All About Morse Code

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Podcast Transcript

In 1838, an American portrait painter by the name of Samuel Morse developed a system whereby signals could be sent down an electrical wire. 

This system allowed for information to be sent almost instantly over vast distances.

However, sending pulses of electromagnetic energy down a wire isn’t in and of itself communication. So, he developed a system to encode these pulses in a way that was legible.

Learn more about Morse Code, how it works and how it is actually still used today, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

In some ways, the invention of the telegraph was far more profound than the communication technologies which came after it. 

Yes, the telephone and the internet could do much more and were better than what preceded them, but the telegraph was basically competing with someone carrying a letter on a horse or a ship. 

Future communications systems which came after were incremental improvements. The telegraph, however, created the entire category of electronic communication. 

The idea of an electronic device for communications actually dates back to the 18th century when concepts and early prototypes were built. These systems were really impractical as they used a separate wire for each letter of the alphabet, and could only transmit the distance of a single room. 

The discovery of the electromagnet furthered things along as it allowed for a mechanical action to take place on the other end of an electrical wire. 

The earliest telegraph systems were known as needle telegraphs. A needle telegraph worked by moving a needle to the right or the left depending on the current sent down the wire.

The first needle telegraphs tried to make the needle point to a letter of the alphabet, but eventually, they settled on a code where a letter would correspond to a series of needle movements.  For example, left-left was the letter A. Right-right was the letter N.

Eventually, a five-needle system was developed where you didn’t even need a code. The needles would just point to the correct letter and you didn’t need a skilled operator, but you did need five different wires, which proved difficult early on. 

Many of the early systems developed in Britain were multi-wire systems, which was their weak point. Each wire was a point of failure, and more wires equaled more cost. 

There has been a running theme in this podcast when I talk about inventions. Early versions or prototypes are often built or conceived decades or even centuries before they come into regular use. The reason is that the first versions aren’t practical, or cost-efficient to implement. 

So too was the case with the telegraph. The early multi-wire system worked, but they weren’t practical.

The first practical telegraph was developed by Americans Samuel Morse and Alfred Vail. 

Their system was a single wire system that didn’t use any needles.  On either end of the wire was a telegraph key which was part of an electrical circuit. When the key was pressed on one end, it caused the key on the other end to depress making a sound. 

I’m sure if you’ve ever seen a movie with a telegraph, you are familiar with the clackity sound of a telegraph key. 

The very first version of the Morse system recorded the key coming down on a long thin strip of paper, similar to an old stock ticker tape, but that was eventually abandoned.

Morse demonstrated his system on May 24, 1844, on a connection between Washington DC and Baltimore, Maryland. Morse was in Washington and Vail was in Baltimore, and Morse famously sent the first message which was “What hath God wrought!” 

Morse’s telegraph was very simple and much cheaper than anything which came before it. As a result, it was rapidly adopted over the next several decades as telegraph wires spread around the United States and Europe.

If you remember back to my episode on the Trans-Atlantic Cable, the first telegraph message sent across the Atlantic was in 1858, only 14 years after Morse’s demonstration. 

This episode, however, is not technically about the telegraph. 

To send that famous message, Morse had to solve a problem. How could he turn a bunch of clicking sounds into a comprehensible message? 

A telegraph operator could only press down on a single key. It turned out that the solution lay in the fact that you could vary the amount of time that the key was pressed down. 

This led to different types of singles that could be sent based on time. 

The shorter ones became known as dots and the longer ones became known as dashes. 

The code that Morse developed was combining these short and long codes into letters of the alphabet. 

So, for example, the letter A is dot-dash. The letter B is dash-dot-dot-dot. 

If you learned this code, then you could both send and receive messages. The early needle telegraph systems tried to achieve something easy to decipher at the cost of being complex and expensive.

The Morse system was cheaper and easier, but the trade-off was the need for a skilled operator. 

The telegraph system actually evolved and was improved organically by telegraph operators. 

The early paper system that was abandoned was at the behest of operators who found it easier to just listen. 

The operators developed abbreviations to make transmissions go faster, many of which would seem shockingly familiar to anyone who uses text messages. 19th-century telegraph operators would have had no problem with LOL or OMG. 

A trained telegraph operator was a high-paying tech job and there was a great demand for them. It was the 19th-century equivalent of a computer programmer.

Telegraph operators were able to actually tell who was on the other end of a wire-based on how they transmitted code. There were unique styles and cadences that operators could identify after enough practice. 

The code Morse developed was good, but there were problems with it that became evident very early on.  For starters, it was designed around American English. However, there are other languages that have letters beyond the 26 used in English.

Also, the first system developed by Morse had a few characters that were longer than the regular dash. A dash was supposed to be twice the length of a dot, but the letter L for example was four times as long as a dot, which could get confusing. 

Morse’s original code became known as American Morse Code.  In 1848, the German Friedrich Gerke developed a code based on Morse’s Code for use in Continental Europe.

