May 24 – Morse Code Day

Posted on May 24, 2016

When we want to honor an inventor like Samuel Morse, or his or her invention, do we honor his birthday? The anniversary of his death? The anniversary of an “ah-ha!” moment, or of the first successful demonstration of the invention, or of the patent?

The truth is, of course, that it depends on the inventor and the invention. In some cases we have little information about exactly when an inventor thought up an idea or tested a new gadget – but we can clearly see the date of the patent. In some cases a group of people invented a device, rather than one person with a definite birthdate, and in other cases multiple people separately invented the same thing.

So when I discovered that there are two different days called “Morse Code Day” – and that neither is the anniversary of the first public demonstration of the telegraph – I got to wondering, “Why that date?” 

One of the two Morse Code Days is April 27, which is the birthday of telegraph inventor Samuel Morse.

The other is today, May 24, which is the anniversary of the first official telegram.

Samuel Morse and his partners, Leonard Gale and Alfred Vail, worked on the prototype telegraph that was demonstrated in 1938. They also had to develop a code that could be used to transmit letters and numbers. Morse studied the use of semaphore flags and optical codes – which assigned 3- or 4-digit numbers to various words – but Vail knew that such a system would be limited in what could be expressed and would be fairly difficult to translate from code to message. It was Vail who put in the effort to study the frequency of use of the 26 letters in the English language. He assigned the shortest dot-dash codes for the letters used most often, and longer codes for the infrequently-used letters.

It was perhaps even harder to convince Congress to fund the construction of the first telegraph line than it was to invent the device and the code! Finally, in 1843, Morse convinced them, thanks to the lobbying of his former classmate and supporter Henry Ellsworth, and a telegraph line was built linking Washington, D.C., to Baltimore, Maryland, a distance of about 40 miles.

In order to reward Ellsworth for his help with the skeptical Congress, Morse decided to allow Ellsworth's daughter to choose what the first official telegram would say. That's how 17-year-old Annie Ellsworth entered the story. She chose a short line from the Bible: “What hath God wrought?”

And it was on this date in 1844 that Morse, seated in the U.S. Capitol, tapped out Annie's message. Vail, sitting in a Baltimore railroad depot, received the message just seconds later. By 1800s standards, that was INSTANT communication!

The telegraph was a success almost instantly, as well. Over the next few years, private companies set up telegraph lines, and within a decade more than 20 thousand miles of telegraph wire had been strung in the U.S. alone. And although Morse had to spend years in court fighting for recognition for his work and royalties for his inventions, he died at age 80 a rich and famous man.

Of course, almost instant coded communication via wire was eventually replaced by non-coded vocal communication via wire (the telephone), and then wireless communication (cell phones). Not to mention faxes and email and text messaging and social media!

Western Union, one of the first and biggest telegraph companies, delivered its last telegram in January of 2006.

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May 23 – Anniversary of South Carolina's Statehood

Posted on May 23, 2016

You probably know that South Carolina was one of the thirteen colonies. Of them, it was the 8th to ratify the new Constitution of the United States of America, becoming a state on this date in 1788.

(It was also the first state to vote to secede from the Union as a part of the Civil War. Like the other Confederate states, it was readmitted after the war.)

Even though South Carolina is a rather small state, it has a lot of different sorts of landforms. 

Of course it has beaches on the Atlantic Ocean.

It has river deltas and coastal plains, and it has islands just off of the coast.

It has the Sandhills, which are ancient dunes from what used to be the coast, millions of years ago, but is now inland.

It has rolling hills and the Blue Ridge Mountains.

It has old plantations.

It has lovely gardens.

And of course it has waterfalls and lakes and other natural beauty spots.

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Anniversary of the invention of the accordion

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May 22 – Harvey Milk Day

Posted on May 22, 2016

 In 2009, Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill creating a state day of recognition for Harvey Milk, a politician who was the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in a major city.

Harvey Milk, who was born on this date in 1930, became a city supervisor of San Francisco in 1977. He was responsible for passing a gay rights law in the city. That's the main reason that he is a hero...

But unfortunately, there is another reason we remember Milk so well here in California: he became a martyr.

