Morse Code and the Telegraph
Ancient peoples used drums or smoke signals to communicate long distances. However, without a direct line of sight or good weather, those at the other end receiving the message had a great amount of difficulty. The semaphore, another means of communication, was invented in the 1790's. A series of structures was placed on hilltops. The structures had arms which moved and displayed letters and numbers. Two telescopes helped the people on the hilltop see the other stations. Weather and lack of a good line of sight hindered the effectiveness of this type of communication also.
In the early 1800's two inventions appeared which were to pave the way for the creation of the telegraph. In 1800, Alessandro Volta invented the battery. A battery stores electric current. Then, in 1820, Hans Christian Oersted showed the connection between electricity and magnetism. The telegraph was developed by two sets of researchers. One was Sir William Cooke and Sir Charles Wheatstone in England. In the United States, a group consisting of Alfred Vail, Samuel Morse and Leonard Gale worked on the invention.
In the 1830's, the British team developed a telegraph system which was used in railroad signals in Great Britain. In this system, a magnetic current could move five needles around letters and numbers. Samuel Morse, a former painter, became interested in electromagnetism. With his two American partners, Morse made a single-circuit telegraph. An electric current passed along a wire to a receiver at the other end. By pressing down and letting up on the operator key, the sender could use stops and starts (dots and dashes) along wires stretched on telephone poles and communicate far distances. Each letter had a certain number of combinations of dots and dashes.
Morse and Vail created the Morse code in the 1830's. Letters in the alphabet were given a series of dots and dashes based on how much they were used. 'E' got a simple code and 'q' got a more complicated one. At first, the operator had to make marks on his paper signifying what codes he heard. Then he had to make the marks into words. Eventually, the operator could just listen to the code and write down words as he heard them.
In 1843, the United States government gave Morse and Vail money to set up a trial telegraph system between Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, D. C. Each man took one endpoint. In 1844, Morse sent Vail a message which said, 'What hath God wrought?' Good insulation for the wires helped to bring the telegraph across the country. Ezra Cornell made this development. Thomas Edison developed the quadruplex system. Four messages could be sent at the same time through the same wire.
The success of the telegraph across the country required a unified system of stations. The Western Union Telegraph was founded, in part by Cornell. There were many other companies also. However, in 1861, Western Union finished laying the first telegraph line across the United States. By 1866, a telegraph cable was laid to Europe under the Atlantic Ocean. By 1940, 40 lines had been laid there.
The telegraph changed how fast messages were delivered around the world. Journalists could get news back to their papers immediately from one telegraph station to the other. War reports were delivered swiftly. Money could be 'wired' long distances.
By the end of the 1800's, however, new technologies began to appear. Many used the same principles which the telegraph had used. Eventually, the telegraph was no longer used. The telephone, FAX and internet have taken its place. However, the invention of the telegraph was a milestone in human history.
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