Friday, 20 June 2008

June 20, 1840: A Simple Matter of Dots and Dashes


By Tony Long

In addition to his work in telegraphy, Samuel F.B. Morse opened a portrait studio in New York City and taught the daguerrotype process of photography.
Courtesy Library of Congress

1840: Samuel F.B. Morse receives a U.S. patent for his dot-dash telegraphy signals, known to the world as Morse code.

The code Morse devised in partnership with Alfred Vail uses a system of dots and dashes to represent letters and numbers. It went into practical use in 1844, after he and Vail produced a working electromagnetic telegraph transmitter. Vail worked on various refinements to the transmitter before leaving the business altogether in 1848, feeling that he was being low-balled on his salary.

Some scholars argue that it was Vail, not Morse, who actually came up with the dot-dash system. He did hold a small piece of Morse's patent but didn't get rich from it.

Regardless of who devised it, the original code was a little different than the one in use today. What we recognize as Morse code is actually an international variation of the original, or "American," code. The American code contained not only dots and dashes, but also spaces in five letters: C, O, R, Y and Z. (C, for example, was rendered like this: . . .) The numbers 0-9 were also different.

The international version, known as Modern International Morse Code, was introduced at a conference in Berlin in 1851. The American code remained in widespread use until the 1920s, when everyone finally lined up behind the international version.

1840 was a busy year for Morse. An accomplished, respected painter trained in photography, he opened a portrait studio in New York. Morse had met Louis Daguerre in Paris the previous year, and in New York he taught the daguerreotype process to several photographers -- including Mathew Brady, who put it to pretty good use during the American Civil War.

Following a failed run for mayor of New York, Morse turned his attention in earnest to telegraphy. With Vail, he finished up work on the first telegraph transmitter. He spent several years trying to drum up interest in his telegraph, which was met with initial skepticism, both official and unofficial.

When he finally received a patent for the telegraph itself, it came first from the Ottoman Sultan Abdulmecid in Constantinople (now Istanbul), who personally tested it and gave it his blessing. Others, notably Englishmen Charles Wheatstone and William Cooke, had patents on similar (and some say, superior) hardware, but Morse eventually triumphed in the legal battle. His adept promotion, one-wire transmission system and simple software -- the Morse code -- won the day.

Morse code has now been in use for more than 160 years. It still has practical applications in the modern world because almost anything can be used, from telegraph key to flashlight to pencil to fingertip, to tap out or flash a message. Severely disabled people even use Morse to communicate, sending out the code by eye movement or puffing and blowing.

Source: Various

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