He entered a preparatory school at Andover, Mass., when he was seven years old, and showed himself an eager pupil. Among other books, he was delighted with Plutarch's LIVES, and at thirteen he composed a biography of Demosthenes, long preserved by his family. A year later he entered Yale College as a freshman.
During his curriculum he attended the lectures of Professor Jeremiah Day on natural philosophy and Professor Benjamin Sieliman on chemistry, and it was then he imbibed his earliest knowledge of electricity. In 1809-10 Dr. Day was teaching from Enfield's text-book on philosophy, that 'if the (electric) circuit be interrupted, the fluid will become visible, and when: it passes it will leave an impression upon any intermediate body,' and he illustrated this by sending the spark through a metal chain, so that it became visible between the links, and by causing it to perforate paper. Morse afterwards declared this experiment to have been the seed which rooted in his mind and grew into the 'invention of the telegraph.'
It is not evident that Morse had any distinct idea of the electric telegraph in these days; but amidst his lessons in literature and philosophy he took a special interest in the sciences of electricity and chemistry. He became acquainted with the voltaic battery through the lectures of his friend, Professor Sieliman; and we are told that during one of his vacations at Yale he made a series of electrical experiments with Dr. Dwight. Some years later he resumed these studies under his friend Professor James Freeman Dana, of the University of New York, who exhibited the electro-magnet to his class in 1827, and also under Professor Renwick, of Columbia College.
Art seems to have had an equal if not a greater charm than science for Morse at this period. A boy of fifteen, he made a water-colour sketch of his family sitting round the table; and while a student at Yale he relieved his father, who was far from rich, of a part of his education by painting miniatures on ivory, and selling them to his companions at five dollars a-piece. Before he was nineteen he completed a painting of the 'Landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth,' which formerly hung in the office of the Mayor, at Charlestown, Massachusetts.
On graduating at Yale, in 1810, he devoted himself to Art, and became a pupil of Washington Allston, the well-known American painter. He accompanied Allston to Europe in 1811, and entered the studio of Benjamin West, who was then at the zenith of his reputation. The friendship of West, with his own introductions and agreeable personality, enabled him to move in good society, to which he was always partial. William Wilberforce, Zachary Macaulay, father of the historian, Coleridge, and Copley, were among his acquaintances. Leslie, the artist, then a struggling genius like himself, was his fellow-lodger. His heart was evidently in the profession of his choice. 'My passion for my art,' he wrote to his mother, in 1812, 'is so firmly rooted that I am confident no human power could destroy it. The more I study the greater I think is its claim to the appellation of divine. I am now going to begin a picture of the death of Hercules the figure to be as large as life.'
After he had perfected this work to his own eyes, he showed it, with not a little pride, to Mr. West, who after scanning it awhile said, 'Very good, very good. Go on and finish it.' Morse ventured to say that it was finished. 'No! no! no!' answered West; 'see there, and there, and there. There is much to be done yet. Go on and finish it.' Each time the pupil showed it the master said, 'Go on and finish it.' [THE TELEGRAPH IN AMERICA, by James D. Reid] This was a lesson in thoroughness of work and attention to detail which was not lost on the student. The picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy, in Somerset House, during the summer of 1813, and West declared that if Morse were to live to his own age he would never make a better composition. The remark is equivocal, but was doubtless intended as a compliment to the precocity of the young painter.
In order to be correct in the anatomy he had first modelled the figure of his Hercules in clay, and this cast, by the advice of West, was entered in competition for a prize in sculpture given by the Society of Arts. It proved successful, and on May 13 the sculptor was presented with the prize and a gold medal by the Duke of Norfolk before a distinguished gathering in the Adelphi.
Flushed with his triumph, Morse determined to compete for the prize of fifty guineas and a gold medal offered by the Royal Academy for the best historical painting, and took for his subject, 'The Judgment of Jupiter in the case of Apollo, Marpessa, and Idas.' The work was finished to the satisfaction of West, but the painter was summoned home. He was still, in part at least, depending on his father, and had been abroad a year longer than the three at first intended. During this time he had been obliged to pinch himself in a thousand ways in order to eke out his modest allowance. 'My drink is water, porter being too expensive,' he wrote to his parents. 'I have had no new clothes for nearly a year. My best are threadbare, and my shoes are out at the toes. My stockings all want to see my mother, and my hat is hoary with age.'