“Society can only be understood through a study of the messages and the communication facilities which belong to it; and that in the future development of these messages and communication facilities, messages between man and machines, between machines and man, and between machine and machine, are destined to play an ever increasing part.” – Norbert Wiener
Five weeks aboard a ship in the year of 1832 was all it took for Samuel Morse to begin fostering an idea of an invention that would forever change the future of communication. An artist and a professor, Morse was returning back to the United States after spending three years in Europe improving his painting skills and beginning work on his iconic painting, Gallery of the Louvre.
Two weeks into the voyage, Morse found himself discussing electromagnetism with a fellow passenger, Dr. Charles Jackson, who explained that electricity was believed to be capable of passing through a circuit of any length instantaneously. Through the remainder of his journey home, with the Gallery of the Louvre sitting unfinished in the cargo (Antoine, 2014), a curious Morse began the early sketches of what would eventually become the electromagnetic telegraph.
How did the telegraph change the way that we communicate today? Without the scientific advancement and communicative enhancement that this invention brought to the world, the radio, telephone, and computers may have looked and operated very differently, if they could exist at all. It is often forgotten that the telegraph was one of the first inventions to connect the technical with the humanistic; a combination that the human mind has the tendency to seperate. However, the telegraph is a prime example of how these two disciplines have come together to enhance the ways in which humans communicate and understand the world around them.
It is often forgotten that Samuel Morse was not the first inventor of the telegraph, nor was he the only individual with the idea for an electric telegraph. While Morse remained relatively ignorant of the work of others, across the world, scientists and scholars were attempting to create the very same concept. It should be noted that only after various fundamental discoveries in chemistry, magnetism, and electricity could a practical electromagnetic telegraph come to be. Before the electromagnetic telegraph came attempts at communication using shutter systems and the semaphoric telegraph, both of which communicated visually using towers and pivoting shutters.
In the 1790s, Galvani and Volta revealed the nature of galvanism – the generation of electricity by the chemical reaction of mixing acids and metals, and in 1820, electromagnetism was discovered by Hans Christian Oersted and Andre-Marie Ampere. In the 1820s and 1830s, scientists and inventors from across the globe were working to create a working and practical electric telegraph, perhaps most notably William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone in England. Yet, many of these inventors ultimately reached a roadblock: electromagnets were only so powerful, and mechanical effects were not being produced from a distance. Morse ran into the same problem. However, he eventually met and began working with a fellow American, Joseph Henry, who in 1831 solved this critical problem by replacing the customary battery of one large cell with a battery of many small cells instead (Beauchamp, 2001; Czitrom, 1982; Standage, 1998).
The electric telegraph advanced the way that people communicated. It included an information source which, with the help of a human, produced a sequence of messages to be communicated to the receiving terminal. It included a transmitter which operated on the message in order to produce a signal that was suitable for transmission over a channel – the electric wire. There was a receiver t the other end who reconstructed the message sent by the transmitter. And through the receiver, the piece of communication eventually reached its destination – the person for whom the message was intended. The telegraph is an example of a discrete system of communication, where both the message and the signal are a sequence of discrete symbols; the message is a sequence of letters and the signal is a sequence of dots, dashes, and spaces (Shannon, 1948).
Communicating through Morse Code
Before learning more about Morse code specifically, it is important to distinguish the difference between a code and a cipher, mainly because Morse’s original idea for communication through the telegraph was to use a cipher.
Code: When letters of the alphabet are replaced by symbols. An important group of codes used in telegraphy are the two-level, or binary, codes, of which the Morse code is the best known example. (Beauchamp, 2001)
Cipher: When the letters containing a message are replaced by other letters on a one-to-one basis, meaning that the message will not be shortened. This concept was introduced into the operation of the mechanical semaphore toward the end of its period use. This type of communication requires a cipher-book (which differs from a code book) and a higher order of accuracy in transmission. (Beauchamp, 2001)
As he worked on perfecting the telegraph, Samuel Morse and his team were also experimenting with how exactly two people could communicate through this invention. Morse originally intended on using a cipher in which all of the words of the English language would be assigned a specific and unique number, and only the number would be transmitted. However, this idea was eventually replaced by the American Morse Code – an alphabetic code where each letter and number, and many punctuation signs and other symbols, are represented by a combination of dots and dashes.
