This is Essay 7 from my 2003 book Forgotten Delights: The Producers, A Selection of Manhattan’s Outdoor Sculptures.
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(Inventor of Morse Code)
- Artist: Byron M. Pickett
- Dedicated: 1870
- Medium and size: Bronze statue (8 feet), granite pedestal (6.5 feet).
Location: Just inside Central Park at 72nd Street (near Fifth Avenue). It faces north but is surrounded by trees: best viewed at mid-day or later, and after the leaves have fallen.
About the statue
Pickett’s Morse is not, by any standard, as attractive as Michelangelo’s David. In fact, few portrait sculptures delight us with their beauty. But that’s not their purpose. As William Cullen Bryant explains (see quote below), the purpose of portraits is to remind us of great deeds and great minds—of what the best among us have accomplished and of the heights to which each of us can aspire.
To achieve this purpose, a portraitist must be selective: he must create a strong physical resemblance and show the sitter in a characteristic attitude. Morse—who was still alive when this statue was dedicated—is represented as an alert, authoritative elderly man. Looking far into the distance, he rests his left hand on a model of the telegraph while his right holds a ticker-tape printout. The long flowing beard gives him the same Old-Testament authority we see in Saint Gaudens’s Peter Cooper (Essay 6 in Forgotten Delights: The Producers).
Morse wears a toga-like cape and stands next to an ancient Doric-style column that supports the highest technology of the time: a telegraph. This juxtaposition of ancient with high-tech is typical of nineteenth-century America, when industry was making great strides but Greek and Roman details were still thought to convey an air of dignity and permanence in art and architecture.
A New York Times reporter examining the yet-to-be-assembled Morse statue at the foundry noted approvingly,
There is no disgusting attempt at cheap realism in buttons or boots or cravat, as happens occasionally in such works, and the sculptor has thrown all his power into the pose of the body, the arrangement of the arms and the expression of the face.
Although resemblance to the sitter and a characteristic attitude are required for a portrait, extremes of minute detail are not. We will return to the question of detail when looking at The Immigrants (Essay 14 in Forgotten Delights: The Producers).
William Cullen Bryant on Portrait Statues
It may be said, I know, that the civilized world is already full of memorials which speak the merit of our friend, and the grandeur and utility of his invention. Every telegraphic station is such a memorial; every message sent from one of these stations to another may be counted among the honors paid to his name. Every telegraphic wire strung from post to post, as it hums in the wind, murmurs his eulogy. Every sheaf of wires laid down in the deep sea, occupying the bottom of soundless abysses, to which human sight has never penetrated, and carrying the electric pulse, charged with the burden of human thought from continent to continent, from the Old World to the New, is a testimonial to his greatness. … [Yet] we are so constituted that we insist upon seeing the form of that brow beneath which an active, restless, creative brain devised the mechanism that was to subdue the most wayward of the elements to the service of man and make it his obedient messenger. We require to see the eye that glittered with a thousand lofty hopes, when the great discovery was made, and the lips that curled with a smile of triumph when it became certain that the lightning of the clouds would become tractable to the most delicate touch. We demand to see the hand which first strung the wire by whose means the slender currents of the electric fluid were taught the alphabet of every living language—the hand which pointed them to the spot where they were to inscribe and leave their messages. All this we have in the statue which has this day been unveiled to the eager gaze of the public. —William Cullen Bryant at the unveiling of the
Morse statue, June 1871
About the subject
In the late 1830s, writes Gordon in A Thread Across the Ocean,
Since for all practical purposes news could travel no faster than human beings could carry it, knowledge of events in Europe—the center of the Western world—was just as slow to flow across the ocean as men and goods. North America was not only three thousand miles from Europe—it was two months from it as well.
Early machines for long-distance communication via electrical impulses were complex and unreliable. One primitive telegraph employed a separate wire for each letter of the alphabet, each connected to a bell with a different sound. Another produced an EKG-like printout that was exceptionally difficult to decipher.
