The Artist-Scientist in the history of the Submarine Telegraph

Samuel F. B. Morse’s painting “Gallery of the Louvre” from Art Knowledge News

Previously I’ve briefly discussed some thoughts on the links between art and science through the telescope of history. Through my research into the history of submarine telegraphy I’ve been struck by a continued link, and not just through representations and display, but through professions.

At least two telegraph engineers (that I’ve come across so far) had a previous career as an artist before turning to a life of experiment and science. One is probably one of the most famous men linked to electrical telegraphy, Samuel F. B. Morse. Morse’s career as a painter brought him to England in 1811, where he studied under Washington Allerton, and was eventually allowed into the Royal Academy. Morse went back to America in 1816 and enjoyed a successful career painting portraits of many prominent politicians. In 1830 Morse decided to return to Europe to improve his painting skills, and it was on this trip that he began to develop his concept of the single-wire electric telegraph.[1]

The second artists turned engineer was John W. Brett, one of the pioneers of submarine telegraphy. . In 1831 it appeared he was on the cusp of breaking through as an artist himself, but in October, a few days before the infamous Bristol riots, a fire broke out that destroyed his entire collection which included his own work as well as rare works he had acquired.[2] It appears that this personal disaster spurred Brett on to achieve success in an alternative way, through study and collecting Old Masters, this wide-ranging collection of fine art was highly credited and Brett consequently loaned works to exhibitions held in Manchester, the South Kensington Museum and the Royal Institution of British Architects.[3] However this wasn’t the only source of his fortune, like many people Brett’s imagination had been ignited by the recent success of the overland telegraph. In a conversation with his younger brother, Jacob Brett, it was suggested that if cables had been laid underground, why not underwater. The seed had been sown, but France wasn’t the first location the brothers wanted to connect via submarine cable, in 1845 Jacob Brett registered a company to unite Europe and America, when this was deemed too risky and large a scheme for such a young business the Bretts suggested a cable between England and Ireland, but this was declined by the British Government. According to the Oxford National Dictionary of Biography an agreement was eventually made with the French government in 1847 and it was decided to lay a telegraph cable between Dover and Calais.[4] A cable was eventually successfully laid in 1851, and was the first international submarine telegraph cable.

I’m sure there are many more artist turned scientists, there is after the Jungian Archetype of the Artist-Scientist, of which Wikipedia suggests Su Song, Archimedes, Leonardo da Vinci and Benjamin Franklin (another pioneer of electricity). Perhaps it is the showman ship early electricity experiments encouraged, or the creativity of invention that attracted the cross-over, or perhaps it is some sort of psychological trait and there are many modern and ancient examples that I haven’t discovered yet.

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