Morse and Alfred Vail, an inventor who worked with Morse on the telegraph, designed the code by counting the number of copies of each letter in a box of printer’s type, ensuring that the most common letters had the shortest equivalents in code. This duration-related code had never before been considered by other inventors working on creating an electric telegraph. However, it is perhaps because of this duration-related code (as opposed to say, Cooke & Wheatstone’s polarity-related needle indication), that it was Morse’s version of the telegraph and code that changed and jump-started the entire telegraph industry (Beauchamp, 2001). When American Morse code reached Europe, a number of changes were made and the International Morse Code was created. This became the standard for almost a century, with a 1913 international agreement requiring the American code to be replaced.
The coding system that was often used in electric telegraphy was a proto-binary code, which means that it was recognized by either the duration or the polarity of the transmitted electric impulse. According to his own personal notes, Morse defined four principle features of the telegraph. It was a marking instrument, consisting of a pencil, pen, or print-wheel. It used an electromagnet to apply pressure to the instrument on a moving strip of paper. It was a system of signs – i.e. the Morse code – that identified the information that was transmitted. And lastly, it was a single circuit of conductors (Beauchamp, 2001).
The Significance of Combining Machine and Code
“If the presence of electricity can be made visible in any desired part of the circuit, I see no reason why intelligence might not be instantaneously transmitted by electricity to any distance.” – Samuel Morse
As the first electric telegraph line began to experience success in 1844, an entirely new era of modern communication was established in America, and eventually, around the world. The electric telegraph introduced a significant change in the way that humans communicated – this was the first time in history where some method of transportation was not required in order to communicate; the telegraph introduced instantaneity to the world (Czitrom, 1982).
Communication had previously relied on a middle party – the messenger. If people did not live together or find themselves as neighbors, their communication across distance was only as quick as the messenger. In many instances, the telegraph eliminated the messenger and introduced the beginnings of what would evolve into the rapid networks of communication that we know today. The telegraph eliminated dependence on time and distance by connecting people through electricity and code.
Expanding further, the electric telegraph expanded on the concept of communicating through code. While humans had always been communicating and making sense of their world through symbols (i.e. art as a means of communication), the electric telegraph created a combination the world had never before seen: electricity and code. As Daniel Czitrom wrote in his book, “Media and the American Mind,” the telegraph served as a “transmitter of thought” where human cognitive understanding was combined with electricity and the machine.
The electric telegraph supported one main idea: it assigned the humanistic symbolic values of a system of signs (Morse code) to the scientific process of electric currents in a switched circuit that could electromagnetically imprint marks and sounds to process the code. The simple on/off switches found in the telegram paved the way for the beginning of binary switches that could be found in the first computer designs (Irvine).
Coding and Computing
Because the telegraph introduced the design and production of technical equipment in a pre-electronic age, we now know a great deal more about data compression, error recovery, flow control, encryption, and computer techniques. The beginning of the internet was influenced in part by the pioneers involved in the coding of the telegraph (Beauchamp, 2001).
Slightly before Samuel Morse began work on the electric telegraph, Charles Babbage began designing a different kind of machine that he hoped would be able to compute and produce certain kinds of mathematical tables without human intervention. This early idea of automatic computation was the beginning of what we now know as computer science.
