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Email's Great-Grandfather:

Samuel Morse and the Telegraph

Today's Snack: There are very few calories in those ice-cream cones you can buy in the grocery store. So make Pudding In a Cone. Fill cones with low-fat pudding of any flavor, and top with some low-fat frozen whipped topping, thawed. You can drop a few sprinkles or chocolate chips on top just for fun.




Two copies of the Morse Code key, below

2 pencils


Kids today are happily familiar with email, Instant Messaging, cell phones and text messaging, so it might be hard to imagine a world in which the fastest form of communication was on horseback.


But that's about the way it was until Samuel F.B. Morse invented the telegraph. Morse, 1791-1872, was one of the first in a great wave of American inventors.




Telegraphy was the first method of allowing messages to be sent using electrical power, from one terminal to the next, in pulses contained within wires. From that invention has come everything we know today in the way of fast communications, including television, the telephone, the Internet and satellite communications.


Morse's father was a minister who was a geography expert and a friend of Noah Webster, who developed the great American dictionary. Morse attended Yale University, where he developed a love for painting and a keen interest in electricity.


Working as a painter, he was poor when he heard about some developments in electromagnetics, and set to work on an invention idea. Using an old artist's canvas stretcher, a homemade battery, and some old clockwork, he came up with the basic idea for telegraphy - an operator tapping out a series of dots and dashes, and someone on the other end of the wire translating the sounds into English words.


The first time the idea worked was Jan. 6, 1838. By May 24, 1844, the system had been perfected to the point where a telegraph line was strung from the U.S. Capitol to Baltimore, Md. The telegraph lines were strung on poles made from logs, very similar to the telephone poles and power poles that you see today.


Morse sent the first message, a Bible verse (Numbers 23:23) expressing the wonder that Morse felt about his invention: "What Hath God Wrought?"


Not long after Morse received his patent in 1844, the United States began putting up telegraph poles with wires between them. Communications by telegraph helped both the North and the South plan and carry out their warfare more effectively in the Civil War of the 1860s.


By 1883, the company founded by Morse and a partner, Alfred Vail, was transmitting millions of messages every year on more than 400,000 miles of wire strung throughout the country. That company is still in operation today. It's called Western Union.


Telegraphy is closely linked to the later invention and success of both the telephone communications network, and the transcontinental railroad. It was one of the most important devices ever invented.


To go along with the device, Morse also invented what we call "Morse code" so that people of all ages could send and receive messages. Each alphabet letter was represented by short or long pulses sent out by making a series of clicks with pauses in between on a simple transmitting key. For example, if a ship got in trouble out on the open sea, it could send out an "SOS" for help:


S = Dit Dit Dit (three short clicks)


O = Dah Dah Dah (three long clicks)


S = Dit Dit Dit (three short clicks)


You can practice Morse Code on this fun website: Note the shorter little dots called "dits" and the longer dashes called "dahs." By varying the speed and the pauses between sounds, you can signify whether it's a "dit" or a "dah" that you're sending. With a longer pause between words, you can help the receiver translate an entire sentence.


Learn more about Morse and the historic site and museum that's been preserved at his home in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., on


Learn more about telegraphy by visiting this online museum website:


You and a friend could print out one copy each of this Morse Code key, sit with your backs to each other, and take turns tapping out short messages with a pencil. One can tap while the other translates the sounds into alphabet letters. Start off with with your first names, perhaps, and keep it slow to make sure the message gets across. Then start sending short phrases on your favorite music groups, a weather report, or the name of your favorite sports team.


Try this as your first message:





By Susan Darst Williams Inventions 03 2008

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