How Do We Communicate?
A look at Morse code
by Stuart Yeates (revised, originally published in 2005)
Suitable for Whole School (Sec)
To consider the importance of perseverance and the value of communication.
Preparation and materials
- Have available the YouTube video ‘See and hear Morse code’ and the means to show it during the assembly. It is 59 seconds long and is available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_J8YcQETyTw
- Optional: you may wish to practise Morse code prior to the assembly and demonstrate some words based on the letters shown in the YouTube video.
- Ask the students to pause for a moment and imagine a world without phones, computers, television, Wi-Fi and social media. Ask them to imagine what it would be like if the only way to communicate with people was either to write them a letter or to speak to them face to face.
- Back in 1830, it took between five and eight months for a letter that was sent from the UK to reach India. Imagine that: by the time you found out that something had happened, it would be just a distant memory to the sender of the letter.
By 1879, it took five hours for a telegram to reach Mumbai (then called Bombay) from the UK. It was a definite improvement, but still not exactly instant messaging.
- The invention that made telegrams possible was the telegraph, which Samuel Morse helped to invent. It was first used in 1844. Morse also invented a special code that consisted of dots and dashes. The code could be sent along the telegraph wire and decoded at the other end.
Show the YouTube video ‘See and hear Morse code’.
- You may want to give some examples of spelling out words in Morse code. For example, the Morse code ‘.... . .-.. .-.. ---’ translates as ‘Hello’.
- Samuel Morse was the son of a Christian minister and, after studying various subjects at college, he became a painter. As he became better-known, he often had to travel from his home in New Haven to fulfil commissions and paint his subjects.
In 1818, at the age of 27, he married a woman called Lucretia. They made their home together in New Haven and had three children. In 1825, Samuel Morse was working on a commission in Washington, DC, over 300 miles from home, when he received a letter from his father explaining that Samuel’s wife had been taken ill, but was convalescing. The next day, however, Morse received another letter from his father, informing him of his wife’s sudden death.
Morse left Washington straightaway, but by the time he reached New Haven, his wife had already been buried. The fact that Morse had been unaware of his wife’s illness and death until it was too late spurred him on to find a fast way of transmitting news over long distances.
- While he was inventing the telegraph, Morse suffered many setbacks. In 1842, at his first public demonstration of the telegraph, he laid a wire across a New York harbour, but before he could complete his transmission, a ship’s anchor caught the line and cut it!
However, by 1844, he had strung together a series of overhead lines between Washington, DC and Baltimore, and transmitted the first public telegraph message: ‘What hath God wrought!’ It may seem like rather a strange message to transmit, but it was a long time ago. A modern translation of his message would be ‘See what God has done!’
- The phrase was taken from the Book of Numbers in the Bible. Morse stated that the telegraph was ‘God’s work, and he alone carried me this far through all my trials and enabled me to triumph over the obstacles, physical and moral, which opposed me.’ What he meant was that it was God who had helped him to invent the telegraph, even though there had been some difficult times along the way.
The first message sent by telegraph sounded like this (if possible, tap it out):
.–– .... .– – / .... .- - .... / --. --- -.. / .-- .-. --- ..- --. .... -
- At the time of Morse’s invention, some people were confident that the telegraph was a gift from God for building up community and worldwide communication; others were fearful and cynical. However, although some people were confident and others fearful, a forward-seeing few were aware of the potential of the new technology.
- Through people like Samuel Morse, whose faith was never shaken and who always persevered, we can now enjoy almost unlimited communication and access to information.
Time for reflection
Christians believe that although communication with other people is important, communication with God is also essential. They believe that they can talk to God at any time – this is called prayer - and that God will speak to them in many ways.
Thank you that you made the world with people in it.
Thank you that you want to communicate with us.
Help us to speak to you.
Help us to listen to your prompting.
Thank you for the wonder of technology.
Thank you for the ability to communicate with people all over the world.
Please help us to be responsible.
Please help us to use the advances in technology for the good of the world and other people.