Is the man next to you just tapping on his desk, or is he trying to relay a secret message to you in Morse code? Morse code is the series of dots and dashes that made up the telegraph language popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, Morse code has fallen out of use, and not many people know how to decipher it, but it will always be remembered as a definitive turning point in communications technology.

Early communications

Red semaphore sign raised against blue sky and clouds, Ural, Russia
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People have been trying to communicate over long distances since the beginning of time. Early civilizations used drums and smoke signals to reach their neighbors but could only pass along basic messages. In 1794, the precursor to Morse code, called semaphore, was invented in France. It involved a pair of arms being installed on the tops of towers and assigned flag positions to letters of the alphabet. While this method could provide more detailed information than any other long-distance communication method up to that point, it still had its limitations. Towers couldn’t be more than 10 miles apart, they were expensive to install, and poor weather conditions could affect visibility.

Samuel Morse

Up close hand on antique telegraph with wood grain finish
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In the 1830s, an artist named Samuel Morse was working on a portrait in Washington D.C. when he got a message about his wife’s sudden illness. By the time he got home to Connecticut, she was already dead and buried. Upset that he didn’t get the news of his wife’s illness in time to see her one last time, he set out to invent a new system of communication that would be quicker and more reliable than any before it. He decided to build the telegraph.

The telegraph was capable of sending an electrical signal over vast distances despite weather or geographical limitations like mountains or oceans. It couldn’t send regular speech or letters like we can today. Instead, Samuel Morse, along with some colleagues, invented a language specifically for the telegraph that became known as Morse code.

Morse code

Woman operating antique telegraph, sending a message in Morse code
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Samuel Morse and his colleague Alfred Vail came up with a system of dots and dashes, also called dits and dahs, and assigned patterns to every letter of the English alphabet, numbers, and a few punctuation marks. The patterns were assigned based on letter usage to help with efficiency. The more frequently the letter is used, the simpler the pattern. The most common letter in English is “E,” which is a single dot in Morse code.

Early Morse code users would write out the message on a piece of paper as it came in, but as people got better and better at transmitting and deciphering the code, they could do it in real-time without the paper. Morse code competitions were common, measuring who could translate the code the quickest. Some people could understand the code accurately up to 145 words per minute and beyond!

It wasn’t long before the telegraph and Morse code took off. Once Morse code had made its way to Europe, it became obvious that it was intended to be used only in English. Other languages have different symbols and accents. In 1851, a conference made up of several European nations devised a new code to include other languages called the International Morse Code. They also standardized the length of the dots, dashes, and spaces to make it easier to decipher. International Morse Code became the preferred code worldwide and was used heavily in World War I, World War II, and the Korean and Vietnam wars.

Morse code has since become obsolete thanks to newer inventions like the telephone and fax machine and even more so in the age of wireless communications. Now that we can have a real-time video chat with someone from the other side of the world, there’s little need to take the time to translate dots and dashes.

Other benefits of Morse code

Machine for transmitting signals through morse code
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Morse code is a unique method of communication as it can be conveyed through almost any medium. It can be silent or have no visual signs depending on the medium used. You can send it via telegraph as it was intended, you can tap out messages on your desktop using a pen, and you can even blink messages across the dinner table to send secrets to the person across from you. Ships frequently sent messages to the shore by flashing their lights. Because of its versatility, Morse code can be used to communicate with visually- or hearing-impaired people by touch, sound, or sight.

Because it can be sent through almost any medium, it became important in emergency situations. The term SOS is not an acronym like many people believe. It was actually invented based on Morse code. The letter “S” is three dots in Morse code. The letter “O” is three dashes. The code three dots, three dashes and three dots again is hard to mistake and easy to remember even by people who aren’t trained in Morse code. It became the official international emergency distress signal.