Thursday, August 05, 2004

Book Review: Lightning Man by Kenneth Silverman

[Cross-posted on 01 August]

SFB Morse is hardly a forgotten figure in history, but neither does he have the stature of an Edison in terms of the industrial development. As Lightning Man ably describes, the telegraph itself was more an invention of an amalgamation of a variety of predecessor developments in science and technology. Morse deserves ample credit for putting the pieces together and, more importantly, having the drive and acumen to evolve the invention into a successful business model, which was the key for its transformative effect on world technology. Yet his life, before the appearance of this excellent biography, seems shrouded in the myth of the lone inventor.

What's truly fascinating about his story and this book is the tale of the transition from the idea of the lone individual genius to the research lab, the difference between a great idea and a useful product, the move from progress being measured by the fevered work of a single man to the joint efforts of the company and the corporation. The story is one of a transformation of a culture, but which stays firmly focussed on its subject, Mr. Morse, in telling the tale.

Morse's "early" years as a painter are covered extremely well, and while the transition between his career as a painter to one as an inventor may seem bizarre and abrupt to the modern conception, Silverman illuminates this strange career change in the light of the times. Morse himself was a bridge between early American puritanism and a more modern philosophy that was to come. His philosophy of human nature and of himself had all the prejudice, bravado, arrogance, hypocrisy, idealism, greed, and Calvinist self-loathing that made the first half of the 19th century such a dynamic period. That Morse had to travel abroad to study fine art painting, a field considered by many Americans of the time to be vile and barely a craft, and sought the approval of the Academy of the day in Europe also neatly encapsulates the love-hate relationship of the period with European culture and learning. (Morse's own tortured schizophrenia on European political institutions is a subtheme: he is quick to criticize the European political systems of the day in his younger years, and all too eager to accept the emoluments and honors of royalty in his later ones.) The treatment of Morse's early years and his relationship with his then-even-more famous geographer father is done very deftly, without resorting to facile Freudian psychobabble, as we see Morse attempting to simultaneously win parental approval, find his own way in the world, make a name for himself, and try to see his own importance.

There's an American tragedy within Morse's life story as well, in the way he bitterly fought -- perhaps too hard in some ways -- to get the sole credit for inventing the telegraph that he is popularly (and inaccurately) given in the one-line biographical entries of modern histories. This fight was done partly for ego and celebrity, and partly to protect his patents and late fortune. It's a sad and cautionary tale how Morse was never able to settle into any kind of self-satisfaction as he became obsessed with his own legacy.

Morse was an American original, and there's a fascinating pull to the story of a man never happy with himself despite having reached conventional success in two quite different professions.


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