Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Samuel Morse, the Inventor of Morse Code, an American Jew?

I was reading the introduction to the first book of responsa by Rabbi Yosef Zechariah Stern (1831-1904), entitled זכר יהוסף of Šiauliai, Lithuania and came across this very curious passage:

אמנם מה שכתבו באיזה חבורים על מציאות ״ הטעלעגראף" [שנתחדש בדורנו ע״פ המצאת איש יהודי מאמעריקא שמואל בן ידידיה מארס אשר בשנת 1836למספרם כוננו ידיו את מכונתו הראשונה

Rough translation:...."the invention of the Telegraph which was renewed in our generation by the ingenuity of a Jew from America, Shmuel the son of Yedidiah Morse, who in 1836, his hands readied the first machine".

The book is available in its entirety on the hebrewbooks website here

I was naturally a bit surprised by this statement and did a little digging, this is what I found:

1) The telegraph itself was NOT invented by Samuel Morse (1791-1872),1) in fact the first primitive Electric Telegraph was invented by a German scientist by the name of Samuel Thomas von Sömmering in 1809. Later, other German scientist further perfected his method and used it for scientific, rather than commercial purposes.

The first commercial Electric Telegraph was invented by William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone and came into use in Britian in 1839.

In America itself, in 1836 an American scientist, Dr. David Alter, invented the first known American electric telegraph, in Elderton, Pennsylvania, one year before the Cooke and Wheatstone and the Morse telegraphs.

Morse developed the concept of a single wire telegraph in 1837 (not 1836 ,as Rabbi Stern writes), making long distance communication more efficient and effective.

2). He was not a Jew. In fact, according to his bio on wiki:

Samuel F.B. Morse was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, the first child of the pastor Jedidiah Morse (1761–1826), who was also a geographer, and Elizabeth Ann Finley Breese (1766–1828). His father was a great preacher of the Calvinist faith and supporter of the American Federalist party. He thought it helped preserve Puritan traditions (strict observance of Sabbath, among other things), and believed in the Federalist support of an alliance with Britain and a strong central government. Morse strongly believed in education within a Federalist framework, alongside the instillation of Calvinist virtues, morals and prayers for his first son.

Perhaps it is that small detail I highlighted that made the Rav of a small Litvish Shtetl (who was uncharacteristically learned and eclectic for a traditional Lithuanian Rabbi of his age) come to the conclusion that Samuel Morse "the son of Yedidya the Jew" was in fact a Jew? (I am aware that that neither mainstream Calvinists nor Puritans adhered to the Jewish Sabbath....). Or perhaps his and his father's Biblical names convinced the elderly sage that he was Jewish, the Lithuanian Rabbi, of course, being unaware that Protestants were very fond of such names.

Not only was Morse not a Jew, but he was a fervent campaigner for the Nativist Part in NYC. The movement fiercely opposed immigration. It just so happened to be that the 2 largest immigrant groups at that time were composed of Irish and Jews. While there is no evidence that Morse was anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish in any way, he was rabidly anti-Irish and anti-Catholic.

For more biographical details on Rabbi Stern see here and here


1).Although In a letter to a friend, Morse describes how vigorously he fought for being called the sole inventor of the electromagnetic telegraph despite the previous inventions.

I have been so constantly under the necessity of watching the movements of the most unprincipled set of pirates I have ever known, that all my time has been occupied in defense, in putting evidence into something like legal shape that I am the inventor of the Electro-Magnetic Telegraph!! Would you have believed it ten years ago that a question could be raised on that subject?

see here

and here


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