The first message sent by Morse code’s dots and dashes across a long distance traveled from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore, MD on Friday, May 24, 1844 — 175 years ago. It signaled the first time in human history that complex thoughts could be communicated at long distances almost instantaneously. Until then, people had to have face-to-face conversations; send coded messages through drums, smoke signals and semaphore systems; or read printed words. Thanks to Samuel F.B. Morse, communication changed rapidly, and has been changing ever faster since. He invented the electric telegraph in 1832.
It took six more years for him to standardize a code for communicating over telegraph wires. In 1843, Congress gave him $30,000 to string wires between the nation’s capital and nearby Baltimore. When the line was completed, he conducted a public demonstration of long-distance communication.
Morse wasn’t the only one working to develop a means of communicating over the telegraph, but his is the one that has survived. The wires, magnets and keys used in the initial demonstration have given way to smartphones, on-screen keyboards, but Morse code has remained fundamentally the same, and is still — perhaps surprisingly — relevant in the 21st century.
Now simply called “CW”, (short for Continuous Wave) radio communication by Morse code was the only way to communicate for the first decade or more of Amateur Radio. Radiotelegraphy, the proper name, descends from landline (wired) telegraphy of the 19th century, and retains some of the old culture, including a rich set of abbreviations and procedures. Morse messages sent by spark gap transmitter were the first wireless communications mode. These “damped waves” were very broad and inefficient for communication. They were soon replaced by “CW” transmission, using vacuum tube oscillators that were capable of a very pure note.
Before the invention of the telegraph, most messages that had to be sent over long distances were carried by messengers who memorized them or carried them in writing. These messages could be delivered no faster than the fastest horse. Messages could also be sent visually, using flags and later, mechanical systems called semaphore telegraphs, but these systems required the receiver to be close enough to see the sender, and could not be used at night.
The telegraph allowed messages to be sent very fast over long distances using electricity. The first commercial telegraph was developed by William Forthergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone in 1837. They developed a device which could send messages using electrical signals to line up compass needles on a grid containing letters of the alphabet.
Then, in 1838, Samuel Morse and his assistant, Alfred Vail, demonstrated an even more successful telegraph device which sent messages using a special code – Morse code.
Telegraph messages were sent by tapping out the code for each letter in the form of long and short signals. Short signals are referred to as dits (represented as dots). Long signals are referred to as dahs (represented as dashes). The code was converted into electrical impulses and sent over telegraph wires. A telegraph receiver on the other end of the wire converted the impulses back into to dots and dashes, and decoded the messages In 1844, Morse demonstrated the telegraph to the United States Congress using a now famous message “What hath God wrought”.
Today, modern Amateur Radio transceivers use solid state components and microprocessors to support a variety of communication modes including CW, voice, image and many digital data modes. Straight Keys, are still used today for sending Morse code. More modern methods of sending “CW” include Straight Keys, “Bugs”, and electronic devices called “paddles” shown below. Despite the suspension of the code requirement for an amateur radio license, the CW mode of operation is flourishing. New licensees and some SSB enthusiast are learning CW and taking advantage of all it has to offer. Many third world countries use CW as a primary mode of operations due to its’ low power requirements, and its’ long-distance potential at low power. Of course, like anything else, a good antenna helps. Check out the links at the bottom of the page to find out the what’s and why’s of CW and Morse code…they’re pretty interesting: