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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