The Daguerreian Society

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Professor Morse, and the Telegraph

The article by Benjamin J. Lossing, "Professor Morse and the Telegraph," contains a wonderful reproduction of one of Morse's first daguerreian portraits. This image is apparently as early as the familiar daguerreotype illustrated in Root, Camera and the Pencil, p. 347, yet appears virtually unknown to photographic historians. The image depicts two young girls (one is possibly Morse's daughter) wearing bonnets. The girls' eyes are shown closed as in the original daguerreotype, unlike the picture in Root's book where the engraver drew the figures with open eyes. According to Lossing's article, however, the original daguerreotype depicted three people.
   On 18 November 1871, shortly before his death at 80 years of age, Morse significantly expanded his claims in the area of early photography. The famous inventor wrote a letter published in the January 1872 issue of The Philadelphia Photographer (9; January 1872: p. 3-4.) It stated in part:

My first effort with it was on a small plate of silvered copper, about the size of a playing card, procured from a hardware store; but defective as it was, I obtained a good representation of the Church of the Messiah, in Broadway, from a back window of the New York City University. . . . This I believe to have been the first photograph ever taken in America. . . . I early made arrangements to experiment with my eminent friend and colleague in the University, Professor John W. Draper, building for the purpose a photographic studio upon the top of the University. Here I believe were made the first successful attempts by Dr. Draper in taking photographic portraits with the eyes open, I having succeeded, in taking portraits previously with, the eyes shut, for it was considered at that date that the clear sunlight upon the face was necessary to a result.
Draper knew nothing of these allegations until after Morse's death. He came across an allusion to Morse's claim in the March 1873 article written by historian Benjamin J. Lossing and published in Scribner's Monthly magazine.
  Draper immediately wrote the editors of the magazine to defend his claim to the first portrait (parentheses set off sections Draper crossed out in the rough draft of his letter):
As to the photographic portrait from the life it was I who took the first and that not merely in America. . . . Professor Morse never made a photograph until he had learned the art in my laboratory in which at that time he spent every evening. I had been publishing papers in the Scientific Journals on the chemical action of light for many years.
  Professor Morse never made any pretension to a knowledge of Chemistry or Optics. (He was a very skillful inventor) His life had been spent in the study of Art, not in the severe discipline of Science. I think it is to be deeply regretted that any well meaning but indiscreet friends should put forth claims in his behalf that can never be sustained. He was not the inventor of photographic portraiture.

John William Draper to Editors of Scribner's Monthly, 6 March 1873, Draper Papers.

The editors of Scribner's evidently forwarded Draper's letter to Lossing. On 4 October 1873 Lossing replied, explained the source of his information, and thus led Draper to Morse's letter in The Philadelphia Photographer. Lossing concluded:
In justice to myself, as a careful and conscientious collector of facts, I shall communicate this portion of Professor Morse's letter to "Scribners Monthly." I took Professor Morse's letter as a truthful statement. You say it is not truthful. Like myself the public must judge by corroborating testimony. I have no other object than to know and speak the truth. It is an historical question (as well as a personal one between yourself and Professor Morse) worthy of investigation.

Benjamin J. Lossing to John W. Draper, 4 October 1873, Draper Papers.

In March 1874 Scribner's published Draper's rebuttal. It was Draper's last detailed defense of his claim to the first portrait. Illuminating portions crossed out in Draper's rough draft are here included within parentheses:
Perhaps I cannot dispose of this letter, which I had not seen until now, better than by producing another letter of Professor Morse . . . dated, Poughkeepsie, February 10, 1855. In this Professor Morse says "About the same time Professor Draper was successful in taking portraits; though whether he or myself took the first portrait I cannot say. Soon after we commenced together taking portraits causing a glass building to be constructed for that purpose on the roof of the University.". . .
   (It gives me pain to say that this letter caused an alienation between myself & my old friend. I felt that he knew who took the first portrait. How was it possible that it should be otherwise.)
  Thus it appears that in 1855 Prof Morse was unable to say whether he or I took the first portrait. His recollection was clearer at this date than it became in 1871 when he claimed the entire honor but not so clear as it would have been in 1839. I regret to have to add that this letter caused an alienation between my old friend and myself. I was astonished that he had forgotten the numerous fine portraits I had made and shown him long before the glass studio was built, and long before he had done anything in the matter himself.
  In the scientific world it is recognized that priority of publication shall be considered as establishing priority of discovery or invention. I published in the London & Edin Philosophical Magazine, March, 1840, an announcement that I had succeeded in procuring portraits by the Dag. and shortly afterwards, in the same journal gave a detailed account of the whole operation. In these publications the invention was of course openly claimed by me and Prof. Morse's name was never mentioned. He saw them while they were in manuscript and (of course) again after they were printed and put forth no counter claim. Indeed I believe he never published (any description of the operation) anything on daguerreotype portraiture.
   As to experiments in the glass studio for the purpose of taking photographs with the eyes open I can assure you that (very) many very perfect portraits with the eyes open had been made by me long before that expense was encountered. Let me add that at this time Prof. Morse was completely occupied with the invention of his telegraph he had his (batteries his wire & other) apparatus in my laboratory; he was not familiar either with chemical or optical science and took an interest in photographic portraiture only from an artistic point of view, his earlier life having been devoted, as is well known, to painting as a profession.

Draper to Scribner's, 20 October 1873

Morse also entered into a dispute with scientist Joseph Henry over who deserved credit for certain discoveries in electromagnetism leading up to the development of the telegraph. At one point Morse wrote "I am not indebted to him for any discovery in science bearing on the telegraph." Some scholars have judged such claims as untrue and unworthy of Morse.
   In his 18 November 1871 letter to The Philadelphia Photographer Morse claimed for the first time in his long life to have taken the first portrait. In the same letter he also claimed without reservation to have made "the first photograph ever taken in America." In this latter claim at least he was mistaken.
   In a letter to the editors of the newspaper Journal of Commerce published 30 September 1839, Morse himself disputed an earlier article that had attributed to him, "the first fruits of Daguerre's invention in this country." In his letter Morse made clear that credit for the first daguerreotype taken in America belonged to D. W. Seager. By 1871 Morse had apparently simply forgotten.

—Howard R. McManus, from "It Was I Who Took The First" in The Daguerreian Annual 1996.

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