When you think of codes, you probably imagine spies and secret agents leaving messages tucked away under trash cans, or a long string of letters that only a computer genius can decode. However, did you know that there's a special code that anyone can learn? And you don't even need any special equipment to decipher it! Good listening skills are all you need to understand this special cipher, which is used by the military, emergency support groups, and by people all over the world. This special code is called Morse code, and it's been around since 1836.
In 1836, three men invented an electrical telegraph system, which was pretty big news since the telephone wouldn't even be thought of until 1844. The telegraph system was able to send pulses of electrical sound to a receiving end of the telegraph, similar to how a telephone works. Since the sounds were limited to electrical beeps, the three men had to figure out a code so that the beeps could be translated into actual words. One of the men, Samuel F. B. Morse, set to work developing a code, and the system he created became known around the world as International Morse code.
- Inventor of the Week: Samuel Morse
- First Telegraph Message: Video from History.com
- The History of Morse Code
- Telegraph and Telephone
- History of Morse
How to Use Morse Code
A telegraph key was the tool used to send beeps over the telegraph. Depending on how long you pressed the key, a beep of the same time length would be sent. By switching the length of the beeps into dits" (a very short key press) and dahs" (a sound that lasts twice as long as a dit), Samuel Morse was able to send a string of sounds that could be understood as letters. He assigned a special code to each of the 26 letters in the English language, so that no letter could be confused for another. For example, the letter A" was represented by a dit dah".
Of course, it would have been silly for messages to be written as dit dah", and so early transmitters printed out the sounds as dots and dashes. Instead of writing the word dit", a dit can be represented by a single dot, like this: "·" . A dah is represented by a dash, like this: "-" . Therefore, the letter A" would be written in Morse code like this: "·-".
Morse code is most commonly sent by radio, using the same kind of electrical pulse system to send them to listeners. However, Morse code can also be sent using a car horn, in case of emergency, or a flashlight, which you probably have at home. Instead of using dits and dahs that you can hear, a flashlight can be used to transmit Morse code by sight and the U.S. Navy actually does just that for sending messages between ships. To send Morse code with a flashlight, just switch the flashlight on for one second for a dit", and two seconds for a dah". And just like that, you're sending Morse code! If you'd like more practice learning the special codes for each letter, check out the links provided below.
- The Morse Code Symbols and Sounds
- CryptoMuseum: Morse Code
- Morse Code Music
- Talk with the Hand!: Morse Code for Kids (PDF)
- Morse Code Translator
Morse code is still used by pilots and military ships, but it's most frequently used by amateur radio operators. Amateur radio is a sort of special club for people who are interested in sending radio transmissions like Samuel Morse did. To join, a person must take a test proving that they know how to operate an amateur radio station within the laws set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). There is no minimum age requirement some amateur radio operators, called hams" for short, are as young as 12 years old! Once they've passed the test and been assigned a special license, complete with a personal code to identify themselves on the air, the new amateur radio operator is free to talk to any other ham on the radio, in any country the radio signal will reach.
Many hams today know Morse code because it was required for the test, but in 2007, Morse code was removed from the exam. It is still used, and hams will often teach themselves Morse code so they can understand more of the conversations heard on the radio. With over three million hams around the world, there's a lot of listening to be done. If you want to become an amateur radio operator, there is probably a club right in your hometown. Even Disney has an amateur radio station: the Disney Emergency Amateur Radio Service, or Disney E.A.R.S. Be sure to ask an adult to help you research the club after all, they might want to join, too!
Morse code isn't very popular anymore because of all of the other ways we can communicate, but it is still required knowledge for many government employees in case of emergency. Morse code can still be sent if phone coverage drops, and can to help organize rescue efforts if power is not available. Even space shuttles have a telegraph key on board in case of emergency. There are also studies that show Morse code may be better than standard text messaging. A practical joke by Google on April 1st, 2013 was that their new phones would use only a Morse code key pad. The trend hasn't caught on yet, but maybe someday, in the future, kids like you will be using Morse code to send text messages.