December 9, 2018
To telegraph is to send a message over a distance without a physical message moving from one place to the other. Unlike a handwritten letter, this message has an almost ethereal existence, translated out of and back into a physical state. Is it any wonder that two of the guys behind the commercial telegraph system that dominated communications in the 19th and 20th century studied religion in college?
The son of a Calvinist preacher, Samuel Morse studied religious philosophy at Yale, as well as mathematics. His eventual partner in telegraphy, Joseph Vail, studied theology at New York University. Although many people on both sides of the Atlantic had been tinkering with ways to telegraph a message with electricity, on May 24, 1844, Morse and Vail opened the first U.S. commercial telegraph line by sending the words, “What hath God Wrought” from the U.S. Capitol to a Baltimore train station, using Morse code.
And that’s how the Internet was born.
Well, OK, there might have been a few intermediate steps. But Morse code uses patterns of two symbols, a dot and a dash, to represent a full suite of alphanumeric characters; that’s a kind of binary code. (It’s not really binary, but that’s another post.)
Everything on your screen right now has gone through that translation into various codes (HTML, hexadecimals) and then those codes into an electrical binary system (off-on, off-on) until it finally rematerializes as light falling on your face and you translate the light waves into a message. That’s the telegraphic Internet.
In the invention’s first iteration, the receiving telegraph station used the short and long electrical impulses (dots and dashes) to drive a wheel that punched a paper tape with the corresponding sign. Then a human visually read the punched out dashes and dots to decode the message. Operators began to hear the dots and dashes as they were punched into the tape, so the true geeks dispensed with the whole killing-trees approach and just decoded on the fly, aurally and verbally.
Not surprisingly, then, when radio came along, Morse code adapted easily to the air waves. As a language, or at least a metalanguage, Morse code is incredibly simple, flexible, and medium agnostic. Wired electrical pulses and wireless radio tones were standard media, but it has also been transmitted with eye blinks, silent taps on an arm, and even breaths.
The telegraph operators turned the dashes and dots they heard into a kind of song, saying “dah” for a dash and “di” for a dot (unless it came at the end of a coded character, in which case it was a “dit”). In WWII Britain, people learned Morse code by matching the rhythms of various coded characters to the rhythm of well-known phrases. The …— of “V” (as in, “V for Victory” or the Roman numeral) matches the opening strains the BBC often used to start a broadcast, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony: di-di-di-dah.
Hard to imagine, isn’t it? People so steeped in a coded shorthand, telegraphed around the world that they could sing or speak or blink in the language. Or should I say, “Tuf 2 c, so many ppl talking in code, RT around the world #MorseWasHere”
Maybe for our next TBT, we can all – .– . . – / .. -. / — — .-. … . / -.-. — -.. .
The tweeter bird sings, “di-di-di-dah.”
(If you need help decoding your own social media best practices, talk to us.)