In order to understand the process, it is important to understand the terminology associated with key words. While, according to etymology, computation refers to the idea and act of calculating, Subrata Dasgupta writes in “It Began with Babbage” that computation is comprised of symbols – things that represent other things – and “the act of computation is, then, symbol processing: the manipulation and transformation of symbols.” Dasgupta points out that “things” that represent other things could include a word that represents an object in the world, or a graphical road sign that contains meaning to motorists (Dasgupta, 2014).
How does the electric telegraph relate to computing? Morse code is an essential factor. Samuel Morse was able to combine symbols – code that represented words that held meaning to humans – and share this very humanistic code rapidly, using a very scientific method of electrical switches. Samuel Morse and his team were some of the first people to begin paving the trail for what we’re still figuring out today – how to encode different types of switches on our technological devices so that we can communicate more rapidly and effectively.
Morse’s electric telegraphy is an example of a discrete noiseless channel for relaying information; a sequence of choices that come from a finite set of elementary symbols (Morse Code). Each of the symbols has a certain but differing duration of time depending on the amount of dots and dashes that is contained in each individual code. The symbols (code) can be combined into a sequence, and any given sequence can serve as a signal for the channel. Morse code helped to enact the idea of combining math and communication, the humanistic and the scientific, by introducing the question of how an information source could be described mathematically, and how much information – in bits per second – could be produced in a given source (Shannon, 1948). It is in this way that the process of transmitting Morse code over the telegraph served as a precursor to the process of encoding and decoding that is now used in modern technology such as computers. The Morse code messages that were transmitted contained a sequence of letters that often formed sentences which contained a statistical structure of a human language, such as English. Thus, certain letters appeared more frequently than others. By correctly encoding the message sequences into signal sequences, this structure allowed humans to save time, as well as channel capacity, while communicating (Shannon, 1948).
The electric telegraph and the Morse code that accompanies it, is a prime example of how communication can be seen as a means for one mechanism (for example, the code transmitted through electric telegraph/message sent) to directly affect another mechanism (for example, rapid reception of news) (Shannon, 1949). It is because of the ideas of Morse, Babbage, and countless others that humanistic ideas of symbolism can be combined with scientific technological advancements to continually enhance the ways in which humans connect.
Morse’s idea is still alive and well in today’s computers. Just like the presence and absence of electricity in certain parts of a circuit (binary states) was used to send a code that represented human signs and symbols, today’s computers continue to use this combination of electricity and human signs and symbols to code the machines and devices that allow us to communicate (Irvine, 2). This is signifiant, considering how our technology has changed the way that we send and receive messages, thus changing the ways that we communicate, and furthermore, change the ways in which we understand society (Packer & Jordan, 2001).
Today, humans use a similar but much more advanced concept of coding to program our electrically-powered digital devices. However, the purpose of this evolved and modern process remains very much the same as that of the electric telegraph: to communicate and connect in the most rapid and effective way possible. It is essential to realize that the sciences and humanities go hand-in-hand when thinking about how we have communicated since the invention of the electric telegraph. Without code, there would be no way to communicate, and without mathematics, there would be no way to transmit the code.
Antoine, J. (2014). Samuel F. B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre and the Art of Invention. Brownlee, P. (Ed.). New Haven, CT. Yale University Press.
Beauchamp, K. (2001). A history of telegraphy: its technology and application. Bowers, B., & Hempstead, C. (Eds.). Exeter, Devon: Short Run.
Dasgupta, S. (2014). It began with Babbage: the genesis of computer science. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Czitrom, D. (1982). Media and the American Mind. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina.
Irvine, M. A Samuel Morse Dossier: Morse to the Macintosh Demonstration of the Morse Telegraph: Electric Circuits and “A System of Signs.” Georgetown University.
Packer, R., and Jordan, K. (2001). Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co.
Shannon, C. (1948). A Mathematical Theory of Communication. The Bell System Technical Journal, 27, 379-423, 623-656).
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Standage, T. (1998). The Victorian Internet: The remarkable story of the telegraph and the nineteenth century’s on-line pioneers. New York, NY: Walker.