Another city supervisor, a fellow named Dan White, resigned his seat because he thought the pay was too low. A few days later, he asked that his resignation be withdrawn, but the mayor of San Francisco, George Moscone, was instead prepared to name a new supervisor who would reflect the diversity of the city and the more progressive ideas of the rest of the board. White had spent most of his time clashing with Milk, especially, and other board members on various issues.

On November 27, 1978, Dan White deliberately shot Mayor Moscone several times, causing the mayor to fall to the floor; White shot him in the head twice more. Then he reloaded his gun and went in search of Milk; he shot Milk five times, including twice in the head at close range.

If you can believe it, White wasn't convicted of murder, even though he admitted that he was guilty of assassinating two government officials! Instead, he was convicted of only manslaughter, and he was only sentenced to seven years in prison, of which he only served two. (White committed suicide not long after he was released from prison.)

Back to Milk: even though he was only a city supervisor less than 11 months before he was assassinated, he is still seen as an icon in San Francisco, a visionary for LGBT rights, and a martyr in the gay community.

In 2009 President Obama awarded Harvey Milk the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his contribution to the gay rights movement. Milk's nephew Stuart accepted for his uncle and later founded the Harvey Milk Foundation. Governor Schwarzenegger, in addition to declaring today Harvey Milk Day, inducted Milk in the California Hall of Fame.

  • Here are some materials for kids to learn about Harvey Milk and issues relating to gay rights.

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May 21 – Anniversary of a Failed Prediction

Posted on May 21, 2016

Part of the annual celebration of
the fact that we're still here!
Some people celebrate today with parties and humor. They call it Rapture Day or End of the World Day – but they're really celebrating the fact that it ISN'T the “Rapture” or the “End of the World”!

You see, back in the 1990s, a Christian radio broadcaster and author named Harold Camping predicted that Jesus would return to the Earth soon; he made many calculations and at least one failed prediction but then ended up firmly fastening on May 21, 2011, being the date of this return.

Jesus coming back to the Earth may sound like a good thing, but Camping taught that a few hundred million people would be suddenly raptured—taken “up” into heaven—and that many millions more would die in a series of gigantic earthquakes and other disasters. Fire and brimstone and plagues. Scary, scary stuff. He predicted that the actual end of the world would be October 21, 2011...and that BILLIONS of men, women, and children (and I presume animals and plants) would die.

Camping talked about this prediction for years. A LOT of people – including most Christians and almost all non-Christians – rejected Camping's dire prediction. However, some people did believe, and there were problems for some of these believers. Some of them gave up their jobs, sold their homes, sold all of their belongings, and gathered together to await the Rapture. Some people not only stopped investing and earning money, they spent most of their own money promoting the prediction, I guess in an effort to (in their eyes) save people's souls. For example, one retired New Yorker spent $140,000 publicizing the prophecy.

These ads almost look like they are jokes -
but they were real attempts to spread the news
about Camping's (wrong) prediction!

Of course, May 21, 2011, came and went with no return-of-Jesus, no Rapture. October 21, 2011, came and went with no end-of-the-world.

It's sad to say that some of Camping's followers were totally impoverished by the actions they took based on their own certainty that Camping was correct. Homeless, jobless, broke, some went into hiding. Some people at Rapture-awaiting gatherings had been arrested by police (this happened in Vietnam, for example) as “extremists.”

Camping was super-duper wrong, which he later admitted. He even apologized. I don't want to laugh at his incorrect ideas – especially since he suffered from a stroke about a month after the 2011 prediction had failed, and he died in 2013.

Instead, I want to point out that there will always be people who sincerely come up with, write, say, and publicize ideas that are completely wrong. We should all think through ideas we hear about – look to see if the ideas are logical and reasonable, check to see if there is good evidence that supports the ideas. We should especially take care to examine ideas if people are urging us to spend money or give up valuable parts of our life on the basis of the ideas.

In other words, be skeptical. Check sources, look at the evidence given, and wonder about the possible motivations behind statements, ideas, or causes. Question authority; question simplistic / pat answers; question appeals to fear.

Also on this date:

Independence Day in Montenegro

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