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A Brief History Of Morse Code

By Rebekah Alford

Since the dawn of civilization, the need to communicate has driven technology and innovation. Human beings are naturally programmed to exchange messages and thoughts with each other and when this can't be done face to face, the human desire to find other ways is very strong indeed. Morse Code was the first widely used electronic form of communication and completely revolutionized the way in which we send messages over long distances.

There was a time, not too long ago, when long distance communication involved written messages being carried by hand to their destinations. Although this process became much faster with the use of horse, it could still take many weeks for messages to reach their final destination. It soon became apparent that an increasingly industrialized world would need quicker lines of communication.

Nowhere in the world was the need for fast and accurate communication more apparent than in the relatively new nation of the United States of America. The landmass was so vast, many messages could take weeks to arrive at the door of the recipient. Research started in the early 1800s in both Great Britain and America to discover ways to send messages electronically. The discovery of electromagnetism by Hans Christian Oersted in 1820 would quicken research considerably.

At the same time as the American research, a British duo of William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone were developing a similar telegraph system that relied on metal needles, being moved by electromagnetism in order to point to various letters and numbers. The American team of Alfred Vail, Leonard Gale and Samuel Morse were developing a different system. It was this system that would prove popular across the world.

While the British invention was restricted to the country's railway system, the American system was used for more general communications. Perhaps the main reason for this was its simplicity and value for money. The technology would spread across America and the world very quickly.

The American telegraph consisted of electrical signals being sent by pushing a button and closing an electrical circuit. In doing this, a single electrical signal could be sent for many many across a wire. The system required a circuit, operated by a simple switch, copper wiring, poles and a basic receiver.

However, Morse had to figure out a way of converting electrical pulses into readable messages. He quickly came to the conclusion that the easiest way to do this was to formulate a code that relied on short and long marks. Short marks were often referred to as dots and long marks as dashes. Each letter of the alphabet, number and punctuation mark was assigned a unique combination of dots and dashes and the key was distributed to all telegraph stations in the US.

The US Congress saw great possibilities for the system and allocated funds for the first long distance network, to be constructed between Washington DC and Maryland. The first words to be communicated were "What hath God wrought" and would signal the start of a new era in human technology. The first transcontinental wire was laid by the commercial enterprise, Western Union.

Over the following years, the code would be adapted across the world to make communications faster and more efficient. As a result, international communications became difficult, as many countries' systems were slightly different. This had potentially dangerous implications when countries worked together on military operations. A standard of international Morse Code was agreed on in 1865 and still exists today. American Morse Code gradually disappeared as technology moved on.

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