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Brown, Solomon G.(1829–1906) - Inventor, lecturer, naturalist, poet, Begins Post Office Career, Chronology

morse telegraph samuel born

Solomon G. Brown was as self-educated man, whose gifted intellect, hard work, creativity, and inventive spirit endowed him with a versatile public career. He helped Samuel F. Morse develop the telegraph and became the first African American employed by the Smithsonian Institute. Brown’s expertise as a naturalist and his talent as an illustrator made him a highly desirable lecturer in his day. Brown was also a published poet and a local legislator. While his is not quite a rags to riches story, it is nevertheless a fascinating one about what one determined black man with meager beginnings can accomplish with a strong intellect and a willingness to seize opportunities to enhance his education and advance his professional status. As his careers developed, Brown always reached back to extend a hand to other African Americans who were less fortunate and to do what he could to improve their plight.

Solomon G. Brown was born to Isaac and Rachel Brown on February 14, 1829. The fourth son of six children, Brown was born a free black, because both of his parents were free Negroes. The family resided in Washington, D.C., living on very modest means. Brown was deprived of formal education because when his father died in 1833, his mother was left defenseless against creditors who made false claims of indebtedness on the family’s estate. The year after Brown’s father died, bill collectors seized all of his family’s property and left the family destitute.

Begins Post Office Career

In 1844 Brown was lucky enough to be apprenticed to Lambert Tree, the assistant postmaster for the District of Columbia. The next year he was assigned to assist Joseph Henry, Samuel F Morse, and Alfred Vail with the development of a new invention that would constitute the genesis of the modern telecommunication industry and become one of the pinnacles of the industrial revolution in the United States: the electric telegraph. Brown functioned as a technician and assisted his supervisors with installing the wiring necessary for the telegraph to perform efficiently. After Samuel F Morse successfully transmitted his Morse code, a series of dots and dashes forming words, from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore, the telegraph became the new sensation. Brown continued to work with the new communications innovation, even after it was sold to the Morse Telegraph Company.

In the Solomon G. Brown biographical essay that appears in Men of Mark , the author laments that Morse went on to garner accolades, fame, and wealth, but the contribution of the “negro[sic] who materially assisted” Morse with getting the project started has largely been ignored. Robert C. Hayden, in the Dictionary of American Negro Biography , speculates that Brown actually wrote this essay himself, and if that is true, the passage reveals that Brown was acutely aware of the fact that his skin color may have kept him from receiving proper recognition for his contribution to the invention of the telegraph.


1829 Born in the District of Columbia on February 14

1833 Father dies and leaves family penniless

1844 Assigned to work with Lambert Tree, assistant postmaster for Washington, D.C., which leads to work with Samuel B. Morse on the telegraph

1852 Begins work at the Foreign Exchange Division of the Smithsonian Institute; launches career as lecturer

1855 Delivers first lecture to the Young People’s Literary Society

1864 Marries wife Lucinda

1871 Elected the first of three times to District of Columbia legislature

1887 Retires from travel and lecturing

1906 Retires from the Smithsonian; dies in Washington, D.C. on June 24

Brown accepted a position as battery tender with the fledgling Morse Company but later moved on to become an assistant packer at Gillman and Brothers Manufactory, a chemical laboratory. While working at the laboratory Brown discovered that he had a talent for painting and coloring maps and other illustrations. His artistic side evolved when he mounted and painted maps for two laboratory clients, the General Land Office and a book binder.

A self-taught individual in the purest sense of the phrase, Brown was one of those rare people who achieved more that one thought he could, given his social status and lack of formal schooling. He was born with a natural ability for science and art, and he was hard working and ambitious. He learned whatever he could from each of his employers and intelligently applied his education in ways that advanced him socially, economically, and politically.

Brown, Tom (Red) [next] [back] Brown, Ruth (nee Alston Weston)

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