full-scale biography of him in 60 years, his times are deeply interesting and largely overshadowed today by the latter decades of the 19th century, when the raw and somewhat uncultured America of Morse's day gave way to the superpower -- both economic and cultural -- it has been ever since. Silverman is a graceful writer and tells this tale with scrupulous care, bringing both grumpy Samuel Morse and his fascinating world to vivid life.

John Steele Gordon's ''An Empire of Wealth: The Epic Story of American Economic Power" will be published this fall.

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