Morse Code - Development and History

Development and History

Beginning in 1836, the American artist Samuel F. B. Morse, the American physicist Joseph Henry, and Alfred Vail developed an electrical telegraph system. This system sent pulses of electric current along wires which controlled an electromagnet that was located at the receiving end of the telegraph system. A code was needed to transmit natural language using only these pulses, and the silence between them. Morse therefore developed the forerunner to modern International Morse code.

In 1837, William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone in England began using an electrical telegraph that also used electromagnets in its receivers. However, in contrast with any system of making sounds of clicks, their system used pointing needles that rotated above alphabetical charts to indicate the letters that were being sent. In 1841, Cooke and Wheatstone built a telegraph that printed the letters from a wheel of typefaces struck by a hammer. This machine was based on their 1840 telegraph and worked well; however, they failed to find customers for this system and only two examples were ever built.

On the other hand, the three Americans' system for telegraphy, which was first used in about 1844, was designed to make indentations on a paper tape when electric currents were received. Morse's original telegraph receiver used a mechanical clockwork to move a paper tape. When an electrical current was received, an electromagnet engaged an armature that pushed a stylus onto the moving paper tape, making an indentation on the tape. When the current was interrupted, a spring retracted the stylus, and that portion of the moving tape remained unmarked.

The Morse code was developed so that operators could translate the indentations marked on the paper tape into text messages. In his earliest code, Morse had planned to only transmit numerals, and use a dictionary to look up each word according to the number which had been sent. However, the code was soon expanded by Alfred Vail to include letters and special characters, so it could be used more generally. Vail determined the frequency of use of letters in the English language by counting the movable type he found in the type-cases of a local newspaper in Morristown. The shorter marks were called "dots", and the longer ones "dashes", and the letters most commonly used were assigned the shorter sequences of dots and dashes.

In the original Morse telegraphs, the receiver's armature made a clicking noise as it moved in and out of position to mark the paper tape. The telegraph operators soon learned that they could translate the clicks directly into dots and dashes, and write these down by hand, thus making it unnecessary to use a paper tape. When Morse code was adapted to radio communication, the dots and dashes were sent as short and long pulses. It was later found that people became more proficient at receiving Morse code when it is taught as a language that is heard, instead of one read from a page.

To reflect the sounds of Morse code receivers, the operators began to vocalise a dot as "dit", and a dash as "dah". Dots which are not the final element of a character became vocalised as "di". For example, the letter "c" was then vocalised as "dah-di-dah-dit".

In the 1890s, Morse code began to be used extensively for early radio communication, before it was possible to transmit voice. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, most high-speed international communication used Morse code on telegraph lines, undersea cables and radio circuits. In aviation, Morse code in radio systems started to be used on a regular basis in the 1920s. Although previous transmitters were bulky and the spark gap system of transmission was difficult to use, there had been some earlier attempts. In 1910 the U.S. Navy experimented with sending Morse from an airplane. That same year a radio on the Airship America had been instrumental in coordinating the rescue of its crew. However, there was no aeronautical radio in use during World War I, and in the 1920s there was no radio system used by such important flights as that of Charles Lindbergh from New York to Paris in 1927. Once he and the Spirit of St. Louis were off the ground, Lindbergh was truly alone and incommunicado. On the other hand, when the first airplane flight was made from California to Australia in the 1930s on the Southern Cross (airplane), one of its four crewmen was its radio operator who communicated with ground stations via radio telegraph.

Beginning in the 1930s, both civilian and military pilots were required to be able to use Morse code, both for use with early communications systems and identification of navigational beacons which transmitted continuous two- or three-letter identifiers in Morse code. Aeronautical charts show the identifier of each navigational aid next to its location on the map.

Radio telegraphy using Morse code was vital during World War II, especially in carrying messages between the warships and the naval bases of the Royal Navy, the Kriegsmarine, the Imperial Japanese Navy, the Royal Canadian Navy, the Royal Australian Navy, the U.S. Navy, and the U.S. Coast Guard. Long-range ship-to-ship communications was by radio telegraphy, using encrypted messages, because the voice radio systems on ships then were quite limited in both their range, and their security. Radiotelegraphy was also extensively used by warplanes, especially by long-range patrol planes that were sent out by these navies to scout for enemy warships, cargo ships, and troop ships.

In addition, rapidly moving armies in the field could not have fought effectively without radiotelegraphy, because they moved more rapidly than telegraph and telephone lines could be erected. This was seen especially in the blitzkrieg offensives of the Nazi German Wehrmacht in Poland, Belgium, France (in 1940), the Soviet Union, and in North Africa; by the British Army in North Africa, Italy, and the Netherlands; and by the U.S. Army in France and Belgium (in 1944), and in southern Germany in 1945.

Morse code was used as an international standard for maritime communication until 1999, when it was replaced by the Global Maritime Distress Safety System. When the French Navy ceased using Morse code on January 31, 1997, the final message transmitted was "Calling all. This is our last cry before our eternal silence."

The United States Coast Guard has ceased all use of Morse code on the radio, and no longer monitors any radio frequencies for Morse code transmissions, including the international CW medium frequency (MF) distress frequency of 500 kHz.

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