Morse Code and the Telegraph

The Morse Key being in use | Commentary use | Source:

The Morse Key being in use | Commentary use | Source:

The telegraph is absolutely useless. It is frustratingly slow, and it limits us to around 20 words per minute, in comparison to normal speech in which the rate is around 150 words per minute. You had to spend weeks learning Morse code, and months practising it, if you wanted to be fluent, and on top of all of this it cost a fortune to send messages using it. Despite all of this, we still used it for more than 100 years before we created better methods of communication.

It is likely, that when the telegraph was invented, we thought, that it was a good idea, because for the first time, we could communicate across long distances instantly. Prior to this we would have had to send messengers on horses across the country, or boats across the ocean, even just to send the simplest of messages. Not only is the time between the sending and reception of the message a serious inconvenience, but boats took a lot of effort and time to sail, and horses are monstrous animals, which constantly need to eat, pee and worse. On top of all of this, if the message was lost or damaged on the way to the destination, then it would be a painstaking  process for the rider of the horse to return to the sender, and to ask them to write out this letter again.

Whether it was out of a hatred for horses, or a love for money, Samuel Morse decided that the Telegraph was a good idea, and so he patented it in the United States in 1837.

The idea of the telegraph itself was quite simple:

a simple circuit for a telegraph.jpg

A circuit containing a cell, switch and light bulb is opened and closed in an organised sequence. The bulb flashes this sequence to the person receiving the message at the other end, and it is subsequently  converted from Morse code to English. Other variations of the telegraph which came later include an electromagnet in the place of the bulb.

The electromagnet would pull on a magnet, making it strike a piece of paper, which was pulled along slowly underneath the magnet. There was a pen attached to the magnet, and so every time it struck the paper it would leave a mark on it. Even later on telegraph operators would realise, that they could simply listen to the tapping of the pen on the paper, and transcribe this directly into English.

However, telegraphs aren’t very useful if you can send messages in only one direction. You might think, that this would mean, there were two identical circuits, each sending messages in opposite ways, however Samuel Morse found a clever way to cut down the number of wires in his circuit, and therefore also the cost of construction. The diagram shown reduces the number of wires in the circuit by 25%.

bulbs for the telegraph key.jpg

The telegraph may have been a useless invention, however it was also the first time we could communicate instantly across long distances, and it would go on to inspire creations such as the telephone, and eventually the mobile phone, items which we today take for granted.