Origins of the Morse Code and How It Works

Morse code is one of the simplest and most recognized coded communication methods.
Trevor English

-.-- --- ..- .----. .-. . / .- .-- . ... --- -- . .-.-.-

Did you get that? If you lived in the 1850s or are a modern amateur radio operator, you might’ve. That’s morse code, and in an age of constant information communication, it wasn’t too long ago that this communication method was vital to making the world go round.

It was used in the world wars to communicate public messages over great distances. It was used to send mail across continents. In a sense, morse code was the original form of texting. 

The beginning of Morse Code

Back in the early 1800s, engineers and scientists were just starting to pioneer electrical communication methods. In 1836, Samuel Morse, Joseph Henry, and Alfred Vail invented the electrical telegraph system. It was the first system that allowed communication over great distances. However, there was a problem, it could only communicate pulses of electricity to another machine.

This meant that you wouldn’t be able to communicate using voice or text, so a new way of getting messages across was needed. 

A code was developed by none other than Samuel Morse to translate electrical pulses back into the original message, though Morse's code wasn't very complex at first.

Originally, Morse’s code only incorporated numbers. This was useful for communicating some information but proved to not be enough to establish a firm communication capability. Vail helped to expand the code to include letters and special characters. Morse Code was thus born.

The code assigned a sequence of short and long electrical pulses to numbers and letters. Later these pulses would be thought of as dots and dashes.

On a side note, Samuel Morse was actually a fairly interesting individual. He was an avid painter and in fact, tried to make painting his profession for a number of years. It was only after failing to make ends meet with painting, that he turned to electricity, his other passion during his lifetime. 

Morse began researching into the field of electromagnetism and electrical communication, but he had a lot of competition along the way. 

Men by the name of William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone actually secured a great deal of resources to create a working telegraph machine. Morse, on the other hand, was working with a man by the name of Leonard Gale on his telegraph, who helped him extend his telegraph range to 10 miles. 

However, neither of these men had a great deal of money to back the project. This is what ultimately led Morse to work with Alfred Vail, who had financial backing and ultimately helped morse bring the telegraph and his code to life.  

If you want to learn a little bit more about Samuel Morse, the life he lived, as well as his other inventions, take a look at an article here that dives into just that topic.

The rules of Morse Code

The rules of morse code are as follows. Each “dot” serves as the basis of time for the code. One dash is equivalent to the length of three dots. After each character, there is a silence that is equivalent to the length of one dot. This relative timing allows for morse code to be easily sped up and slowed down all while keeping the same pace.

As far as how Samuel Morse and Alfred Vail decided on how to assign the specific sequences of dots and dashes to each letter, they studied the frequency of which each letter was used in the English language. They then assigned the easier dot and dash sequences to the most used letters during that time period. For example, E, the most common letter, is represented by a single dot.

Originally, telegraph machines would mark sheets of tape with the message, but eventually, telegraph operators learned to translate the dots and dashes audibly, making the tape unnecessary. This also meant that morse code started being taught as an audible language, rather than a written one of symbols.


In 1905, the international morse code distress signal was first used, · · · — — — · · ·, otherwise known as SOS. This became the standard maritime distress signal around the world within the coming years. These series of letters or signals were actually chosen for their simplicity, not for the letters SOS. It wasn’t until later that people began associating phrasing with those letters, like save our ship, or save our souls.

So, morse code was invented as a necessity of the first mass communication method utilizing only electrical pulses. It was and to some degree still is a vital means of communication throughout the years. 

Translating and using morse code today

If you're interested in using morse code today, it's actually a fairly simple process. Not only are there plenty of training materials and guides out on the web for the best way to learn and use the code, but there are also a variety of translating tools that can quickly encode or decode common morse code. 

For example, this translator even allows you to playback your message with sounds or lights to get an idea of how it would normally be communicated. 

Learning written morse code is by far the easiest part of the task. The trickier part is learning to be able to decode morse code on the fly, while it's being communicated through radio, light, or other means. In fact, this isn't the least useful skill. There's a story of a POW who blinked a secret message across the television while making a message for his captors. 

It's an incredible story that deserves a listen and watch below.