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Thursday, 27 April 2017

Samuel Morse Inventor and Painter

Samuel Morse is famous in the tech world for his contributions to communication. He was an inventor of both the electric telegraph - a way to communicate over long distances and Morse Code, a language he co-invented for communicating over the electric telegraph.

Samuel Morse was born on April 27th 1791 in Boston, Massachusetts in the US. Morse was also a recognised painter who earned money painting portraits of people.

The Electric Telegraph

The electric telegraph allows electric signals to be communicated through physical wires. Before the electric telegraph, messages could only be sent through a line of sight (for example using semaphore signals) or by taking letters (for example by Pony express.)

Sadly Morse had a personal reason for wanting to speed up communication. He failed to find out soon enough that his wife was dying. This video (without audio) features in the Men of Progress exhibition at the National Museum of American History and tells the story of Morse's invention:




Morse's electric telegraph allowed messages to be sent over long distances. This video from Make: explains how his original invention worked and makes a modern recreation:



The electric telegraph was a huge step forward for communication and an important step towards the modern internet. 

Samuel Morse and his partners weren't the only inventors of the electric telegraph, in England, Cooke and Wheatstone invented another system and another code. Communication across the Atlantic wasn't very quick in those days! The teams worked independently. 

The first transatlantic telegraph cable was laid in 1858 with a more reliable cable being laid in 1866. Before that it took ten days, often longer, to send a letter from America to Europe.

Michael Mosley's video for BBC Teach explains this story from a UK perspective:



Morse Code

Morse Code is the well know system of dots and dashes that can be used to send individual letters using only two different signals and pauses. A method that is well suited for sending through electric telegraph wires. 



Trained operators would send and receive Morse Code through a network of telegraph wires between key locations. This turned out to be more practical than Morse's more complex machine that sent specific letters. 

While Cooke and Wheatstone's system was successful in England, their code is mostly forgotten while Morse Code is still widely known. This may be because Morse Code was used by the military and radio operators long after messages stopped being sent via electric telegraph. 

Morse Code is simple to send and receive and doesn't depend on an electric telegraph. In the Mysterious Benedict Society (an awesome book for kids) the children use Morse Code to communicate using torches. 

We created a fun project to create Morse Code beeps and celebrate Samuel Morse:







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