A Closer Look at Morse Code

Website Content Written by Sean Hanlon

Imagine a time when there were no telephones and the only way to communicate long distance was to send a letter or a personal messenger. Although all the necessary ingredients were available to create a communications system, the only truly usable system at the time was the "Needle Telegraph" in England. This system was very slow and was configured in a complex way, so its use was not wide spread. What was needed was a simple user-friendly system that could be easily transported, sent messages quickly, and which was based on an easy to remember system. However, it wasn’t until the mid-1830s that the formation of the Morse system was even conceived.

Development and History

Samuel F.B. Morse was born in Massachusetts in 1791. He was a professor of arts and design, a professional painter, and the founder of the Royal Academy. Inspired by a discussion he had in 1832 during a return trip by sea back to America, Morse began work on electromagnets. He partnered with Professor Leonard Gail and Alfred Vail and together they rigorously worked on building the telegraph. Dubbed the Morse code, an U.S. patent was received in 1854 from the Supreme Court.

The Morse code was created using the letters of the alphabet and ten numerals, which were represented by long and short pulses. Each character, including letters, numerals, and punctuation was represented by a given pattern of code. As one operator sent a message using these long and short pulses, another well-trained operator using a telegraph key would translate the message at the receiving end. In this way, the telegraph using the Morse code system electronically sent a message.

The first Morse code to be sent and received was from the U.S. Capitol’s chamber of the Supreme Court to the railway depot in Baltimore on May 24, 1844. It simply stated, 'What hath God wrought?' It originally used a paper system that produced dashes and dots, but later used sound. Because Morse code was easy to understand and its efficiency even with wiring of low quality, it soon became popular. It was the standard both in European countries as well as in the United States. Its only real drawback was that there were sometimes errors due to the use of characters in place of spaced dots. This was especially a problem when transmission was used over undersea cables. The Morse code was a long-lived system that was used professionally for over 160 years.

International Morse code

A new code had been generated by 1851. It was referred to as the continental or international code. It was a modified version of the Morse code, which eliminated the characters for spaced dots. All telegraph systems replaced their systems to accept the new code, except North America, which kept the original Morse code. Unlike the Morse code of the past that used a single wire to transmit each character, later telegraphs sent each letter through a different wire.



For years, Morse code was a vital part of international aviation for both military and commercial pilots. It was a requirement for pilots to be familiar with the code. It was regularly used to identify navigational beacons that continually transmitted three letter identifications in code, as well as for communications systems. In fact, aeronautical charts continued to use three-letter Morse identification codes for each of the airports well into the 1990s. Today sectional charts for NDB and Vortac still show the Morse signals used for navigation.

Amateur radio

Morse code is currently most popular with those involved in amateur radio. Radio jargon for Morse code is “CW” due to the fact that a continuous wave is switched off and on with short and long elements using the Morse code characters. It is a kind of character encoding that takes the telegraphic information and transmits it using rhythm. Once required in order to receive an amateur radio license, Morse code proficiency tests were discontinued in 2006. This however, did not curtail the strong interest of amateur radio users who continue its regular use today, usually preferring the Farnsworth method. CW allows users to transmit very detailed information not easily transmitted in other forms of communication and at a greater rate of speed.

Speed records

Over time, regular Morse code operators become very proficient and are able to decipher code quickly in their heads. Some have been tested at more than forty words per minute (WPM). International code contests were held regularly to test an operator’s skills and some are still held occasionally today. Ted R. McElroy set the all-time official speed record in 1939 in a contest held in Asheville, NC by copying 75.2 WPM. It is possible that the record has been broken unofficially though, as it is thought that some operators may be so proficient as to decipher 100 WPM.

Harry Turner accomplished the fastest message ever sent in 1942. During a demonstration at a military base, he reached 35 WPM. Current amateur radio societies continue to recognize operators today and have recorded speeds up to 60 WPM. Although these speeds seem smaller, there have been differences in judging speed over the years. It is dependent on the 5-dot versus the 7-dot and the 50-dot versus the 60-dot durations and other formats of judging.

Applications for the general public

The Morse code for SOS is a standard for those who need help. Using the 3-dot, 3-dash, 3-dot signal is an all-important application of the code. Sending methods include: flashing a mirror or other shiny object like a flashlight, using the CW method on a radio by togging on and off, tapping out the signal or using other similar methods.

