An early Morse code machine. (Photo by Wikimedia Commons).

In 1836, artist and inventor Samuel F.B. Morse collaborated with inventor Alfred Vail to come up with a mechanical device that would be able to carry electrical impulse along a wire over long distances. Vail provided funds and helped Morse develop the systems of dots and dashes for sending signals now known as Morse code.

Morse code was born out of grief

As an artist, Morse was forced to go on travels and be away from home a lot. In February 1825, Morse’s wife Lucretia Walker died after giving birth to their third child. Since he was away working on a painting commission, his wife was already buried when he came back. The following year, Morse’s father passed away; his mother three years later. To conquer his grief, Morse went to Europe. During his trip back home in 1832, he met inventor Charles Thomas Jackson. The two discussed the concept of what would later become an electrical telegraph system.

Morse and Vail’s system could send a message over long distances by using pulses of electricity to signal a machine and make marks on a moving paper tape. A code was needed to translate the marks on paper into readable text messages. Morse developed the first version of the code using numbers. Vail later expanded the code to include letters and special characters. The code, dubbed Morse code, worked by assigning each number, letter, or special character a unique sequence of short (dots) and long-signals (dashes).

The use of Morse code

Morse code served a critical role for communication in World War II. Before the use of Global Maritime Distress Safety System in 1999, Morse code served as an international standard for communication at sea. Today, Morse code is still used by amateur radio operators across the globe and for sending emergency signals.