What is Morse Code? - Definition, Alphabet & History

What is Morse Code? - Definition, Alphabet &  History
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  • 0:01 What Is Morse Code?
  • 0:41 How Did Morse Code Develop?
  • 1:46 Telegraphs
  • 4:26 What Does Morse Code…
  • 5:22 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Christopher Prokes

Chris is an instructional designer and college faculty member. He has a Master's Degree in Education and also umpires baseball.

Morse code is a communication tool using symbols and transmitted via telegraph. Used both locally and internationally, it is both efficient and simple. Learn its history and development in this lesson, and take a short quiz at the end.

What Is Morse Code?

Do you text? Have you used text lingo or emojis? Both of these are examples of popular communication tools. Another similar cool tool exists called Morse code. Named for Samuel Morse, this communication system was developed for the telegraph. Using a method of dots and dashes to represent numbers and letters, a trained operator could quickly send and receive different types of messages over long distances. In this lesson, we'll explore this efficient system of interaction.

How Did Morse Code Develop?

In the past, there were different methods for sending long-distance messages. For example, early civilizations, like Greece and China, used the beats of drums and smoke signals. Later societies used semaphore, a system of flags raised to certain positions to indicate letters and numbers. These approaches had limitations, notably the distance at which they could be used. Weather conditions also impacted their efficiency. Clearly there was a need for a system that would work over greater distances with fewer hindrances.

In the early 1800s, advances in electricity enabled inventors to create a device known as the telegraph, but these early versions were crude. Enter Samuel Morse, who lived from 1791 to 1872. Originally trained as a painter, Morse became interested in electricity and tinkered with it for nearly 12 years before perfecting his version of an electric telegraph.

Telegraphs

To know Morse code, one must first know how a telegraph works. An operator is located on each end of a telegraph system, which had both incoming and outgoing electrical lines. Operator A presses a button on his telegraph in a pattern based on the message to send (more on that later). By pressing the button, the incoming electrical power to his device is interrupted. This sends a signal along an outgoing electrical line to Operator B on the other end. Operator B's machine would reciprocate the interruption pattern. From this, Operator B would decode the message she received. This message was sent and decoded using Morse code.

Morse knew the operator on each end must be able to decipher the message. But how would they know what the signals stood for? Have you ever sent a message on your cell phone in text lingo, only to have the recipient not know what it means? Morse was having the same problem.

The language Morse's team developed represented each letter of the alphabet and each number with a series of dots or dashes. These were based on how often the character was used. For instance, A is used more frequently than X, so the code for A is simpler. Morse's system gained notoriety, and he was invited to demonstrate it for Congress. In May 1844, he sent a telegraph message in Morse code from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore, Maryland. It read 'What hath God wrought?'

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