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Morse Code: A Brief History
radio : by Tommy - October 18th 2010, 10:12PM
Most people know the important life-saving phrase Di-di-dit da-da-dah di-di-dit (SOS), but that's about it when it comes to Morse Code. Many people know that Morse Code was named after its inventor, Samuel Morse but not much more. Fewer people know that the use of Morse Code still persists (unless, of course, you know someone that uses it on a semi-regular basis!).

Morse Code is the oldest form of telecommunication still in use. It got its start when the legendary Samuel F. B. Morse, an artist by trade, began to experiment with methods to communicate via the relatively new field of electricity. Morse's system of communication was not the first form of telegraphy, nor was his invention the only electric telegraph. But he did invent a language of dits and dahs that, by way of a few revisions, remains in use to this day. (The history of the telegraph, interesting in its own right, is beyond the scope of this outline.)

Ham radio operators are perhaps the most notorious users of this antiquated form of communication, but not the only users. Navy signalmen use Morse Code when manning the Signal Lamp and aviators make use of the Code as a way of identifying directional beacons.

Morse Code has undergone few revisions since its inception. Morse's original code was a bit cumbersome, but the idea was there and several letters have remained unchanged. Morse originally planned the letters to leave imprints on a printed tape, but over time the code was learned by operators and the incoming signal was able to be decoded by ear rather than on paper. In order to speed up transmission, Morse gave the most frequently used letters the shortest signals. (E gets a single ‘dit’ and T gets a single ‘dah’) Identifying the most frequently used letters, Morse counted letters in a copy of the newspaper. The letters with the highest count were most used. Perhaps not the most technical method of finding the letters, but it was an easy and straight forward approach and has proven its validity. These most-used letters are some of the letters that have never changed.

As Morse’s Code and the use of the telegraph grew, operators using the code found ways to improve the characters’ codes. Due to some spacing issues, some letters were slowing down transmission speeds and/or confusing the receiver. (Some letters required a “space” or pause in the middle of the letter rather than sending a continuous series of dits or dahs. A resulting “space” between letters could then be misconstrued as a different letter altogether and throw off the transcription of the message.)

Morse made his code public in 1844. After a few years of use, Freidrich Gerke released his “improved” code alphabet in 1848 which came to be known as the Continental code. Gerke essentially removed the aforementioned spacing errors eliminating much of the confusion for telegraph operators. Finally in 1865, the International Telegraphy Congress standardized the code to form what is now known as the International Morse Code.

Once the International Code was in place, it has not changed in the nearly 150 years since. Telecommunications has changed completely transformed the way mankind communicates. The advent of radio ushered in easy-to-establish distance communications that required no connecting lines like that of the telegraph, yet the code did not change. Even in the advent of digital communications, the code remained a fixture in the telecommunication industry. It was not until the later 1990’s that the international community began reevaluating the use of the code. Mariners, aviators and radio operators worldwide needed to be proficient in Morse Code to perform their duties, but all this changed in the past 10 years. In spite of its fall from common usage, code operators of today would have no trouble communicating with telegraph operators of the railroad era via the code. No other form of communication can boast a 150 year heritage.

In radio communications, Morse Code continues to be a form of signaling that prevails when almost no other form of communication can get out. No other form of communication can go further on the same amount of radiated power. No other form of radio communication is easier to construct circuitry for. It is simple and efficient.

For those curious individuals wanting to hear Morse Code in use, YouTube offers a wide variety of operators making contacts, there’s the famed Tonight Show video showing the text message versus Morse Code race, and there’s always the ham radio bands.
I was unable to ever make real contacts in Morse Code until I discovered the 7.100-7.125 portion of the 40m ham band. For those looking to break into the world of CW operation, tune your dials to the Novice portion of the band and you’ll find other code operators that welcome “slow-code” newcomers.

tags: morse code ham radio cw

+ Grendel
  Oct 17, 2011 02:06
For those wanting further reading on telegraphy and the early days of radio, check out this book about the design, construction and funding of the Transatlantic cable:
A Thread Across the Ocean by John Steele Gordon. I read it a few years back and found it very enlightening.

For other reading about the early days of telegraphy, check out The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage.

While I'm on the subject of recommending books, don't forget required reading for all radio history enthusiasts:
- 200 Meters and Down - about the history of amateur radio, by the ARRL. (warning: it's kinda dry at parts)
- Signor Marconi's Magic Box - a Marconi-biased look at the birth of radio. (Yeah, yeah, Tesla had it first.)

All good reads and I hope you find them as enjoyable as I did.


+ Grendel
  Oct 17, 2011 15:29
Here is a YouTube video on history of Morse Code:


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