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The telegraphic age dawns

Morse, Samuel Finley Breese

Morse's first telegraph (1835) : the pendulum idea

Having been told about electromagnets in 1832, the American inventor Samuel Morse had spent three years trying to develop a telegraph based on electromagnetism. In 1835 Morse built his first device, an electromagnetic pendulum carrying a pencil in constant contact with a moving strip of paper. His partner, Alfred Vail, the son of a wealthy industrialist, had a more practical (and cheaper) suggestion - a lever at the transmitting end, operating an armature at the other.

But how to turn the opening and closing of the lever into letters and numbers? Another leap of imagination was required ...

Vail, Alfred

Vail, Alfred (1807-1859) : the power behind Morse Code

Alfred Vail is the true inventor of Morse code, as we know it today.

In 1838 he demonstrated a telegraph code he devised using dots and dashes as letters. A predecessor to Samuel Morse's code, Vail transmitted the message "a patient waiter is no loser."

Vail was the son of wealthy industrialist, who had planned to join the Presbyterian Church on graduating from New York University, until illness forced him to change plans and invest his future in the telegraph instead. He bought a stake in Samuel Morse's telegraph, and agreed to build the system's hardware and secure the American and foreign patents.

The system had some problems printing out messages clearly, so Vail devised improvements. They didn't solve everything, and he was forced to create a completely new printing mechanism - and a new code to make it work.

This was the first time 'Morse' code was created using dashes and dots, which actually wasn't much like Morse's original code at all. So in fact the true inventor of Morse Code was Vail, but Morse - being the better-known partner and personality - kept the glory himself!

Wheatstone and Cooke

Cooke forms partnership with Wheatstone (1837) : 'we can do better than this'

A young English army officer called William Fothergill Cooke had seen an experimental telegraph at Heidelberg in Germany and in 1836 brought a copy home with him, convinced he could build something better.

But before he could patent or sell a needle telegraph of his own, he needed a partner and connections in high places. The following May he paid a call on Professor Charles Wheatstone, who was already recognised as a physicist and inventor, having come up with the concertina in 1829.

Wheatstone and Cooke formed a partnership of convenience. Cooke was an entrepreneur in search of a fortune, Wheatstone an academic who understood the science of electricity. In June 1837, they were granted their first patent on an instrument using six wires, connected to five galvanometer needles arranged in a row across the face of a grid which displayed 20 letters of the alphabet. Each letter was sent in the form of currents flowing down two wires, causing the appropriate needles to swing against stops and point to the right letter. Complex to describe, the system was simple to use: children could, and did, operate it successfully.

Diagram of the Five Needle Telegraph

Cooke and Wheatstone's first telegraph (July 25,1837) : 'a tumultuous sensation ...'

Cooke and Wheatstone persuaded the directors of the new London and Birmingham Railway Company to allow them to demonstrate their new telegraph alongside the recently built railway line between Euston and Camden.

On the evening of July 25, 1837, they were ready for the first demonstration. Cooke was in charge at Camden Town, watched by the railway pioneer Robert Stephenson and other directors, while Wheatstone sat at his instrument in a dingy little room, lit by a tallow candle, near the booking-office at Euston. Wheatstone sent the first message, to which Cooke replied.

Later, Wheatstone remembered: "Never did I feel such a tumultuous sensation before, as when, all alone in the still room, I heard the needles click and, as I spelled the words, I felt all the magnitude of the invention pronounced to be practicable beyond cavil or dispute".

Four- needle Telegraph - a Connected Earth artefact, now in the Museum of London

Four-Needle Telegraph (c1837) : a further step on the road to success

Although the five needle telegraph is generally regarded as the first functional electric telegraph, this device was used by Cooke and Wheatstone to prove the principle on which the five needle telegraph was to function. It was also used to show Robert Stephenson's London to Birmingham railway company the principles they would demonstrate with the first commercial telegraph presentation on 8th July 1837.

As soon as Cooke and Wheatstone launched their five needle telegraph system, the race was on to create better, quicker and more efficient systems. This period of frenetic activity was similar to the early days of personal computers before the PC and Mac became the standard models we know today.

The goal was to use fewer needles, and wires to reduce cost and increase efficiency. To achieve this, the five-needles were reduced first to two and eventually one. By 1848, 1000 miles (1600km) of railway were equipped with telegraph wires carrying messages and Greenwich Mean Time from London to over 200 towns and cities across the country.

Patent for Cooke and Wheatstone 5-needle Telegraph, 1837

First patented telegraph : is anyone interested?

Within a month of forming their partnership, Cooke and Wheatstone had applied for a patent covering their needle telegraph system. The telegraph used needles to indicate characters, either by pointing directly to letters and numbers painted on a grid behind the needles, or later by coded movements. Sending and receiving messages was a slow process as each word had to be spelt out.

Nevertheless, the needle telegraph was the first patented system. Now the partners just had to demonstrate that it worked.

Cooke and Wheatstone's very first two needle telegraph - a Connected Earth artefact, now in the Science Museum collection

Two needle telegraph (1840) : less is more ...

Cooke and Wheatstone's first telegraph used five needles - which meant five wires were needed between transmitting and receiving stations. This made it cumbersome and expensive to build. Something simpler was needed.

By 1840 the partners had moved on to a double-needle system requiring only two wires. Although cheaper to construct, it now meant that a letter could no longer be read directly, by observing where the needles pointed. Instead a complex code was devised to indicate the letters, a code that operators had to memorise or else look up on a chart. This required training - and lots of practice.

Double-needle Telegraph

Double-needle telegraph (1840s) : two for the price of one

Sharing information and changing signals down the line were essential for the safe operation of a railway and this two-needle telegraph was designed to deal with these needs on the Lancashire railway during the mid 1840s

Stamped across the face of the instrument are a range of letters and names. The names list the four stations on the railway line and were used to notify train movements. The letters spelt out important messages.

The two-needle machines needed more skill to operate than the five-needle, so one member of staff would have been appointed to master its operation, nevertheless messages would have been strictly secondary to signalling needs.

Early telegraph instruments were substantially built, however, some were much more elegant than others. Whilst the instrument makers busied themselves with the internal mechanisms, the actual boxes were created by master cabinetmakers.

The true story behind this stunning walnut-veneered piece remains a bit of a mystery. It has always been associated with Buckingham Palace, but the idea of Queen Victoria cranking out her own messages seems ridiculous. More likely a servant would have dealt with the telegraph in a back office somewhere, which begs the question: why is it so ornate?

The answer seems to be that this was a showpiece model, connected to Buckingham Palace and kept at the Central Telegraph Office, which was displayed to visitors to the Lothbury building. When it was revealed that this was the telegraph that actually fed directly to the Queen, the immediate sense of awe would have had a profound effect.

Telegraph line alonside the Great Western Railway

First working telegraph (1839) : making tracks for West Drayton

Cooke and Wheatstone's demonstration had been a success. But if the inventors were expecting the London and Birmingham Railway bosses to be impressed they were disappointed. Instead they were soon told to clear their wires away from the track.

However, they decided to carry on with their work and within two years the Great Western Railway asked them to build a telegraph line from Paddington terminus to West Drayton station, a distance of 13.5 miles. Part of the wire was laid underground at first, but subsequently all of it was raised on posts along the line.

Great Western Railway telegraph office, Slough, 1844

First public telegraph (1841) : 'a Marvel of science' arrives ...

In 1840 The Cooke & Wheatstone "Needle Telegraph" (also called the "Step-by-Step Letter-Showing"
or "ABC Instrument") is in daily use on the London and Birmingham and Great Western Railroads
in England.

In that year it was publicly exhibited at Paddington as 'A marvel of science', which could transmit fifty signals a distance of 280,000 miles in a minute. The price of admission was a shilling. For that money, visitors could use the telegraph to send their own messages. The public telegraph had arrived.

Morse key; simple

Morse patents his Code (1840) : dots and dashes

In 1837 Samuel Morse and Alfred Vail had an electromagnetic telegraph that would turn presses of a key at one end into movements of a lever or paper punch at the other. They could send and record short and long pulses along the line - but without any way of turning those into letters and numbers. They needed a code and together worked to develop it.

In 1840 they patented their new code that used combinations of dots and dashes to represent all 26 letters in the alphabet and numbers from 1 to 10. It was named Morse Code (despite the fact that Vail had probably done more to develop it). They were finally ready to send messages.

Morse operators in hall, 1891

First Morse Code message (24.05.1844) : 'what hath God wrought'

The years 1839 to 1844 were the hardest of Samuel Morse's life. Almost destitute, he could only hope that the US authorities would see the value of his invention.

In 1842 he laid an insulated wire in New York Harbour to send signals between Castle Garden and Governor's Island, an experiment he repeated across a canal at Washington D.C. at the end of that year. By that time he was almost ready to give up. But within weeks Congress passed a bill recommending the allocation of $30,000 in aid of the telegraph.

Morse constructed a telegraph line between Washington and Baltimore and on May 24, 1844, sent his first coded message: 'What hath God wrought!'. In April 1845, the line was opened for public business under the control of the US Post Office. One cent for every four characters was charged. During the first four days, one cent was received. By the end of the week, the receipts had risen to one dollar.

Morse sounder in acoustic hood - a Connected Earth artefact, now at the Amberley Museum

The Morse Telegraph : dash for the dots

With the Morse telegraph, there was only one wire and an earth connection. The system used a single current, either positive or negative - switched on or off.

It was simpler and cheaper than the needle system and when inked paper tape was used, also had the ability to record the message as it was received.

An advantage of the Morse system was that messages could also be read by sound, listening to the clicks of the electromagnet. Being able to hear the signal arrive meant trained operators could translate incoming messages as fast as they could be sent. Soon afterwards the needle systems were also adapted for reading by sound.

For the sound to make sense Morse and his associate Alfred Vail invented his famous code - short dots or long dashes that allowed a simple system to indicate every letter and number using no more than five elements.

Morse operator illustration

The Morse alphabet : first code and last resort

Morse Code has almost faded into history. It is no longer a prescribed form of telecommunications, so knowledge of 'Morse' is rarely required.

But if all else fails, it still provides a way of getting urgent messages through by lights or flashing mirrors - or when other communications systems break down. There are many marine radio operators and soldiers with a knowledge of Morse and the code is still used by radio amateurs around the world. We know Morse as dot dot and dash dash, but operators are trained to say 'Di di' and 'dah dah'.

Whatever the case, dot dot dot, dash dash dash, dot dot dot is still widely recognised as 'S-O-S' - and one day, that might just save your life.

3D object: Anti-cramp Morse key (c1908) : giving a helping hand

Place the mouse over the QuickTime image. Left-click and drag either left or right to rotate the animation.
Anti-cramp Morse key 3D object

Tapping a Morse key forces your hand into a tight, bunched-up position, which can start hurting if you tap for too long and don't relax your hand. If you keep it up for long periods of time, the pain could get more serious and result in a more permanent condition.

Today this is known as a Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI), and it's the sort of problem that people who sit in front of PCs for long periods without a sufficient break can develop and suffer from.

In earlier times it was known as 'telegraphist's cramp' and it was a serious problem for both the operators and their employers who took steps to resolve the issue.

In a book published by the Postal Telegraphic Clerks Association members were advised of safe practices to follow to make sure they didn't come to any harm. This Morse key was also redesigned to force operators to adopt a specific and better hand posture when they were using it.

fun and games

Can you beat our games? Explode equipment to see what's inside, hear the changing sounds of telecommunications, see how telecommunications designs have changed over time or send an e-postacard.

what's on

The UK's first permanent gallery dedicated to the history of information and communication technologies opens in the new Information Age gallery at London’s Science Museum.

audio history

Take a trip down memory lane with extracts of the interviews which have been recorded as part of the Connected Earth oral history programme.

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