Dots and Dashes

The electromagnet and its various components used in building a telegraph, from Description of the American Electro Magnetic Telegraph via the State Library of Ohio Rare Books Collection on Ohio Memory.
The electromagnet and its various components used in building a telegraph, from Description of the American Electro Magnetic Telegraph via the State Library of Ohio Rare Books Collection on Ohio Memory.

On June 27, 1847, New York and Boston were linked by telegraph wires, making relatively speedy communication possible over long distances via the use of Morse code. This may seem like an obscure event to commemorate with a blog post. After all, when was the last time you heard about the telegraph and Morse code? For many of us, thoughts of Morse code bring to mind the scene in the 1996 movie “Independence Day” when Morse code – and a computer virus – saved the day. But for decades, Morse code was the means of communication if one wanted to send a message to someone far away. This was major technology! What’s more, linking two major US cities like New York and Boston was a huge accomplishment. Thanks to a bit of electricity, an electromagnet, and some ingenuity, it was made possible via the telegraph machine.

Morse code alphabet, page 20.
Morse code alphabet, page 20.

Description of the American Electro Magnetic Telegraph by Alfred Vail outlines the technology used to build the telegraph and features illustrations of the machine and its components. This book also provides instructions on constructing a telegraph machine; if you have access to the parts, you can build one of your own! Pretty handy, considering Will Smith might not be around to save us if the aliens do actually come to Earth this upcoming Independence Day!

The book also contains the Morse code alphabet (seen above at right), which consists entirely of dots (•) and dashes (-). Not only can you now build your telegraph machine, but you can learn to send covert messages to anyone who has a machine of their own… messages like this:

Translation: David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) : "Let’s give the aliens a virus!" Will Smith (Captain Steve Hiller): "Ok!!" Image source: http://nostalgiabot.everyboty.net/pix/689.jpeg.
Translation: David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) : “Let’s give the aliens a virus!” Will Smith (Captain Steve Hiller): “Ok!!” Image source: http://nostalgiabot.everyboty.net/pix/689.jpeg.

In all seriousness, though, the telegraph machine was life-changing.   It was a miracle of technology in its time and ultimately connected people all over the world. Though it was eventually replaced by the telephone and, later, the internet, it remains one of the greatest inventions of all time. We think you’ll think so, too!

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Thank you to Shannon Kupfer, Digital/Tangible Media Cataloger at the State Library of Ohio, for this week’s post!

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