Today, Jedidiah Morse's geography. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
We've said a lot about
Samuel F. B. Morse and
his telegraph. Morse was born in 1791 near Boston.
Of eleven Morse children, only he and two brothers
survived childhood in that harsh world.
But our interest is in Samuel's father, Jedidiah
Morse -- born in Connecticut and educated at Yale
during the American Revolution. When he graduated
he stayed on to study theology, and he supported
himself by forming a girls' school. From then on,
Jedidiah Morse's life unfolded with a powerful but
peculiar logic. First, the 23-year-old Morse wrote
a geography book for his young students. He kept
working on geography after he was made pastor of a
Congregational church in Charlestown,
Massachusetts, near Boston. For 13 years he
gathered geographical data from mapmakers,
explorers, and geographers.
In 1796 he finished the first comprehensive
geography of North America. Titled The American
Gazetteer, it included seven large foldout maps
and seven thousand articles on the various places.
He tells us that Manhattan is "the ancient name of
Long Island, and also of York Island," and that a
harbor in California is called Drake Harbor. When
we look at the map, we find that Drake Harbor was
the name given to San Francisco Bay two hundred
years ago. Morse has left us with a vast record of
early Colonial place names.
Nor was Morse idle as a clergyman. He wrote
extensively in support of orthodox Calvinism and
against the rising tide of liberal Unitarianism. He
was a founder of the Andover Theological Seminary.
Then, at the age of fifty-nine, his life took yet
another turn. His interest in America's geography
had brought him to a strong concern for America's
Native inhabitants. In 1820 he returned to Yale and
accepted an appointment from the Secretary of War
to do a major study of American Indians.
For two years he traveled from one Indian nation to
another, describing each tribe -- a few hundred
here, a thousand there. The tone of his report is
always one of consummate respect. Of course he was
dealing in a swamp of treaties, agreements and
vested interests. But at that early date he was
still operating in good faith.
In those days, Indians were deeply involved in
commerce with whites. Morse lists the cost of hides
and Indian blankets in powder and musket balls. The
Indian population already included mixed races and
freed slaves. Some tribes barred Jesuit
missionaries because they obviously carried the
devastating disease of smallpox.
The mood would soon change as the Indians were
driven west. But, for the moment, Morse captures a
time of détente between two very different
ethnic groups. Taken together, all Morse's writings
do that. They give us a window upon a vast world
poised to shrink.
In a few years, his son's new telegraph would give
us instant communication with remote Astoria and
Drake's Bay. A few generations later, we find
ourselves reading the dream that was manifest in
Morse's sprawling geography, in airline schedules.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds