Morse Code

A huge breakthrough in communications

Samuel Morse, inventor of Morse code

Samuel Morse, inventor of Morse code

There was a time, not too long ago, when the best you could hope for if you wanted to get a message to someone at a distance was to get on a fast horse and ride. That was literally the fastest way to send or deliver a message.

On Friday, May 24th, 1844, that changed. Forever. That was a momentous day in history. On that day Samuel Morse sent a message from Washington to Baltimore by telegraph. That signalled the true beginning of the digital revolution. It really was a tremendous breakthrough in communication.

The method he used, Morse code, is still in use today, although there are more and easier ways to communicate. Some people still use Morse code just for the fun of it. And in an emergency situation it might be the only option you have available, in which case it could prove invaluable.

Morse code tapper

Early electric communications technology

A message could be sent in Morse code using a mirror, or a shiny tin lid, or a flashlight. You could even tap it out on a metal pipe, and, if you were trapped, for example after an earthquake, that might be your only means of communication. Okay, that’s a bit melodramatic, but you get the point; knowing Morse code is a useful skill to have, and a potential life saver.

Today we have the telephone, and now text messaging, and countless other varieties of instant communication, but we owe a lot to Mr Morse, and it’s only right that we should take a closer look at his amazing system.

Morse code

Morse code was ground breaking technology in its day, allowing messages to be transmitted across very long distances in a flash. It’s hard for us to imagine what a huge breakthrough that was. In one huge technological leap we had gone from riding a fast horse to deliver a message to sending that same message over a wire, instantly. It changed communications, and business, overnight.

Samuel Morse lived in London from 1812-1815, and is commemorated with a 'blue plaque' outside the building

Samuel Morse lived in London from 1812-1815, and is commemorated with a ‘blue plaque’ outside the building

And for many, many years it remained the quickest way to communicate. Even today, I guess most kids know how to tap out SOS in an emergency (. . . – – – . . .), even if it’s just something that they’ve picked up from watching re-runs of old films on TV. And, be honest, when you see someone in a film desperately sending a distress call don’t you wish you knew the code properly? Even if it was just for the satisfaction of having learned it?

One of the most dramatic situations in which Morse code was used was in the Titanic tragedy. If the telegraph operator hadn’t been so busy sending passengers’ messages the outcome might have been very different.

Learning Morse code

Learning Morse code can take quite a while. One of the best ways to learn it is Koch’s method, by which you learn just a couple of letters and you hear them in random sequences, time and time again, till you feel you know them well enough. At that point you add another letter, just a single addition to the two you’ve been working on. Again, you listen to the three letters being transmitted in random sequences, just like before, and you don’t add another letter till you’re fully at ease with those three. It’s a pretty slow process, but it works.

Free Morse code software

There’s a free software program available that can help you learn Morse code if it’s something you’re interested to learn. It’s a brilliant piece of software and very easy to use. You can sit at your computer and set it to what you want to learn (choose two letters), set the speed the letters are sent, set the duration of the session, and tap out the relevant letters on the keyboard as you hear the dits and dahs of the code being transmitted.

TIP: Don’t think in terms of dots and dashes. Use ‘di’ and ‘dah’ instead.
You’ll find this ‘fits in’ much easier to the actual sound of the code.

When the session is over you can see how you did. You should only really move on to adding another letter when you score something like 90% correct. It’s a fun way to learn, and if you’re interested, the program is called Just Learn Morse Code. It’s based on the Koch method, mentioned above.

Another way of learning Morse code

There’s a way of learning the letters that you might be interested in as well, if only from a memory improvement standpoint. It’s based on a Morse code software program I came across somewhere, but I didn’t have access to the whole thing, just a sample of one or two letters (I think it was an ad for the program).

The idea is that each letter (which is composed of dits and dahs), can be represented by a phrase. The phrase begins with the relevant letter and ‘sounds like’ the Morse code version. The letter ‘e’, for example, can be represented by ‘egg’, which is a single short sound, so it’s easy to remember that ‘e’ is ‘.’ (a single dit) in Morse code, while ‘t’ can be represented by ‘tart’, which has a single longer sound, so ‘t’ is ‘-‘ (a single dah) in the code.

Morse code in 26 phrases

Quite a while ago (and just for the fun of it), I put together a list of phrases based on the same idea. You might like to use it. Here’s the list:

Bmorse-bBeau-ti-ful Boy
Cmorse-cCo-ca Co-la
Fmorse-fFly the Long Way
Gmorse-gGarage Door
Hmorse-hHit the hit man
Jmorse-jJog all the way
Kmorse-kKill the Cat
Lmorse-la Light is lit
Mmorse-mMark time
Omorse-oOne More Time
Pmorse-pPut some-thing Back
Qmorse-qQuite quiet 'n calm
Rmorse-rRun, baby, Run
Smorse-sSit in-side
Vmorse-vVictory's ours!
Wmorse-wThe World War
Xmorse-xAn X-Ray film
Ymorse-yYou da main man!
Zmorse-zZu-lus hit hard!

I tried to keep the words short and staccato when they signified ‘dits’, and longer when they indicated ‘dahs’, and I also tried to keep the phrases starting with the right letter (didn’t always quite work out!). Whether or not it’s perfect isn’t really an issue – as long as you can associate the phrases with the Morse representations of the letters, that’s all that matters.

Read through the list, and hear in your mind the sound of each phrase. Look at the code as you do it and see how the sound and pace of the phrase links in with the code. It won’t take many trips from A to Z to imprint the codes for the letters onto your mind, and if you spend just a few minutes a day on it you’ll soon know the code for every letter.

If you spend just that little bit of time and effort with the list above (not really much effort involved actually!), you’ll soon know the letters of the code. It won’t turn you into a lightning-fast sender or receiver (that would really take some work, and you’d have to be prepared to practise Morse code extensively), but it will give your memory a boost, and your confidence too.

From the depths of thinking your memory was really lousy, you’ll be transported to the dizzying heights of realising you possess a most wondrous piece of biological hardware, a brain with a truly inventive and functional memory, capable of mastering an estoeric, and these days, rarely used, code!

I can almost see that grin spreading across your face as you think about it.
Go on admit it, you can’t wait!

There’s more to Morse than A-Z

Of course, this doesn’t cover the entire code, any more than it will turn you into a Morse code expert, but it’s really only a memory exercise. If you want to learn the full code, check it out on Wikipedia. You’ll find its history and uses fascinating and you’ll see that, even if you learn the letters successfully, there’s still much to learn and remember.


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