"Wavescan" is a weekly program for long distance radio hobbyists produced by Dr. Adrian M. Peterson, Coordinator of International Relations for Adventist World Radio. AWR carries the program over many of its stations (including shortwave). Adrian Peterson is a highly regarded DXer and radio historian, and often includes features on radio history in his program. We are reproducing those features below, with Dr. Peterson's permission and assistance.
Wavescan 387, May 26, 2002
Unusual Varieties of Morse Code
Back in the era of black and white movie films, there was the story of a woman spy on board a passenger steamer somewhere out in the ocean. She became friendly with the radio operator and asked him to show her how to send Morse Code.
Some time later, when he was not on duty in the radio shack on board this ship, she went into the radio room, activated the transmitter and tapped out a message in a series of dots and dashes. The radio operator heard the signals and rushed into the radio room and forbad her to touch the equipment.
Fortunately, he told her, the message she sent in dots and dashes was meaningless. However, according to the story in the movie film, she had indeed sent a very meaningful message, by using a totally different set of dots and dashes.
Over the years, there have been many changes in the accepted system of dots and dashes as used for sending messages by Morse Code. Letís take a look then at the interesting history of all of these developments.
It was back in the year 1829 that James Swain in the United States suggested a procedure for sending messages through a brick wall. He developed a system of taps and scrapes, with a different combination for each letter. These taps and scrapes were in reality a system of dots and dashes, similar to the idea of Morse Code which came onto the scene 12 years later.
In April 1837, the famous Samuel Morse announced his first system of dots and dashes which was a preliminary version of the Morse Code. Some six months later, he changed these dots and dashes into a zigzag pattern so that messages could be sent by a simple machine over a telegraph line.
Some five years later again, the original Morse Code was amended again, this time by his assistant Vail in cooperation with Samuel Morse, and they transmitted the first message over a long distance line stretching from Baltimore in Maryland to Washington, DC. This famous message was sent on May 24, 1844 and a Biblical passage was chosen by the daughter of a political patron. It read: ìWhat hath God wrought.î
However, somewhat simultaneously, other inventors in the United States and in Europe were experimenting with their own forms of the telegraph and they developed their own system of dots and dashes for sending messages. One was Edward Davy in England in 1839, and another was Alexander Bain, also in England some seven years later.
The enterprising Bain actually installed his own competative telegraph lines in the United States, connecting New York to Boston and to Buffalo. His messages were sent with dots and dashes, not in Morse Code, but in Bain Code. However, it soon became apparent that the Morse system was superior and Bain dropped out of the picture.
Over in Germany, a man by the name of Steinheil introduced a few variations into the Morse Code in 1851, and the German version became known as the Prussian Code. An international telegraph conference in Berlin in the same year, 1851, made a few additional changes to the system of dots and dashes, and this was accepted as the International Code.
However, seven years later, Lord Kelvin in England introduced a three positional code, with dots, short dashes and long dashes, but this system never came into general usage. Then, nine years later again, Philip Colomb in the United States introduced another system of dots and dashes as the Colomb Code, but this was never accepted either.
The only alternative system of dots and dashes for sending messages that ever came into wide usage was implemented by the American navy during World War I. This new system was used only by the navy, and it enabled a certain amount of security for the sending of coded messages.
Over the years, all other versions of dots and dashes fell into disuse, including the Vail-Morse version, and these days only one system is used throughout the world. This is in reality the International Code, though it is usually designated simply as Morse Code. Morse Code operators who are sending messages in other languages, such as, for example, German, Russian or Japanese, will use a few additional symbols for letters that are not found in the English alphabet.
So next time you hear the famous dots and dashes on your radio, stop and listen for a while. You will soon begin to identify certain combinations, and with the aid of a translation table, you will soon be able to copy Morse Code messages you hear over the air.