What is Morse Code? - Definition, Alphabet & History

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: The Changing Roles of U.S. Women After World Wars 1 & 2

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 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
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed
Lesson Transcript
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.


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?'

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account