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  • James Wheeling

New Technology - Morse Code and the Telegraph

Technology is everywhere. Most of us wouldn’t be able to function without it in our lives. As a late baby boomer, I remember the first ATM, the first fax and the first mobile phone (carried around in a briefcase and having a very long antenna). I remember the first time I punched in my PIN and got a twenty-dollar bill without going into a bank and the first time I sent a text from my flip phone.

During our current pandemic crisis, technology has allowed us to do business and stay in visual touch by means of Zoom, Facetime and all manner of other apps on our phones and computers. Raising children in the middle of all of this technology had its drawbacks but I always took comfort in knowing that if they needed me, they could affordably call or text. I can’t help but wonder how distressing it might have been not knowing how my children were handling the crisis and that they were safe.

Imagine not having correspondence with a loved one for two or three months… or longer. Such was the case with communication until the 1840s: your only choice was written word sent either by messenger or postal service. Letters from Boston to California had to travel by sailing ship or steamer from Boston to the Gulf of Mexico, through Nicaragua by donkey and canoe, get picked up by another steamer and head north in the Pacific to San Francisco. All of that could take months and any number of things could go wrong.

But, technology was about to rock the communication world.

Samuel Morse, along with Joseph Henry and Alfred Vail, invented the telegraph in 1837. Morse developed a method to transmit natural language using electrical pulses and silence between them which came to be known as Morse Code. An operator was required to translate the series of dots and dashes from the paper tape. Morse Code could not only be electronically transferred and decoded quickly but it could be written and deciphered.

Not to go unmentioned, at roughly the same time, a pair of British inventors, William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone, developed the first commercial telegraph. They used electromagnets as their receivers, got an English patent and demonstrated it on the London and Birmingham Railway. They used printed letters from a wheel of typefaces struck by a hammer instead of the indentations on paper tape made by Morse’s telegraph thus, not requiring the services of a translator.

For the casual secret message sender, dots and dashes were all the rage in the mid-1800s. Secret codes were nothing new, many dating back to biblical times. But Morse Code was easy to learn and commercially available so, just like young people today, learning to “code” was a new and wide-open field for exploration. Opportunities for employment in telegraph offices were ripe.

When I needed one of my characters to use a code, I started researching. I was thrilled to learn that he could have been easily caught up in the challenge of sending and receiving messages using Morse Code. Additionally, the telegraph would be another force that would drive Americans to explore how they were going to communicate from coast to coast. The transcontinental telegraph race was just as energized, but not quite as sleazy, as the transcontinental railroad competition almost fifteen years later. But, that’s a subject for a different blog.

All in all, the telegraph and Morse Code are two more in a slew of new technological discoveries happening at this point in American history and I’m pleased at the role they play in my story.

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