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TWO BIOGRAPHIES OF INVENTORS: DICKINSON'S LIFE OF FULTON AND MORSE'S LETTERS OF MORSE1
THESE books deserve the attention of economists for the same reason as the life of Edison recently reviewed in these columns.2 The biographies of inventors throw light upon the instinct of contrivance, and on the psychological problems connected with it, as well as upon the course of economic development.
There is a curious similarity between the careers of Morse and of Fulton. Both began as painters, and gave promise
of at least respectable achievement in the field of art. Both gave up the artist's profession in middle life, and turned deliberately and successfully to the perfecting of mechanical contrivances. Both spent much time in Europe, and there came into contact with distinguished persons of various kinds, evidently making a marked impression on all whom they met. Each is associated with one famous advance in the arts, Fulton with the steamboat, Morse with the telegraph.
Both biographies contain interesting and novel matter. Tho neither is the first for its subject, neither fails to add substantially to our knowledge. Mr. Dickinson's Life of Fulton is based largely upon documentary evidence, and quotes freely from Fulton's letters and memoranda. On the technical side it seems to be excellently done. Mr. E. S. Morse's Life of his father is a larger and in some ways more ambitious book, giving a full picture of a most remarkable personality. The first volume follows that part of Morse's career in which he was a painter, and a painter of distinctly more promise than seems ever to have been the case with Fulton. The second volume deals with his later years, when
1 H. W. Dickinson, Robert Fulton, Engineer and Artist; his Life and Works. London and New York, John Lane, 1913.
Samuel F. B. Morse, His Letters and Journals, edited by E. L. Morse, 2 vols. B04ton, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1914.
Vol. xxvi. p. 776 (August, 1912).
he was absorbed in the telegraph. It is difficult to conceive anything more extraordinary than the complete change that took place in his interests and ideals. The refusal of a congressional committee to give him a commission for painting a panel in the rotunda at Washington seems to have completely crushed his ambition as a painter. He turned at once to the development of the telegraph, for which the essential device had long been in his mind. Morse's letters, as published in these volumes, give accounts of his European experiences as a painter, and of similar experiences in later life when the telegraph had made him famous. They are interesting quite apart from the aspects which concern the economist.
Fulton shows all the characteristics of the born inventor. Tho not fairly bubbling over with new contrivances, like Watt, Cartwright, Ericsson, and Edison, he gave attention to a number of inventions and experimented all his life with one or another of them. As a young man he went to England, and there tried to establish his position and earn his living as a painter. But he was interested at the same time in the crowd of schemes and experiments then in vogue in England as well as in the United States. This was the era
of canals, and Fulton elaborated a scheme for small canals, with inclined planes, by means of which light canal boats were to be hauled from one level to another; a substitute for locks which illustrates the fertility as well as the impracticability of so much scheming among inventors. He devised an early panorama, which proved profitable in Paris and for some time was his main source of support. He was enthusiastic about a submarine boat, in which he succeeded in enlisting for a while Napoleon's interest. The craft was entirely unmanageable with the motive powers then known, and Napoleon was shrewd enough to let it go after a little examination. Nevertheless, Fulton succeeded so far in frightening the British Admiralty about its possibilities that he was bought off for a handsome sum, and so was enabled to make his way to the United States. After his return to his native country, he gave his attention almost solely to the
steamboat, for which he had already formed the well-known partnership with Livingston. It deserves to be remembered that while in England he saw much of the indefatigable Cartwright, and doubtless got much stimulus from that prolific person.
It is clear that the instinct of contrivance was strong in Fulton. But he was far from indifferent to pecuniary considerations. He bargained most persistently with the French and the British about his submarine and his torpedoes. He labored assiduously to get a steamboat monopoly on the Hudson for his partnership, and to get similar exclusive privileges on the lower Mississippi and on the Neva (from Petersburg to Kronstadt). Apparently he dropped painting because there was little prospect of good remuneration from it; his work had been chiefly upon portraits and miniatures. His biographer remarks that "it cannot be denied that he never neglected an opportunity for profiting pecuniarily by his inventions.' There was doubtless some unconscious inversion of emphasis when he wrote to his friend Joel Barlow about the steamboat, "Although the prospect of personal emolument has been some inducement to me, yet I feel infinitely more pleasure in reflecting on the immense advantage that my country will draw from the invention."
Morse showed in the early part of his career less evidence of the contriving bent than Fulton. Indeed, in this biography little is said of the evidences of mechanical talent and interest during the first period of his life. More material on this aspect of his career is to be found in previous biographies, and more particularly in that of Prime. It was natural enough that among the devices to which he gave attention as a young man was a machine for reproducing statuary. A piece of mechanism for the same purpose, it may be noted by the way, had also long engaged the interest of a more celebrated inventor, James Watt; like other devices, it was experimented with at least a century before being brought into serviceable shape. Morse was also keenly interested in Daguerre's invention. He corresponded with Daguerre, first suggested the possibility of taking photographs of living persons, and for
a while supplemented his income by making such photographs for profit. Nevertheless, it remained true that painting absorbed his interest during his earlier career, and that in later life the one invention to which he gave assiduous attention was the telegraph. The plan for a dot and dash alphabet seems to have flashed across him during the voyage across the Atlantic on the Sully. It was years, however, before he turned to its detailed development, a consequence, as already noted, of the crushing disappointment of 1837. enthusiasm for art seems to have ceased with extraordinary suddenness when the congressional committee in that year refused to give him the commission for painting the Rotunda panel. Thereafter for many years he labored with a pertinacity that was almost monomaniac on the elaboration of the telegraphic device.
Morse was an unusual person in every way. He had wide interests and an impressive and attractive personality, but also eccentricity and an unmanageable temper. He was almost always in hot water, carrying on vehement controversies with all sorts of people, and too often quarreling with his associates. Characteristics of this sort appear commonly enough in the make-up of persons who have the creative temperament. His son, who edits this biography with frankness as well as with filial devotion, admits that there was much to deplore in what was said and written by the father. Morse had strong religious faith of the orthodox sort, and believed himself an instrument in the hands of the Deity for achieving great results. It was no doubt a manifestation of this sort of religious faith that he had an extraordinary fear of the Roman Catholics, and honestly believed in the existence of a Roman Catholic plot for getting control of the United States. This same religious belief explains his attitude toward slavery. who read the Old Testament with the sort of faith that Morse had might easily believe that slavery was a social condition ordained by divine wisdom for certain communities, and not at all a sin; which in turn explains why he was lukewarm for the North during the civil war, and might be described as a copperhead. In perfecting the telegraph he felt, with un
questionable sincerity, that he was doing a great work for the glory of God. It gave him vast satisfaction that the first passage which was flashed across the wires was a phrase from the Old Testament: "What hath God wrought!" He wrote to his brother, "That sentence was divinely indited."
It is not at all inconsistent with a temperament of this sort that he should also have a keen eye for the main chance. It seems tolerably certain in his case that the instinct of contrivance did not operate spontaneously. It was stimulated,
if not evoked, by the prospect of gain. Morse turned frankly from painting to inventing as a means of providing for his family and securing a competence or fortune. Those who believe that the instinct of contrivance would work out the same results in the absence of a patent system or other provision for reward will find little confirmation in his career. Probably a similar conclusion would be indicated by the careers of others who, like himself, belong not in the very first rank among inventors, but in the respectable second rank. An extremely small number of persons have the contriving instinct with great intensity. A very much larger number possess it in some degree, but are not irresistibly impelled by it. Whatever be the case with those of contriving genius, the inventors who have only high talent seem to need the spur of reward.
F. W. TAUSSIG.