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Samuel Morse

Samuel Morse

Samuel F.B. Morse was born on April 27, 1791 in Charlestown, Massachusetts. He graduated from Yale in 1810, at the age of nineteen. He was interested in both painting and the newly-emerging subject of electricity. For a time, he was a portrait painter and often traveled between Europe and America aboard ship.

Aboard the Sully in 1832, Morse had a conversation with another passenger, Dr. Charles T. Jackson, about Joseph Henry development of electromagnetism, and he understood that electrical impulses could convey information through wires.

Upon returning to America, Morse partnered with Leonard Gale, a professor of science at New York University, and Alfred Vail, heir to Speedwell Iron Works. They began development of Morse machine.

By 1837, Morse had a working model. The first machine used a paper ticker-tape-like system of dips in a line of print. The words were represented by a numbered code that had to be decoded via use of a dictionary written by Morse.

They improved on the first model, and in 1838 created the system of dots and dashes, employing a code for each letter that could be sound-read. It used a system of relays in which an electric circuit in one place was used to electromagnetically open and close another circuit that was further away.

In early February, 1838, Morse demonstrated his telegraph machine before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Commerce.

The committee chair, F.O.J. Smith (D-ME), was very interested in the concept and partnered with Morse, Gale, and Vail. He kept his involvement secret, and on April 6, 1838, sponsored a bill in Congress to appropriate $30,000 for the construction of telegraph lines. The bill was not acted upon until March of 1843, when Congress approved the expenditure to build telegraph lines from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore, Maryland.

The first successful transmission via the newly-constructed Washington-Baltimore line took place on May 24, 1844. The first message, chosen by the daughter of the Commissioner of Patents, was transmitted from the Chamber of the Supreme Court in Washington to the B&O Railroad depot in Baltimore, fifty miles away: It said, “What hath God wrought?” a quotation from the Bible.

Morse code is still in existence today. The modern version was developed by Friedrich Clemens Gerke in 1848, and, after minor changes, was standardized as International Morse Code in 1865. The SOS signal, a series of three dots, followed by three dashes, followed by three dots, is still used. Amateur radio operators, pilots, air traffic controllers, and Maritime and military personnel continue to use Morse Code.

Barcodes developed from Morse code, as well. Barcodes are parallel bars and spaces, encoded with information, that are read electronically. The bars are narrow and wide, and function like dots and dashes respectively. A barcode scanner measures the level of light reflected from the white spaces between bars to read the information on a label.

Read more information about Samuel Morse life at the Morse Timeline.