Samuel F.B. Morse patented an electric telegraph machine on June 20th 1840.

In 1844, he gave a public demonstration of the telegraph by sending four words (“What hath God wrought?”) from the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. to a railroad station in Baltimore, Maryland, a distance of 38 miles.

Today, 38 miles is no big deal. You can use a cell phone to text a friend who is thousands of miles away. “Hey, Jimmy. How’s it going?” Your phone will send the text to a near-by cell tower, which will send it to a message center, which will send it to a cell tower near your friend, which will send it to his phone. It all happens so fast, the two of you can carry on a text message conversation.

But in 1844, sending a message 38 miles was a huge deal. Up to that point, messages had to be delivered by someone on horseback, which could take days, weeks, or even months.

A personal tragedy and the slowness of receiving messages is what made Morse want to invent a faster method of communication.

Samuel Morse was a portrait painter. In 1825, he was in Washington D.C. painting a picture of the Marquis de Lafayette, who was a French military officer. Lafayette had commanded American troops during the American Revolutionary War.


While Morse was painting Lafayette’s portrait, a messenger arrived saying that Morse’s wife was very ill. Morse left immediately for New Haven, Connecticut, where he lived. It was more than 300 miles away and had taken the messenger almost two weeks to get to Washington. It took Morse, traveling as fast as he could, more than a week to get home.

When he arrived, he learned that his wife, Susan Walker Morse, had died and had already been buried. This sad experience showed Morse there was a need for a faster way of sending messages.

In 1832, while returning by ship from Europe, Morse met a man named Charles Thomas Jackson, who knew a lot about electromagnets. Within a few years, based on what he had learned from Jackson and others, Morse created a working model of a telegraph. He was not the only one working on the idea of a telegraph, but it was Morse who figured out how to send messages long distances with it.

The telegraph was based on the idea of long and short clicks, so a way was needed to organize the clicks into letters and words. Samuel Morse and a man named Alfred Vail developed a system that today is called Morse code.

Each letter is made up of short clicks or long clicks or a combination of the two. Think of the short clicks as dots and the long clicks as dashes.

The letter S, for example, is three dots or short clicks. The letter O is three dashes or long clicks. That is why SOS, the signal for help, is dot dot dot dash dash dash dot dot dot (… — …).


Telegraph lines quickly spread throughout the United States. By 1850, more than 12,000 miles of wire had been put up.

The invention of the telegraph and of Morse code changed the world, making communication faster and easier.

After radio and other technologies were invented, the telegraph became less useful, but Morse code is still known and used today. It can be sent by flashlight (long and short flashes); by tapping on a table, wall, or metal pipe; or even by blinking your eyes.

Morse code is easy to learn. There are plenty of places online that explain it.

Fun Facts:

• Inventor Thomas Edison taught Morse code to his wife, Mina Miller Thomas. Before they were married, they would communicate in secret by tapping each other’s hands when her family was around. He even proposed to her in Morse code.


• Samuel Morse’s full name was Samuel Finley Breese Morse. Finley and Breese were his mother’s middle and maiden name.

• Children used to use Morse code to “talk” to each other at the dinner table without their parents knowing. How? They would use their feet to tap each other on the ankles.

• SOS doesn’t mean Save Our Ship or Save Our Souls as some people think. They are just three letters that are easy to tap out and easy to recognize.

• Abraham Lincoln used a telegraph during the Civil War to communicate with generals.

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