Fun Fact Friday!

Morse Code


Morse code is a method for encoding text into a series of dashes and dots, that can be sent (transmitted) by means of sound, light or radio waves, and that can be decoded be a skilled listener without special equipment. The system is named after the American artist Samuel Finley Breese Morse who co-developed an electrical telegraph system at the beginning of 1836.


In his original design, Samuel Morse had only planned to use numbers (0-9). The code was later adapted for more general use by Alfred Vail, who added letters, special characters and punctuation marks to the code, in such a way that the most frequently used characters (in the English language) were represented by the shortest codes (e.g. the letter ‘e’ is a single dot).


In the early days, morse code was used to send short text messages over long distance by means of the so-called electrical telegraph via (long) wires. The transmitting operator used a morse key (switch) to turn the electric current on and off in the rithm of the morse codes.


At the receiving end, the electric current engaged an electro-magnet, that would ‘click’ in the rithm of the morse signals. In most cases the codes were directly written to paper by attaching a pen to the electro-magnet, resulting in the original series of dots, dashes and spaces. The image below shows the word MESSAGE printed by a telegraph in morse code on a paper strip.




This way, a message could be recorded, even if the operator was not present at the receiving station. The dots and dashes were later translated into text again. Some operators were trained to recognize the ‘clicks’ of the electro-magnet, translate them to text and write them down directly.


In the 1890s, morse code began to be used for radio communication as well, as it was not possible to transmit voice at the time. When used over radio, the dots and dashes are represented by a series of short and long tones, often called dits and dahs by the operators.


As morse code requires limited bandwidth, it was ideal for transmission via Short Wave Radio (HF). A skilled morse operator could still ‘read’ the text even if the signal was noisy and disturbed. Morse code was heavily used for (secret) transmissions during WWI and WWII.
The image above shows former Dutch radio interceptor Louis van Erck using a wartime Type 3 Mk.II (B2) spy radio set, during a demonstration at Museum Jan Corver in November 2008, as part of the exhibition Secret Messages. Being an experienced radio operator, Louis is capable of smoothly adapting his sending speed to the skills of the operator at the other end.


Morse code remained popular during the major part of the Cold War, but was eventually replaced by other transmission methods. In the Navy, morse code was used as a backup measure for many years, with the well known SOS ··· — ··· being internationally recognized as an emergency signal. Today, morse code is no longer officially used, but it remains relatively popular with radio amateurs (HAMs), although it is no longer mandatory for a HAM Radio Licence in most countries, including the US and most European countries. For most people it is rather easy to learn.





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