POSTSCRIPT: A letter from Samuel Morse

Each month in Postscript, Anna Knoebel revisits letters from prominent writers and other artists to revive the dying art of letter writing. Anna is the editor and co-publisher of Abe’s Penny, a magazine of arts and literature delivered in the form of postcards.

With our easy access to instant messenger and video chat, it’s hard to imagine a time when communicating by telephone was a big deal. Try imagining even further back, before the telephone, when letters sent the news, and Samuel Morse had yet to “press” Government to support his invention, an electrical telegraph system.

He was making a living as a painter and a painting teacher, having by then studied and the Royal Academy and completed his masterpiece, the Dying Hercules. According to the story, Morse was in New York, commissioned to paint a marquis, when he learned his wife was gravely ill. Though he immediately traveled home to be with her, he was too late; she had already been buried. Morse was always tinkering with electricity and inventions, but it may have been grief that spurred his obsessive interest in rapid long distance communication.

This letter was written ten years after Morse began pursuing the telegraphic device, four years after his first appeal to Government for funding and just three months before his second and last appeal, which won him $30,000 to build an experimental (and ultimately successful) line between Washington DC and Baltimore. As far as I can tell, he never taught painting again.

New York, Sept 27th 1842

My dear Sir,

In answer to yours of yesterday, I would say that at present I have not the conveniences for taking pupils in painting. I shall in all probability be absent the greater part of the winter in Washington but our Academy schools open in Oct. (about the middle.) and I shall be happy to put your son in the way of receiving the advantages which they afford, if you will direct him to call upon me.

It is my intention to press my telegraphic invention on the attention of the Government the coming session. If they will adopt it, I shall again be in a situation to take up my pencil, which has unavoidably been laid aside for some time.

Believe me, dear Sir, with sincere respect & esteem,
Your friend & Servant,
Sam: F: Morse

Letter caption: On sale at aGatherin’ for $20,000,
Picture caption: Photograph of Morse, ca. 1845, with his hand on a telegraph. Smithsonian neg. no. 73–1504.

— Anna Knoebel has been writing letters since she was about eight years old, often to her grandfather, who would send them back edited. She worked in publicity at MGM Studios in Los Angeles and as the Managing Editor of zingmagazine before co-founding Abe’s Penny with her sister, Tess. She lives in New York with her husband and daughter.

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