Before the invention of the telegraph, messages that needed to be sent over long distances were carried by messengers who memorized them or carried them in writing, or sent by letter. They could be delivered no faster than the fastest horse. Messages could also be sent visually, using smoke signals or flags but the receiver needed to be close enough to see the sender and they couldn't be used at night or in bad weather.
The first commercial telegraph was developed in England by William Forthergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone in 1837. They developed the needle telegraph which sent messages using electrical signals to line up compass needles on a grid containing letters of the alphabet.
In 1838, Samuel Morse, Professor Leonard Gail and Alfred Vail, demonstrated a better telegraph device which sent messages by tapping out the code for each letter in the form of long and short signals. Dits or dots and dahs or dashes. The code was converted into electrical impulses and sent over telegraph wires. A telegraph receiver on the other end of the wire converted the impulses back into to dots and dashes where an operator decoded the message.
Morse's original code was not quite the same as the one used now. It included pauses as well as dahs and dits. A conference in Berlin in 1851 established an international version There is no obvious relationship between alphabetical order and Morse code because Morse aimed to keep his code as short as possible. The commonest letters have the shortest codes. At his local newspaper printing press he counted the number of letter blocks. There were more e’s than any other letter so e was assigned a single dot.
Samuel Finley Breese Morse (1791-1872) was originally a painter. Although born in the USA he spent time in England at the Royal Academy learning art. He was a very good portrait painter but his best-known work is the 6ft by 9ft canvas ‘Gallery of the Louvre’. At the time, there were no colour reproductions of paintings in European art galleries in America so he went to the Louvre and painted all of its best pictures onto one canvas.
Morse helped to found the National Academy of Design and served as its first president.
Howard Goodall’s QI theme tune contains a secret message in Morse code. The first bit is clearly WWW (di dah dah, di dah dah, di dah dah), and the rest is: ‘AlanZeroAndStephenHero.com’ (the ‘zero’ is the figure 0, five dashes, dah-dah-dah-dah-dah).
QI is not the only show to have hidden a Morse message in its music: The notes played by the piccolo in the theme tune of Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em spells out the title in Morse code and Barrington Pheloung, the composer on the detective show Morse, coded the name of the killer into the music on some episodes.
There are other hidden messages:
In WWII, V for Victory was made audible on the radio by using the beginning of Beethoven's 5th symphony because the opening notes correlate to the Morse Code for V - dot, dot, dot, dash. The BBC used it as a call sign in foreign language programmes to occupied Europe.
The light on top of the Capitol Records building in LA spells out ‘Hollywood’ in Morse code. In 2013 it changed to announce Katy Perry’s new album ‘Prism’ and its release date – but nobody noticed.
What God Hath Wrought.
In 2004 Morse code added a new symbol - the @ sign – so that Morse enthusiasts could swap email addresses (.--.-. di-dah-dah-di-dah-dit). It was the first addition since WW2.
Thomas Edison proposed to his second wife in Morse code.
The first transatlantic cable was laid in 1858. It failed after 24 days.
The Associated Press closed its last Morse wire in 1930.
From 1999, Morse code was no longer required for International Distress signals.
Before SOS was adopted, the international distress call was CQD. CQ stood for ‘seek you’ and D stood for ‘danger’.
Nokia’s iconic text message tone spelled out ‘SMS’ in Morse code (... -- ...).