Gerke got rid of the extended dashes and limited everything to nothing but dots and dashes to make it easy. He also created codes for European characters with diacritical marks such as an umlaut. 

In 1865, a modified version of the Gerke system, which was a modification of the original Morse system, was adopted into what was called International Morse Code. 

That is the Morse Code that everyone in the world uses today.  Americans didn’t adopt the international code right away as the vast majority of messages were sent domestically, and they didn’t want to spend the time and effort to retrain their operators. 

International More Code became necessary because telegraph lines were now being installed across borders and because of a new technology developed in the late 19th century: radio. 

It turned out that Morse Code worked really well with early radio. Instead of connecting a circuit, you could just broadcast the sounds. 

Radio allowed for transmitting and receiving signals from ships and eventually airplanes. 

As maritime radio increased, the International Radio Telegraphic Convention in 1906 created a distress signal in morse code that you are probably familiar with: SOS.

SOS doesn’t mean anything. It isn’t an acronym. The letters were chosen simply because they are simple to remember in morse code. 

Dot-dot-dot dash-dash-dash dot-dot-dot

In 1904 a proposal was put forward to use CQD as a distress code. The reason for it was because CQ was the code used by telegraph operators when starting a transmission. 

The letters CQ actually represent the Frech “secu” which is the first part of the word “securite”. So, the D in CQD would be for distress. CQ is still the code used by amateur radio operators today when establishing a connection. 

While CQD made sense in the logic of telegraph operators, it wasn’t simple and easy to remember, so SOS won out. 

The cruise ship RMS Slavonia was the first ship to send an SOS signal on 10 June 1909.

When the Titanic sank, the radio operator on board first sent a CQD signal, then on the advice of his assistant, began alternating CQD and SOS.

There were similar systems developed for non-Latin alphabet languages. There is a Russian morse code that maps to the Cyrillic alphabet, and there is a Wabun Code, which maps to the Japanese kana characters. 

There is a telegraph code for Chinese as well. The way they get around having so many characters is that they assign each character a four-digit number. The numbers are transmitted in regular morse code. It sounds inefficient, but each Chinese character is efficient in how much information a single character can convey, so it sort of evens out. You just need to know 10 morse code characters, but then you need to have a sheet to decode the 10,000 possible combinations. 

With the rise of telephones and voice radio, the demand for morse code operators plummeted. 

However, it was still something that was taught to radio operators even though it wasn’t often used. 

The extremely simple nature of Morse Code means it has been adapted for uses far beyond telegraph and radio. 

Major Alexis Casdagli was a British prisoner of war in World War II. During his captivity, he created a small wall hanging that he sewed by hand. The Germans didn’t think anything of it, but along the margins in morse code, he stitched the phrase “God Save the King” and “F… Hitler”

During the Vietnam War, American pilot Jeremiah Denton was shot down and captured. On May 22, 1966, Denton and several other prisoners were taken to be interviewed by a team of Japanese reporters. 

He was told to tell the reporters that he was being treated well, however, with his eyes he blinked out the letters: T-O-R-T-U-R-E. Torture. 

Amateur radio, aka ham radio, operators used to need to learn morse code to get a license, and eventually, it was only necessary just to operate in high-frequency bands. In amateur radio, morse code is known as continuous wave or just CW.  

In the United States, the morse code test for amateur radio was eliminated in 2006. The US Air Force had its last morse code class in 2015. 

As morse code fell out of favor the number of people who knew morse code dropped, rendering it even rarer. 

Just like the Latin language, it never quite died. There are still morse code enthusiasts out there. A very proficient coder can transmit 40 words a minute, and the very best can transmit up to 60.

You can still buy hand-built morse code keys, and if you are interested in learning morse code there are many free resources available online. There are even free smartphone apps that will read and decode morse code automatically, even from an audio source.  

and the Boy Scouts of America introduced an interpreter patch for morse code in 2012. 

The International Radio Union hosts the world’s high-speed telegraphy championships, and countries in Eastern Europe seem to always do the best. 

For the most part, morse code is a dead art reserved for hobbyists who keep it alive mostly out of nostalgia. Nonetheless, it did play an important part in the history of electronic communications. 

Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast. 

The executive producer is Darcy Adams.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener mbcarpenter81 over at Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write, 

Gary never disappoints!

I look forward to this podcast everyday! Every episode is so well done. I am forever impressed how much info is packed into one single episode- all while keeping me intrigued every second. Well done! I also love Gary’s travel photos on his IG!

Thanks, mbcarpenter!  I have to admit that I haven’t updated my Instagram lately as the podcast is now taking up all my time and I haven’t taken my camera out of my bag since the pandemic started.

However, if anyone is interested in seeing some of my photos from my years of traveling around the world, you can follow me on Instagram where my name is: EverythingEverywhere all one word.

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read the show.