How Does Morse Code Work?

… ..- -… … -.-. .-. .. -… .

Did you get that? If you lived in the 1850s or are a modern amateur radio operator, you might’ve. That’s morse code, and in an age of constant information communication, it wasn’t too long ago that this communication method was vital to making the world go round

Back in the early 1800s, engineers and scientists were just starting to pioneer electrical communication methods. In 1836, Samuel Morse, Joseph Henry, and Alfred Vail invented the electrical telegraph system. It was the first system that allowed communication over great distances. However, there was a problem, – it could only communicate pulses of electricity to another machine.

This meant that you wouldn’t be able to communicate using voice or text, so a new way of getting messages across was needed. 

A code was developed by none other than Samuel Morse to translate electrical pulses back into the original message.

Originally, Morse’s code only incorporated numbers, but Vail helped expand it to include letters and special characters. Morse Code was born.

The code assigned a sequence of short and long electrical pulses to numbers and letters. Later these pulses would be thought of as dots and dashes.

The rules of morse code are as follows. Each “dot” serves as the basis of time for the code. One dash is equivalent to the length of three dots. After each character, there is a silence that is equivalent to the length of one dot. This relative timing allows for morse code to be easily sped up and slowed down all while keeping the same pace.

As far as how Samuel Morse and Alfred Vail decided on how to assign the specific sequences of dots and dashes to each letter, they studied the frequency of which each letter was used in the English language. They then assigned the easier dot and dash sequences to the most used letters during that time period. For example, E, the most common letter, is represented by a single dot.

Originally, telegraph machines would mark sheets of tape with the message, but eventually, telegraph operators learned to translate the dots and dashes audibly, making the tape unnecessary. This also meant that morse code started being taught as an audible language, rather than a written one of symbols.

In 1905, the international morse code distress signal was first used, · · · — — — · · ·, otherwise known as SOS. This became the standard maritime distress signal around the world within the coming years. These series of letters were actually chosen for their simplicity, not for the letters SOS. It wasn’t until later that people began associating phrasing with those letters, like save our ship, or save our souls.

So, morse code was invented as a necessity of the first mass communication method utilizing only electrical pulses. It was and to some degree still is a vital means of communication throughout the years. 

Trevor is a civil engineer (B.S.) by trade and an accomplished writer with a passion for inspiring everyone with new and exciting technologies. He is also a published children’s book author and the producer for the YouTube channel Concerning Reality.


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