Friday, October 14, 2016

Book Review: Lightning Man

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

"Accursed" may seem a little strong for a man who was an acclaimed painter, became world-famous for inventing a successful telegraph, and got rich from it. It's nontheless not without insight. Morse always felt himself thwarted by fate, beset by foes, betrayed by friends, and followed by tragedy. The accursedness of his life came as much from within as without, though.

For starters, Morse was manifestly depressive. (At least one of his brothers was depressive as well.) He also had great difficulty in settling down to pursue any one thing as a young man; that may have been an aspect of a depressive personality, although it affects many people (*ahem*). His father couldn't have helped, either: Jedediah Morse was one of the less admirable sorts of Christian ministers--intelligent but narrow-minded, self-righteous, zealous in finding fault, a stranger to forgiveness, snobbish, and puritanical. Regrettably, he passed on a good deal of this to Samuel, who idolized him.

It's the snobbishness, perhaps, that's at the core of everything. Morse seems to have been obsessed with being, and being among, the Best People. He was an ardent supporter of slavery and an ardent foe of immigration. Late in life he became addicted to the many decorations showered on him by European aristocratic regimes.

Most importantly--and I give author Silverman considerable credit for discerning this--Morse's relentless snobbishness led him into an endless, pointless morass of legal and public disputation. At issue was the supposed question of who "invented" the telegraph: Morse, or any one of several other claimants. The truth is that no one person "invented" the telegraph. ("When it's time for light bulbs, you get light bulbs.") It was in the air.

Morse, however, deserves enormous credit for making a working, viable, successful telegraph. Not only did his design have major technical innovations, he badgered an almost unbelievably dilatory and imbecilic Congress into funding a demonstration, and then made the demonstration work. (True fact: one congressman proposed matching the $30,000 eventually given to Morse with a grant to one "Mr. Fish" to study mesmerism.)

Morse should have been proud of being the engineer who perfected the telegraph. Instead, he was obsessed with being the scientist who invented the telegraph. Because scientists were gentlemen, while engineers were mere mechanics.

I think there are a few places where Lightning Man omits important technical detail. There's barely a word about the eponymous Morse Code, for example, and the description of his "repeater" (a simple amplifier which boosts signals over long distances) is inadequate. As a portrait of Morse the man, however, it's unbeatable.

As I've noted before, one of the joys of reading is to find cross-overs among books. Morse bought a house on the Hudson River, a few miles from Franklin Roosevelt's boyhood home. Both the Morse and Roosevelt estates were influenced by the theories of Andrew Jackson Downing, mentor of Frederick Law Olmsted. Morse's long-time lawyer and confidante was Amos Kendall, Andrew Jackson's postmaster. Among my less-recent reading, Morse figuers prominently in David McCullough's The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, while his nemesis Charles Jackson is prominent in Ether Day: The Strange Tale of America's Greatest Medical Discovery and the Haunted Men Who Made It.

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