Science Column Aug. 16, 2009

The first 'text messages’ used Morse code

Did you know that Samuel Morse did not invent the code that bears his name?  

He invented one of the first prototype electric telegraph systems in 1838 with the help of Leonard Gale and Alfred Vale. Along the way, he and his partners devised a code that was a forerunner of what we now call Morse code.

Did you know that Morse was a professional artist and professor and only an amateur inventor? 

His story is one of an “outsider” to science and technology who brought fresh ideas, who held tenaciously to his dream, who built on the discoveries of others, who infected a few supporters with his dream, and who slowly won over the public after years of hard work. 

In other words, Morse, like most inventors, did not give the world the telegraph all by himself.

This is a brief account of how a “World Wide Web” of telegraph wires got started.

What Morse did was devise a new language composed of patterns of long and short bursts of electricity through wires connected to a battery. So Morse invented a code with “dots” and “dashes,” but only four of the 26 alphabet codes in his 1840 patent application remain in the modern version. 

Next, he created a method of sending the dots and dashes by adapting the idea of moveable type from people who printed books.

He constructed metal strips with saw-tooth edges of patterns of dots and dashes. These individual metal strips would be placed in a sequence that spelled out the message to be sent. 

Then the device would pass a stylus across the metal strips and close the electric circuit whenever it passed over a short, sharp tooth (dot) or a long, flat tooth (dash). The problem of “sending” code electrically had been solved.

Next, Morse designed a way for the pattern of dots and dashes flowing in the wire to be detected and decoded at a receiving station miles away. He clamped one of his wooden picture frames upright on a table and attached a coil of wire, which became an electro-magnet whenever electricity flowed in the dot-dash patterns from the sending device. A pendulum with a magnet on it would move rapidly back and forth in rhythm with the pattern of electro-magnetism, reflecting the dot-dash pattern of electricity.

On the end of the pendulum, Morse attached a pen to record the patterns of dots and dashes on a moving strip of paper. Afterward, the operator decoded the patterns into letters and numbers using Morse’s code.

Morse demonstrated his invention in a room having miles of wire wrapped around the walls. Although his prototype worked, it was slow, fragile and unimpressive. 

This contraption didn’t convince people to share his vision of instant communication across the country and across the oceans. 

Eventually, he replaced the saw-tooth sender with a much simpler telegraph key switch.

He also discovered that people could interpret the sounds of the metal plate clicking against the electro-magnet receiver and then write the text as it came across the wire. These improvements made the telegraph simple, rugged and reliable.

Morse’s major triumph came in 1844, when he demonstrated for Congress that he could send a message instantly between the Capitol Building in Washington and the railway station 40 miles away in Baltimore.

A network of telegraph wires soon spanned the country and the world, speeding the spread of news, allowing trains to avoid collisions, supporting world financial markets and permitting rapid personal correspondence. 

It started a communication revolution, which has continued to evolve through telephones, radio, television and the Internet.

Yet, in an entertaining demonstration of Morse code’s power, Jay Leno arranged a race on “The Tonight Show” between text message senders using cell phones and amateur radio operators sending Morse code.

The Morse code team won.

Bill Liggett holds a Ph.D. and worked as a program evaluator for School District 51. He has volunteered one Saturday a month at the Western Colorado Math and Science Center for seven years.
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