On the Electromagnetic Telegraph and Morse Code


For most people, the Morse Code is something of an enigmatic historical artefact, today scoring a bit fat zero on the scale of usefulness. Most people are therefore correct. In the 21st century, worldwide proficiency in this niche language is scarce; but some 100 years ago, the Morse Code was indispensable.

Indeed, the International Code (somewhat different from the original Morse code) has long been replaced by other forms of communication – needless to say, much faster forms of communication – and the last ever commercial transmissions came in 1999. The Americans did this on July 12th, aptly signing off with the first publicly transmitted message by Samuel Morse (and chosen by Annie Elsworth) on 24th May 1844, taken from 23:23 of Numbers in the Bible, and it asked: ‘What hath God wrought?’. [1]

How simple it all seems to us now, and yet its very simplicity is its sublimest feature, for it was this which compelled the admiration of scientists and practical men of affairs alike, and which gradually forced into desuetude all other systems of telegraphy until today the Morse telegraph still stands unrivalled.
– Edward L. Morse, 1914

The mid-nineteenth century was a bumpy ride for Morse, as he faced a lot of criticism, scepticism, and claims that the Electro Magnetic Telegraph was not solely his own invention. But preserved sketchbooks rescued by historians tell the true story of a man with creative ideas to transmit intelligence, building on the discoveries of scientists before his time: Arago, Davy, Sturgeon… And thus a device was born, which enabled the transmission of the aforementioned code – consider it an analogue version of your internet router.

Screen Shot 2016-09-10 at 18.32.37.png
Fig. 2: initial sketches from aboard the Sully, sourced from [2]. A pulse of electric current was sent along a wire, at the end of which an electromagnet picked up and registered the signal, attracting a lever and outputting the transmitted message.
The simple idea was conjured up whilst away at sea in the early 1830’s and was eventually realised with the help of Professor Leonard Gale: it was a revolutionary piece of engineering of its time. But similar ideas emerged from England in 1837, where the machinery involved floating needles pointing to letters upon receiving a signal rather than using the pulse directly; luckily for Morse, this rival invention lacked the enthusiasm surrounding his own machine. Professor Joseph Henry, only one of the most influential scientists in America at the time, wrote to Morse with words of encouragement and approval, “…unless some essential improvements have lately been made in these European plans, I should prefer the one invented by yourself” [3]


Screen Shot 2016-09-10 at 23.03.26.png
Fig. 3: The instrument shown in (1) involved the movement of a pencil, initially only capable of up and down motion and therefore producing V-like shapes rather than dots and dashes. Passage sourced from [2]
The code itself was developed in America by Morse and his friend, Alfred Vail. It built on Morse’s original idea of transmitting on/off signals to represent numbers, which were to be later converted into letters. But this would have had many pitfalls as a system of communication and eventually, Morse and Vail’s ingenuity allowed for the entire alphabet to be struck out by a simple code of dots and dashes, as well as numbers 1 – 9 and some other symbols. The smart duo eventually managed to impress some important but initially dubious people via a series of successful demonstrations of transmission from Washington to Maryland, which is thirty-six miles away. These guys were huge in 1845.

The length of a letter’s unique sequence of dots and dashes used an inverse relation to its frequency in words commonly used in newspaper articles. In other words, because ‘E’ is the most common letter in the English alphabet, it was assigned the shortest possible sequence: a single dot. A single dash was the duration of three dots – so for example, ‘O’ ( – – – ) is nine times as long as ‘E’, ( . )

Over the century, the code has undergone various improvements; even a complete reworking of it to an international standard. Therefore the code which has been utilised in the past few decades is quite different to Morse’s original offering. This explains the surprise and self-doubt I felt when I first Googled “Morse code” and the American version came up, totally mismatching my previously memoried international version, way back from my Polish girlguiding days! A-ZOT, BO – TA – NI – KA, CO – RAZ – MOC – NIEJ, DO – LI – NA, ELK, FI – LAN – TROP – IA…

By Courtesy Spinningspark at Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28799025

It really is fascinating to see how an idea which now seems so simple in light of quantum technologies was just so complex and revolutionary at the time. And with hindsight to see just how much it had improved communication in World War II, how much utility it had in the aviation industry, and – perhaps most exciting to me of all! – how it facilitated the beginning of the weather forecast in newspapers. It was a great time to be alive for the scientist and inventor alike; on the other hand, claims of plagiarism and issues with originality were ripe. But I absolutely love the passage below, for it pins down exactly the difference between the scientist and inventor, and why one is just as important as the other:


I love this paragraph. Taken from [3] pp. 13
Thanks for reading!

– – – / …- / . / . – . // . – / -. / – . . // – – – / ..- / -// ..- – -/-.-/.- – – -/-….//

Further reading:

[1] http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/what-hath-god-wrought

[2]  Edward L. Morse, Samuel F.B. Morse: His Letters and Journals vol II 1914 (link to PDF file of the book); 

[3] P. Moore, The Weather Experiment: The Pioneers who Sought to See the Future (Vintage Penguin, London, 2015)


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