The telegraph machine is one of the most important inventions in human history. Its creators realized the power of the telegraph so early on that one of the first messages they sent in the United States was “What hath God wrought!” (we know, it’s a little dramatic). And to make that message possible to understand, first there needed to be a code that would translate English into a single tone: Morse Code. Debuted in 1844, Morse Code revolutionized global communication. But how does Morse Code work, and how was it created in the first place? And perhaps more interesting, how does it work in languages that don’t use a Latin alphabet?
How Does Morse Code Work?
If you have the loosest grasp of Morse Code, you probably know it as a high-pitched beeping sound, which corresponds to letters, which then can be translated into human language. And yes, that’s pretty much it. The original plan was that messages in Morse Code would be printed on pieces of paper, which would then be translated by telegraph operators. Soon, however, telegraph operators were able to understand telegraph messages based on sound alone, speeding up the process.
The telegraph machine allows you to send exactly one thing: a single tone, with which you can make a pattern. Morse Code is a system of dots and dashes (what they’re called when written down), or dits and dahs (what they’re called when audible). Every letter is some combination of dots and dashes, with spaces in between the letters to let the reader/listener know when one ends and another begins, as well as longer spaces between the words. The most famous example of a telegraph message is SOS, which is three dots (“S”), three dashes (“O”) and then another three dots (“S”). Written down it’s ••• — •••. If you’re hoping to learn the system, below is the full guide to the Latin alphabet in Morse Code.
How Was Morse Code Created?
While certainly an ingenious system, Morse Code did not spring forth from nowhere. Communication systems that relied on a single source being quickly turned on and off go all the way back to smoke signals, which used puffs of smoke that are pretty analogous to the dots and dashes of Morse Code. You could also send similar messages with lights turned on and off. Morse Code built off the ideas of its forefathers.
Morse Code also wasn’t the first option for telegraph machines. The very first commercial telegraph came out in 1837 in England from William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone, who designed a machine that used needles to point at a grid of letters. Their code, as well as other early telegraph codes, would eventually be replaced by the system being designed by Samuel F.B. Morse, who was working on the other side of the pond.
Samuel Morse was a painter, who in the early 1800s because interested in technology and helped invent the single-wire telegraph. He also developed the very first draft of Morse Code, which would forever bear his name. His first iteration, however, didn’t even have letters; it was only numbers. These numbers corresponded to words, and so telegraph operators would have to look in a codebook to find out which word the code corresponded to.
Alfred Vail, a co-inventor of the single-wire telegraph, developed the system further to include letters and special characters. And it wasn’t entirely random as to which letters got which code. Vail estimated the frequency of letters and designed the code so that the more common the letter was, the simpler the code for it. That’s why a high-frequency letter like “e” is a single dot, while a “j” is dash-dot-dash-dot. This system, brought into use in 1844, became known as American Morse Code.
How Does Morse Code Work In Other Languages?
The flaw in American Morse Code became apparent as soon as it arrived in Europe: it’s really only useful in English. The question then became How does Morse Code work in other languages? It would have to be expanded.
In 1848, German writer Friedrich Clemens Clarke revised Morse Code to create the Hamburg alphabet, which included letters like “ü” and “ö.” Clarke’s proposal became the basis for International Morse Code, which was adopted in 1865 as the main code for the world. International Morse Code has been changed and expanded in the centuries since then. The last new character to be added was the @, which was introduced in 2004, five years after the last commercial telegraph was sent in the United States.
This same sort of system was easily adapted for a number of other languages that don’t use the Latin alphabet. Greek and Arabic, for example, just applied the system to their own letters without much trouble. The real trouble came from languages that have a much larger set of possible characters.
One of the hardest macrolanguages to use Morse Code on is Chinese because there are thousands of possible characters. To solve this problem, Chinese speakers (or telegraphers) took a page from Samuel Morse’s original plan for Morse Code, and instead of having dots and dashes apply directly to symbols in the language, they applied only to numbers. Then, the Chinese Commercial Code was created, assigning Chinese characters to a four-digit code. Thus, you needed to punch in four numbers for every symbol. The system was certainly less efficient — it only used a fraction of the possible dot-and-dash combinations used in International Morse Code — but certainly still helpful for those who needed to communicate via telegraph, and an innovative solution to the question How does Morse Code work in character-based languages?
Morse Code is no longer widely used but is still remarkable in its ability to communicate. If more people understood it, there could certainly be more uses for it today. At the same time, Morse Code shows the limitations of systems that are designed with a single language in mind. It took decades for formal systems to go into effect that could accommodate languages besides English. The same could be said for a number of technologies today, so this is a lesson worth learning from.