Little Bits of History

Dot Dot Dash Dash

Posted in History by patriciahysell on May 24, 2014
Samuel Morse

Samuel Morse

May 24, 1844: Samuel Morse sent a message from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore. Telegraphy is the transmission of messages over long distances. Early methods included the use of semaphore lines where an observer watched for movement and interpreted the message. Early semaphores included smoke signals, beacons, or reflected lights. Semaphore lines built towers in a line of sight configuration which allowed for a messaged to be passed from one to the next until it reached the final destination. Using electricity to send a signal was first suggested in 1753 in Scots Magazine and suggested the use of 26 wires, one for each letter of the alphabet. It proved impractical, but the idea itself was intriguing.

An early electromagnetic telegraph was designed in 1832 by Pavel Schilling in St. Petersburg which used a binary system of signal transmission. In Germany, Gauss and Weber were able to transmit a signal about 1.5 miles using a binary system as well and creating an encoded alphabet using positive and negative current states. Cooke and Wheatstone used a four-needle system in England to transmit messages. Theirs is regarded as the first commercial success with messages able to travel 13 miles using either a 4, 5, or 6 wire system. The system began to grow as more messages flew across the wires.

In the US, Samuel Morse and his assistant, Alfred Vail, developed a Morse code for signaling the alphabet. Their test case sent a message across 2 miles in 1838. On this day, the message, “What hath God wrought” was sent a distance of 38 miles from the Old Supreme Court Chamber to the B&O Railroad Station in Baltimore, Maryland. Commercial telegraphy took off in the US and all the major cities of the East Coast were linked in the next decade. By 1861, the east and west coast were linked, causing the dissolution of the Pony Express on October 24.

In 1851, the Morse telegraphic system became the standard for Europe, except for Britain and her colonies (and since the Sun never set on the British Empire, this included much of the world) which stuck with Cooke and Wheatstone method. In 1858 Morse introduced his system to Latin America by establishing a network in Puerto Rico, then a Spanish colony. Morse code uses dots and dashes to represent letters and numbers. A dot is one unit in length while a dash is three. A space between letters is one unit while a space between words is seven units. It is a binary system and the tone or light is either on or off. Many non-English languages use more than the 26 Roman letters and extensions of the Morse code exists for those languages. Probably the most famous Morse code message is SOS or dot-dot-dot dash-dash-dash dot-dot-dot and it has become synonymous with distress and a call for help.

If the presence of electricity can be made visible in any part of the circuit, I see no reason why intelligence may not be transmitted instantaneously by electricity. – Samuel Morse

The press, the machine, the railway, the telegraph are premises whose thousand-year conclusion no one has yet dared to draw. – Friedrich Nietzsche

The radio was an improvement on the telegraph but it didn’t have the same exponential, transformative effect. – Alison Gopnik

When we developed written language, we significantly increased our functional memory and our ability to share insights and knowledge across time and space. The same thing happened with the invention of the printing press, the telegraph, and the radio. – Jamais Cascio

Also on this day: Caveat Emptor – In 1626 Peter Minuit buys Manhattan.
News – In 1958, the UPI was formed.
Wedding Disaster – In 2001, the Versailles wedding hall collapsed.
Mary’s Poem – In 1830, Sarah Hale published a poem.