Morse (1791-1872) was an unlikely candidate to change the face of worldwide communication. One of a mere handful of prominent American painters, he produced portraits of the Marquis de Lafayette, James Monroe, DeWitt Clinton, William Cullen Bryant and others. But like many an artist, he found painting financially unprofitable. Perhaps for that reason he began to experiment with the telegraph while eking out a living as a New York University professor in the 1830s.
Working with two more technically knowledgeable colleagues, Morse succeeded in reducing the number of wires in a telegraph to one, and in developing a code that allowed easy transmission while permitting trained operators to “hear” messages as they were being transmitted, rather than waiting for a print-out. Although Morse is sometimes portrayed as a dilettante dabbling in science, no dilettante could have focused on the telegraph for the long years it took Morse to develop his code, build a working telegraph line and oversee the invention’s development and distribution until it turned a profit.
Congress appropriated $30,000 for a telegraph line from Baltimore to Washington in 1843, but declined to purchase the rights to the equipment. Morse instead licensed the telegraph for use across America, earning hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The telegraph was something very new under the sun, something that would have been utterly inconceivable to the [eighteenth-century] world… The telegraph could transmit information at very high speed—thousands of times faster than it could be physically carried and hundreds of times faster than Chappe’s visual telegraph could transmit it—and at very low cost. So it is not surprising that once its practicality was demonstrated, the telegraph spread with astonishing speed, often using the convenient pathways forged by the equally fast-spreading railroads. (Gordon, Thread p. 9)
By 1854, 23,000 miles of telegraph wires stretched across the United States.
The network of telegraph wires transmitted an unexpected bonus to New York. With communication nearly instantaneous across the United States, Wall Street became the nation’s financial capital, making regional stock markets in Philadelphia and Boston obsolete. (See Gordon, The Great Game: The Emergence of Wall Street as a World Power, 1653-2000, pp. 80-81.)
Bibliography and further reading
- On the dedication of the sculpture, see New York Times articles of 6/7/1871 and 6/11/1871.
- Gayle & Cohen, Art Commission and Municipal Art Society Guide to Manhattan’s Outdoor Sculpture, p. 210. Smithsonian American Art Museum Art Inventories Catalog, SIRIS control #IAS 76003533. See also the NYC Parks Dept. site.
- On Morse, see Samuel Irenaeus Prime, The Life of Samuel F.B. Morse, Inventor of the Electro-Magnetic Recording Telegraph (New York, 1875); and Bernard S. Finn, “Morse, Samuel Finley Breese” (http://www.anb.org/articles/13/13-01183.html; American National Biography Online Feb. 2000, with bibliography). See also George H. Drury, “Samuel F.B. Morse,” in Encyclopedia of American Business History and Biography: Railroads in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Robert L. Frey (New York and Oxford, 1988), pp. 279-82.
- Eric Daniels presented a lively short biography of Morse in “The Inventive Age in American History.” The taped lecture doesn’t seem to be available any longer through the Ayn Rand Bookstore, but for his American history course covering 1836-1877, see here.
- On the importance of the telegraph and on Morse, see John Steele Gordon, A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable (New York, 2002), Chapters 1 and 2.
- On the railroads, see the essays in Forgotten Delights: The Producers on Cooper, Vanderbilt, Holley and Rea.
On the base: “Morse”. Funds for this statue were raised by telegraph operators across the country when Morse was 79. He was the last person to have his statue erected in Central Park during his lifetime: in 1873, the Central Park Commissioners ruled that subjects of commemorative sculpture must have been dead at least five years. Collection of the City of New York.
This essay is from my 2003 book Forgotten Delights: The Producers, A Selection of Manhattan’s Outdoor Sculptures, which celebrates 19 explorers, inventors, engineers, businessmen, and workers whose thoughts and efforts reshaped New York, the United States, and the world. I really, really am going to get this one and Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan into digital form this year.