Assistive Technology

Morse code can also be employed for those with disabilities. Communication is often difficult for some disabled people and the use of Morse code has helped many. It has also spawned creative abbreviations of the code. An example of that is the barcode created by Norman Woodland, who extended the dashes and dots downward and changed the widths of the lines. Code can be sent by anyone, even those with minimal motor control. Originally, a caretaker would have to learn how to decode using a specially marked typewriter. Later there were voice typewriters that used Votem or Morse.

Today Morse code can be translated via computer as an aid in communicating with speech. Sometimes this is accomplished using a tube in which the user sucks or blows in order to create the right code. It is most advantageous due to the fact that once Morse code is learned it doesn’t require a display in order to use. Those with almost any disability, including those with severe motion issues, can use it. Even those with sensory disabilities are aided by using a buzzer applied to the skin.

Other Uses

The United States Federal Communications Commission still uses commercial radiotelegraph licenses that use code tests based upon standard word CODEX. These non-amateur licenses were designed for coast station and shipboard operators who pass written exams that show a 20 WPM proficiency in code and knowledge on advanced radio theory. Since 1999 though, their use is rare as satellite and high frequency communications systems have become the norm.

For radio navigation, Morse code is used through aids such as NDBs and VORs for aeronautical use. Although many VOR stations usually provide voice identification as well. In the past, U.S. Navy and other warships have used Morse code by flashing signal lamps to one another to share information. This is especially useful today during times of radio silence.

Learn Morse Code

The best way to learn Morse code is to listen carefully to recordings. Listen to how the combination of dots and dashes sounds. A short beep is a dot. A longer beep is a dash that is three times longer. There will be a short pause between each letter and a longer pause between words.

The Farnsworth method is most common and requires the learner to listen to the characters at high speed, but has long pauses in-between. Then as the listener gets more proficient the pauses are shortened. Named after a German Psychologist named Ludwig Koch, the Koch method starts with just two characters, but from the beginning is full speed. When the student can copy the two characters with an accuracy of 90%, another character is added. This continues until all characters are mastered.

Use a Morse code chart to help you and then use a more advanced chart with phrases you can match up with when you hear the right code. Always begin memorization with the easiest letters, like E, T, and M. Then move onto combinations of letters. It may be easier to learn if you write down your responses and then compare them to the chart. If it seems too difficult, you may try using a pronunciation chart that lets you see the Morse code signal sounds.














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Quotation mark

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& Ampersand

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  • Morse Runner 1.68  a freeware Contest simulator for Windows 95/98/ME/NT4/2000/XP with a high score table.
  • Morse Codes for Computer Access an Alpha-Numeric Code Group chart as well as a Mouse/Windows Code Group chart.
  • Boys Life the Morse Code Machine is a sound related game where you select a letter on the keyboard and it plays the related code sound.
  • CW Practice a Morse code practice site that allows the user to change speeds and characters.
  • Morse Code Practice offers exams online or by email. Tests generate Morse code at different speeds and with various types of content.
  • The Nat'l Association for Amateur Radio offers W1AW Code Practice MP3 Files and other resources to perfect skills.
  • Learn Morse Code (CW) Online an online computer program that does not have to be installed. Allows user to track their progress and offers downloadable MP3
  • Learning The Morse Code free teaching software for learning Morse for PC only, Windows 95/98 and above systems at 549 kB in size.
  • Methods Not Recommended articles on what to look out for when trying to learn Morse code.

Additional Resources

  • Morse Code History  White River Valley Museum gives a short history and offers a Morse code message creator and translator.
  • Spark Keys early wireless telegraph information and the science behind it.
  • Morse Code Music using tones or drums you can create Morse code through music. Website includes a keyboard for easy use.
  • History Link an essay on listening posts from the past that relied on Morse code.
  • FISTS a well-established and recognized CW organization in the world of amateur radio.
  • Morse Cat A free Windows Morse code trainer for beginners and experts.
  • Samuel F. B. Morse Preview a color sketch of a railway telegraph signal by Samuel F. B. Morse, 1838
  • Telegraph and Sci Instrument Museums Instructions on how to build simple telegraph sets.
  • The Telegraph Office a tribute and resource for Morse Telegraphy
  • The Telegrapher Research Resources for the history of telegraphy and the work of women in the telegraph industry.
  • Civil War Signals links to articles on aeronautics, telegraph services, the signal service, and more.
  • RUFZXP an ongoing high-speed telegraphy contest using the RUFZ call sign receiving program.
  • Code-P a shareware program to practice Morse code.
  • Commercial Telegraphic Code Books a list of commercial telegraphic code books
  • Railway Telegraphs offers information on the history of the use of telegraphs in the railway systems.
  • Morse & Continental Code provides information on the original Morse code and continental code.