…. . .-.. .-.. —

H and E are gone! It says LLO now.

Isabelle, are you eating the dots and dashes?

They are yummy!

We need the dots and the dashes to play. Today is Morse Code Day, to commemorate the birthday of Samuel Morse, inventor of Morse code.

Or as Mr. Morse might say, .- .–. .-. .. .-.. / ..— –… – …. / .. … / — — .-. … . / -.-. — -.. . / -.. .- -.– –..– / – — / -.-. — — — . — — .-. .- – . / – …. . / -… .. .-. – …. -.. .- -.– / — ..-. / … .- — ..- . .-.. / — — .-. … . –..– / .. -. …- . -. – — .-. / — ..-. / — — .-. … . / -.-. — -.. . .-.-.-

Self portrait by Samuel Morse

Samuel Finley Breese Morse (April 27, 1791 – April 2, 1872) was an American painter and inventor. After having established his reputation as a portrait painter, in his middle age Morse contributed to the invention of a single-wire telegraph system based on European telegraphs. He was a co-developer of the Morse code, and helped to develop the commercial use of telegraphy.

Telegraph Office – Alice Springs Telegraph Station

The telegraph was the result of an unusual mix of personal circumstances, artistic influences and pure happenstance. For the first four decades of his life, Morse was first and foremost an artist. However, while his name was known as an artist, he was a painter of modest renown.

In 1825, New York City had commissioned Morse to paint a portrait of Lafayette in Washington, DC. While Morse was painting, a horse messenger delivered a letter from his father that read, “Your dear wife is convalescent”. The next day he received a letter from his father detailing his wife’s sudden death. Morse immediately left Washington for his home at New Haven, leaving the portrait of Lafayette unfinished. By the time he arrived, his wife had already been buried. Heartbroken that for days he was unaware of his wife’s failing health and her death, he decided to explore a means of rapid long distance communication.

For several more years, Morse struggled in vain to succeed in the art world, but in 1832, serendipity intervened. On a transatlantic voyage, returning home from study in Europe, he met Charles Thomas Jackson, a Boston physician and scientist, who showed him a rudimentary electromagnet he had devised. Witnessing various experiments with Jackson’s electromagnet, Morse became convinced that he could somehow send a message along a wire by opening and closing an electrical circuit, which could be recorded by an electromagnet on a piece of paper via a written code.

Back in the US, Morse moved forward with his idea, that signals could be sent by the opening and closing of an electrical circuit, that the receiving apparatus would, by electromagnet, record signals as dots and dashes on paper, and that there would be a code whereby the dots and dashes would be translated into numbers and letters. He met with Joseph Henry, another scientist working in electromagnetism, and the man who would later become the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, in 1846. Henry explained how the electromagnets worked and showed Morse his experimental electromagnets.

Morse sought to improve early telegraphs, which had been linked with multiple wires, to just a single wire. Although Samuel Morse did not invent the telegraph, he vastly improved earlier versions of the instrument with his single-wire electric telegraph. Batteries supplied the electrical current, and an operator could hold down a key for a short or long period of time to control the length of the electrical impulse.

Morse realized he needed more than just the device. For his electric telegraph to work, he needed a code that could send mutually intelligible messages. Thus, the Morse Code was born with short impulses representing dots and longer impulses dashes. Messages were sent by varying the dots and dashes.

In 1837, Morse crafted a primitive telegraph receiver, now part of the Smithsonian’s collections, that was able to register and record the fluctuations in an electrical circuit. The most interesting thing about the prototype is that he took an artist’s canvas stretcher and made it into a telegraph receiver! And he submitted his patent for the “electro-magnetic telegraph”.

Morse’s 1837 telegraph receiver prototype, built with a canvas-stretcher. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives

With a means of recording electromagnetic signals theoretically in place, Morse worked with Leonard Gale, Alfred Vail and others over the next several years to improve the system and make it practical for use over far distances, incorporating Vail’s transmitter key and a code of dots and dashes, which would become known as Morse Code. Despite these improvements, the group had some difficulty convincing others that telegraphy was a worthy investment.

To raise capital for long-distance lines, Morse turned to the US government, and after a small-scale demonstration with wires strung between different committee rooms within the Capitol, he was awarded $30,000 to build a 38-mile line from Baltimore, MD to Washington, DC. On May 1, 1844, Morse’s communication device was finally met with wide scale public enthusiasm, as the Whig Party’s presidential nomination was telegraphed from Baltimore to DC far faster than a courier could have travelled.

Later that month, the line was officially opened for public use — with a message quite a bit more well-known than that of the earlier Speedwell Ironworks demonstration. This, too was recorded on a strip of paper, which now resides in the American History Museum’s collections. Short yet meaningful, the bible quotation set the stage for the approaching age of electronic communication: “What Hath God Wrought.”

Message sent by Alfred Vail and transcribed by Samuel Morse using the electromagnetic telegraph on May 24, 1844, Artefact, National Museum of American History, EM*001028.

The message he sent, “What Hath God Wrought?” travelled via his electromagnetic telegraph from Washington, DC to Baltimore, MD. But who, you might wonder, was on the other end of the line? Alfred Vail, Morse’s colleague, received Morse’s message in Baltimore and then successfully returned the same message back to Morse in the national Capitol Building’s Rotunda. For Vail, this event was the culmination of years of his own labour and financial investment, yet his influence has largely been lost in the historical record.

In 1837 Vail saw Morse demonstrate an early version of his electric telegraph at the university, and shortly after convinced Morse to take him on as a partner. The contract between the two, stated that Vail, for a share of interest in Morse’s rights to the telegraph, would work on constructing the telegraph machines and financing the American and foreign patents.

Vail vastly improved Morse’s original design of the machine. Instead of using pendulums, Vail added weights to the machine’s turning key. He also substituted a steel pointed pen for the pencil Morse had employed, to indent the code into the paper tape the machine used and improved the mechanics of the register, the instrument that punched out the code via electric impulse, as well. Additionally, Vail developed a simpler alphabetic system of code to replace Morse’s original, but more complicated numerical code, in which dashes and dots were interpreted as numbers and then translated into words in a code book. Vail’s alpha code greatly sped up the process of deciphering messages. Though his contributions to the project were extremely significant, it was Morse’s name that appeared on the patents. Consequently, Morse is remembered, and Vail is often not.

Vail himself failed to give recognition to Joseph Henry, first Secretary of the Smithsonian, who met with Morse and had invented the high intensity magnet used in Morse’s electric telegraph. So, “What Hath God Wrought?” For Alfred Vail it would seem to have been a lack of notoriety. However, in reading his letters, it seems that fame was neither his motivation nor goal. Vail’s work on the electric telegraph provided him with a life’s work and sense of accomplishment. And maybe, for him, that was enough.

In time, the Morse code would become the primary language of telegraphy in the world. It is still the standard for rhythmic transmission of data.

Private telegraph communication companies arose overnight and by 1902 telegraph wire encircled the earth, including Australia. The Overland Telegraph was completed in 1872. The telegraph vastly improved communications throughout the world. It changed how people perceived time and distance, and the telegraph was the precursor of the telephone, radio, television and internet.

Mmmm, they are yummy! 🙂

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