Re-enactment signals Morse code anniversary

Museum exhibit focuses on birth of telecommunications

May 23, 1999|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

It was the world's first e-mail, encoded in a string of dashes and dots.

Long before the Internet enabled people to chat around the globe like neighbors over the backyard fence, Samuel F. B. Morse tapped out a message on the telegraph that gave birth to telecommunications. Yesterday, at the Historical Electronics Museum in Linthicum and the National Cryptological Museum at Fort Meade, visitors got a chance to see how it was done.

To mark the 155th anniversary of the first Morse code message, the two museums re-enacted the historic event. The re-enactment opened an exhibit on the evolution of communications that will run until mid-September at the electronics museum.

"From the telegraph came the Teletype," said Roland Anders, a member of the electronics museum's Amateur Radio Club who helped re-enact the event. "We progressed to the fax and television and digital communication."

In 1844, with a $30,000 appropriation from Congress, Morse strung a 40-mile telegraph line along the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad from the U.S. Capitol in Washington to Mount Clare Station in Baltimore.

On May 24, Morse tapped out the message "What hath God wrought," a biblical quote from Numbers 23: 23. Morse's assistant in Baltimore, Alfred Vail, returned the message within seconds.

Yesterday, the same messages traveled a much shorter distance between the museums and television sets showed the transmission.

Visitors participate

During the day, visitors could send messages back and forth between the museums, tapping out a virtually unknown language that became discernible on the other end. They could visit the other museum to pick up their message.

It's a unique experience, said Walter F. Mathers of Glen Burnie, a member of the Morse Telegraph Club.

"We can do it on the computer, but you can't do it on the telegraph anymore because they're not around," Mathers said. "Before this, the fastest thing around was trains and before that, ships."

`Short communications'

In the mid- and late 1800s, families used the telegraph to stay in touch.

"We're finding there was a lot of use of the telegraph during wartime, and especially the Civil War," said Jeff Buchheit, director of the electronics museum. "They'd send short communications -- `I'll be there soon' or `Good luck.' "

At first, the telegraph was something of a novelty -- users played chess and checkers -- but it later found use for meetings and dating, much the same way people use the Internet today, according to Tom Standage, British journalist and author of the 1998 book "The Victorian Internet." Bored operators on late-night shifts used the wire to send jokes and town gossip.

After communication went wireless by use of radio signals, Morse code became the language of the seas and a lifeline to mariners. Crews in peril used the letters SOS to signal distress. The letters mean nothing but are easy to remember in code -- three dots, three dashes, three dots.

`Eternal silence'

The code is a dying art -- tapped out only by ham radio operators and aficionados.

On Feb. 1, the International Maritime Organization dismissed Morse code as its formal communication and replaced it with the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System. That system uses satellites that can locate distressed ships and determine their conditions.

The French Coast Guard said goodbye to Morse signals in 1997 with this message: "Calling all. This is our last cry before our eternal silence."

In August 1993, the U.S. Coast Guard ended the 24-hour monitoring of the 500-kilohertz frequency for Morse distress calls after almost 90 years. Morse is no longer mandatory for Boy Scouts, who sent messages for almost a century using flashlights, mirrors reflecting the sun, ham radios or a flag (waving to the right signals a dot, to the left a dash).

The display at the Historical Electronics Museum, 1745 W. Nursery Road in Linthicum, outlines the history of the telegraph and other communications methods through Sept. 13. The National Cryptological Museum is on Colony Seven Road just off Route 32 in Fort Meade.

Pub Date: 5/23/99

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