The man who lent his name to the Morse code, Samuel F.B. Morse, was born 224 years ago today near Boston. According to an EDN blog by Jessica MacNeil,Morse was a bit of a renaissance man who was already established as a portrait painter before shifting his focus to communication in the 1830s.
“Morse became fascinated with the idea of transmitting messages instantly using electricity,” MacNeil wrote. “He developed a single-circuit telegraph that worked by pushing the operator key down to complete the electric circuit of the battery, which sent the electric signal across a wire to a receiver at the other end.”
MacNeil said it took 4 years for Morse to develop his first telegraph, which he demonstrated publicly in 1837 and patented 9 years later. Eventually, Morse got a substantial grant from Congress to construct an experimental, single-wire telegraph line between Baltimore and Washington, DC. As most Morse fans know, the first transmission on May 24, 1844, was “What hath God wrought?”
The code that Morse developed — sometimes called the Morse-Vail code (after Morse colleague Alfred Vail) or the American Morse code — differs from the Continental code, developed in the 1840s by German Friedrich Gerke, and which Amateur Radio operators employ today as the international radiotelegraph code. The character sets differ between the American and the Continental codes.
Among other differences, American Morse uses built-in spaces within characters, which are perceived meaningfully by the listening operator as the sounder clacks away. For example, sending “OK” in American Morse sounds like “dit…dit/dah-di-dah.” American Morse was the code that railroad telegraphers employed. A long dash is the letter “L,” while an even longer dash is the numeral “0” — a form radio amateurs have adopted.
The radiotelegraph code has no such inter-character spaces but characters formed from the familiar “dits” and “dahs” which, when appropriately assembled, convey meaning to the receiving operator. On our Amateur Radio receivers, we hear these as long and short sounds or beeps, keyed either on or off.
Some American Morse enthusiasts can be heard using that code on the Amateur Radio bands even today.
Happy 224th birthday, Samuel F.B. Morse!