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Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F. B. Morse Paperback – Bargain Price, September 30, 2004


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 503 pages
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press; First Edition edition (September 30, 2004)
  • ISBN-10: 0306813947
  • ASIN: B000C4SG32
  • Product Dimensions: 8.8 x 6 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #11,865,658 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The New York Herald may have eulogized the inventor of the telegraph in 1872 as "perhaps the most illustrious American of his age," but Samuel Morse may have concluded otherwise: he thought his life a failure. Hence the subtitle of this painstakingly researched, gracefully and soberly told life. Silverman, who won the Pulitzer and Bancroft prizes for his 1984 biography of Cotton Mather, presents us with a fool's progress of sorts. Morse seems to have fallen into inventing by way of a mediocre painting career. He was a disappointment to his pious Protestant parents, who envisioned a respectable career for their son but got a dreamer instead. By the age of 41, Morse was still dreaming of a commission from Congress to be hung in the Capitol dome and still undecided as to his calling in life. He dabbled in inventing, considered a career as a minister, became an art teacher at New York University, ran unsuccessful candidacies for mayor and for Congress on anti-immigration platforms and wrote screeds against Catholic conspiracies to undermine the American republic. He dabbled in a new technology, photography, and of course, promoted his electromagnetic telegraph, battling domestic and foreign competitors and, after finally achieving commercial success, a tide of lawsuits. Silverman's vivid portrait is of a naive, restless man who stays a dreamer all his life and dies disappointed. The author writes in a narrative style as staid and temperate as the Protestant bourgeoisie he writes about. This should appeal as both history of science and stolid biography. 49 photos and illus.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Silverman has proved himself a masterful biographer in his books on Cotton Mather and Edgar Allan Poe and continues the tradition with this biography of the putative inventor of the electric telegraph. Silverman homes in on Morse's sui generis claim that he produced the telegraph on his own in 1832. This assertion was disputed by a gallery of litigious sharpers thirsting for wealth from telegraphy. It is also a question that Silverman sensibly consigns to the category of the insoluble. Indeed Silverman's great talent lies in the way he refrains from expostulating directly, allowing Morse's habits and actions to speak through his own words. Even the author's use of the acidic adjective accursed in his subtitle leaves readers unsure about whether bad luck or odium is implied. Morse's letters to his children, whom he dumped on relatives, indicate he neglected them to pursue his lifelong dream to become a painter. On the other hand, Silverman portrays Morse as easily depressed, vexed by the business disputes to which his artistic, pious, and overly trusting nature was ill suited. Set in his times, the man in full arises in Silverman's exemplary biography. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

More About the Author

Silverman is a Pulitzer Prize winning biographer, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a lifetime member of the Society of American Magicians.

Customer Reviews

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A thoroughly researched, readable work on the life of Samuel F.B. Morse.
William D. Hooper
This is a biography that met all my requirements: it was fast paced, very informative, well written and well researched.
William Matheson
The Telegraph affected the 19th century like the internet has affected the 20th and 21st century.
Rogers L. Denis

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

19 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Matthew Wall on July 30, 2004
Format: Hardcover
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.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Deborah C. Taylor on July 11, 2005
Format: Paperback
I picked up this book on a whim, and found myself agog at Morse's veritable precognition about the telecommunication industry. I was quite unable to put the book down. This man may be long dead, but his ideas about leasing the right to use his telegraph, rather than opting to sell telegraph devices one-by-one, was a brilliant marketing decision on a par with today's great master's of business. The book is well-written and full of surprises, including what business decisions NOT to make. This is a great read for anyone who a)is in marketing; b) is in telecommunication; or c)mistrusts the Patent Office!
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19 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Charles L. DeFanti Jr. on October 28, 2003
Format: Hardcover
As he did with Houdini, Poe and Cotton Mather, Silverman peels away the tired skin of his subjects and reveals a person hitherto unknown to history. Never one to catalog facts, Silverman redefines not only the person but the era in which he lived. Morse's Calvinism, his passionate pro-slavery views, and his profound frustrations can be comprehended only in the context of his age, which Silverman portrays through dazzling research and exquisite prose. Harrowing Nineteenth Century sea voyages and the Puritan's love/hate relationship with Rome provide two of the many fascinating vignettes that invigorate this portrait.
Once again, Kenneth Silverman has proven himself the Dean of American biographers.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Joel M. Kauffman on October 16, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Basically I agree with the reviews of Deborah Taylor, Charles De Fanti, Jr. and Matthew Wall. I had no idea that Morse was an accomplished painter and introduced daguerreotype photography to the USA and taught Matthew Brady. Thanks to Hollywood, I had no idea that one of the best features of the Morse telegraph system was automatic recording of the dot and dash signals, so no operator had to be present when they arrived. Or that he was involved with the trans-Atlantic cables. Or that he finally threw himself on the mercy of European governments in which the Morse telegraph system was being used and asked for an indemnity, one-time, saying he would be satisfied with whatever it was ($2 million in today's money).

We were never exposed to Morse's pro-slavery bible-based views, or his campaign support for General George McClellan in 1864 against Lincoln. The idea that English abolitionists were planted or encouraged to go to the USA to weaken us was there.

Silverman has provided a good index and astounding documentation of sources. Those of you who have looked at my other reviews and seen lists of errors will be impressed that I did not find a single one in this wonderfully readable book. My only wish is that there were a few more details of the telegraph devices. And why no table of the Morse code? No matter: this is one of the best books I have ever read on any topic.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Bas Vodde on January 10, 2012
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
"Lightning Man" is the 400+ page biography of Samuel F.B. Morse his surprising life. I've got an interest in telecommunication, computing and history thus ended up reading this book which contains elements of all. Yet, quickly I found myself surprised by what I was reading as I didn't know the eventful, controversial, and diverse life that Morse had.

The book contains 18 chapters (plus a coda) and consist of a near 450 fairly dense pages. It took a while to get through it for me yet not a moment I doubt whether I should continue. The book starts with the birth of Morse and quickly goes through its childhood and spends a fair amount of time to Morse his early life as a painter (!). From there it describes Morse's many sidetracks in politics and then the sudden invention of the telegraph (which I felt the author keeps a bit vague... on purpose). Morse spend many years perfecting and fighting to promote the telegraph and every step where he had a success, it was immediately followed by a challenge. The biggest challenge he had seemed to be by people challenging whether he actually was the invention of the telegraph and suing him for his patent. The book is full of court cases and patent trouble. Later in the book, it is clear that the invention of the telegraph was a major invention and permanently changed the life of many people. Though, he was wildly recognized as the inventor and did well financially also, he was still constantly fighting off challenges and seemed to suspect everyone he ever worked with. At times, it makes you wonder if Morse had just an enormous amount of bad luck (as the book subtitle suggests) or whether he was actually a very difficult person to deal with himself (and it is probably a bit of both).
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