Dots and Dashes: Morse Code Returns for a Day
If you used Google today, you saw the search engine's front page adorned with artwork that looked a bit odd. It was a colorful depiction of the Morse Code symbols (--. --- --- --. .-.. .) for the word 'google'. It was used to mark the birthday of the man who made the telegraph one of the greatest technologies of all time.
Samuel Morse was born on 27 April 1791 in Charlestown, Mass. He became a painter by profession as a young man, but in mid-life turned his attention to the exciting new field of electromagnetism. Morse was one of those iconic American inventors who did not create the technology associated with his name but rather found the perfect way to use it.
During a trip to Europe in 1832 to study the latest artistic styles, Morse became interested in the electrical inventions that were causing a sensation in the press of the era. Upon his return, he became fixated on inventing a system of his own that could use electromagnetism to send messages over a copper wire. He suspended his promising painting career and turned his attention to developing a practical telegraph transmitter and receiver.
Morse was apparently unaware that others had already created telegraph schemes, notably Carl Steinhill of Germany and Charles Wheatstone of Britain. Still, with the help of American inventor Joseph Henry, he forged ahead with an independent approach. By 1837, he was able to demonstrate a prototype of his telegraph at the University of the City of New York. Shortly afterward, collaborating with a university student named Alfred Vail, Morse hit upon a plan to use short and long pulses of current to form a code standing for 36 alphanumeric characters. Then he applied for a patent for the system.
Discovering an obscure government award of US $30 000 to anyone who could build a practical signaling system over a thousand miles along the Eastern Seaboard, Morse set out to win the prize. He took his equipment to Washington, D.C., to display its workings to the government. However, the nation was in the midst of a recession, and Morse found little support for his seemingly far-fetched idea. In 1843, though, the Congress granted Morse funding to build a working demonstration of his telegraph to be operated between Washington and Baltimore.
On 24 May 1844, the telegraph line stretched 40 miles to its planned destination; and Morse, sitting in a chamber at the Capitol Building, keyed the signals for the words "What hath God wrought."
It was the beginning of a new era featuring a new field that would revolutionize the world: telecommunications.
For more than a century, Morse's code would be used to transmit messages both profound and mundane, but it would eventually be supplanted by newer means, from the telephone to the Internet. And the dots and dashes of Morse's language would fade into obscurity. Yet, today, on his 218th birthday, we celebrate the ingenious idea embodied by Morse Code, developed by a man who had set out to become a famous painter and became a famous inventor.