There cannot be many people who would not know if asked what ‘Morse Code’ was; the use of it in the iconic ‘SOS’ distress signal is something that is universally recognised. But have you ever wondered how the Code came into being – and perhaps spared a thought for the ‘man who never was’ in this sense – Alfred Vail.
Vail was a machinist in his father’s New Jersey iron works, but was also something of a scientist and inventor, interested in the new technologies of the Victorian era.
In September 1837 he witnessed an early experiment by another inventive mind, Samuel Finley Breese Morse. Morse was also quite an accomplished artist, and had attended the Royal Academy in London in 1811.
In 1825 Morse was in Washington when a horse messenger – a man literally carrying a verbal or written message from place to place on horseback – delivered a letter informing him that his wife was seriously ill – and next day came another letter informing him of her death. By the time he rushed home, she was already buried. He determined to find a way of communicating more efficiently.
Of course delays in communication everywhere were enormously problematic – anyone who established a solution to these commercial, military and governmental (as well as personal) communications stood to become wealthy.
Morse was not the only one working on the problem!
The idea of telegraphy – ‘distant writing’ – was ancient. Romans had used mirrors on hilltops to flash simple signals; bonfires could do the same as in England with the Armada; Navies used signal flags, and chains of semaphore stations were in use in England during the Napoleonic era. But these message could only be simple, were slow, and depended on line-of-sight and hence many relay points – faster than a horse but still pretty slow.
Telegraphy was a way of using electrical impulses transmitted along a wire that could be ‘read’ at the other end, as a series of on/off impulses.
Others, notably William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone in England, were ahead of Morse in the hardware department and in 1837 had a 13 mile telegraph operating on the Great western Railway - but their system was more complex, with multiple wires. Morse’s telegraph had a single-wire – and that meant that it was much cheaper.
This was swift but in itself did not allow for complex messaging – but again Morse soon realised that with a suitable code of signals, and letter or number could be sent.
Making a signal pass along the wire was fairly simple but reading it – and making it strong enough to overcome long-distance electrical resistance in the cable – was problematic. Even a few hundred yards was too much!
Here Leonard Gale enters the picture; this New York University Professor helped Morse to work out that by placing repeating relays and batteries along the line the signal could be retransmitted and boosted. Soon, a ten-mile wire was working.
Another important contributor was physicist Joseph Henry, whose electromagnetic relay invention allowed it all to happen. The path to getting the system properly funded was not an easy one and took several years.
It is here that Alfred Vail appears, with another good brain and a decent supply of money. It was to be at Vail’s father’s Iron Works that on January 11 1838 the first message was demonstrated ‘A patient waiter is no loser’.
Morse and his system would become commonplace across the Americas and elsewhere. But all that is about the hardware – what about the Code?
It was all very well sending impulses, but they had to be able to convey complex messages. The Cooke and Wheatstone system used a needle pointing to letters; Morse realised that he could send short and long pulses – ‘dits’ and ‘dahs’ – with long or short gaps, in groups of various compositions.
Morse had begun working on a code, but it’s concept was to translate letters into numbers and then send the ‘numbers’ as pulses that were then translated back to letters and words, other number groups could therefore mean longer phrases, much as with naval flag signals. He had been working on this for several months and it was slow progress.
His equipment was also designed so that the pulses made a needle jump using an electromagnet, making a depression on a moving paper tape, which is what the operators would then read. This is where Vail stepped in; for it was Alfred Vail who actually invented the code that we know today as Morse!
He realised that using letters was a much better idea; he went to the local newspaper office and counted the moveable type letters to see which were used most frequently in the English language. He then composed groups of dots and dashes, with the shortest groups as the most common letters – ‘E’ for example is a single ‘dot’.
Numerals and some special symbols were also devised. (Have you ever considered non-English-language Morse Code? It does exist, with extra coding for letters unique in for example German).
All of sudden the Code was versatile and easily learned; it was clear, and over the single-wire was relatively cheap. Also the operators very quickly found that they no longer needed paper tape and codebooks – they could simply hear the clicks and write the letters down from what they heard.
Vail never set out to claim the Code for his own; Morse had developed the telegraph and held the patents, and Vail seems to have been happy enough to leave it at that.
Vail was also instrumental in designing the iconic ‘Morse Key’ used to send the pulses.
He moved on from the telegraph industry in 1848 feeling (perhaps understandably) undervalued by the whole thing. He died in 1859.
Morse died in 1872 after seeing his systems installed and in use all over the globe; he was an eccentric character and not without controversy, but there is no doubting the value of what he achieved.
Neither man saw the Code used via Radio (which came along in the 1890’s), or from the air (which began around 1910). One wonder what they would have made of the ‘SOS’ angle and the Titanic story?
Meanwhile Alfred Vail is an obscure name for a man who did something that changed the world.