At one point in history, seafarers no longer had to use exclusively flags and lights to communicate – they now had the dots and dashes. But exactly when did ships start using Morse code?
Guglielmo Marconi invented radiotelegraphy which made it possible to transmit messages in the sea as the communications system didn’t need wires. Marconi presented his invention in 1896 and by 1910 a federal law came out that required passenger ships to carry wireless sets.
How does radiotelegraphy work and how was Morse code used on the Titanic and during WWII? Here’s the story.
When Did Ships Start Using Morse Code?
Morse Code ; Metal Wires
The electric telegraph was invented by Samuel Morse in 1832. This device worked by transmitting electrical signals over wires. It featured a transmitter, a receiver, and a special knob. When you pushed the knob down, the electrical circuit would close, the current began flowing to the receiver, and once the knob was released, the circuit opened.
The receiver, in its turn, contains an electromagnet. When the latter receives a pulse on electricity, an armature that is connected to an ink roller gets moved. Depending on the length of the pulse, the roller would draw either a dot or a dash.
It took Samuel Morse (an inventor and talented portrait painter, by the way) 6 years to standardize a code for communicating through these telegraph wires so that the receiver could decipher what the other person was trying to say.
The most commonly used letters were the ‘simplest’ ones. For example, “E” appears in the language most often, that’s why Morse decided to turn the letter into a single dot. Such a system allowed transmitting simple words relatively fast.
The Invention of Radio-Telegraph Equipment
The main con of Samuel Morse's communication system was the fact that the transmitter and receiver had to be connected with a wire, in order to work (and that was not always possible over long distances).
However, this changed only a few decades after Morse introduced his invention to the world. Guglielmo Marconi created wireless telegraphy (radiotelegraphy) which made sending Morse code over radio waves possible. The first demonstration of Marconi’s system took place in July 1896 – the 22-year-old man showed his invention to the British government.
Only a year later, Marconi send the first in the world’s history wireless communication over the open sea. The message got transmitted over the Bristol Channel and read “Are you ready”.
Radiotelegraphy works similarly to electromagnetic telegraphy. The main difference is that the former does not feature wires – it uses a radio transmitter and receiver instead. The sending operator would tap on the telegraph key (this produces radio waves) and the operator at the receiver would receive the pulses as audible beeps that he had to translate back to text. This type of telegraphy used Morse code as well.
The Adoption of Radiotelegraphy in the Sea
The majority of seafarers loved the idea of wireless telegraphy as it was an amazing way of communicating both from ship to ship and from ship to any shore-based station.
The invention would also make sea traveling a lot safer, so nobody was surprised when the Wireless Ship Act of 1910 got approved. This was the first federal legislation regulating radiocommunication in the USA. According to the law, passenger ships were required to carry wireless sets that they could use to send or receive messages.
Unfortunately, no regulations specifying operating standards were adopted. Interference issues made it practically impossible to translate the signals. In fact, the increasing number of transmitters might have made the problem even worse. Many amateur radio operators would also send fake commands to naval radio stations, and a lot of naval commands ended up sending boats on inexistent missions.
Morse Code ; Titanic
Titanic featured a radio room and a telegraph machine. The two operators working on the ship were employed by Marconi himself and the main job of the chief telegraphist and his assistant was to send Morse code messages on behalf of the Titanic’s wealthy passengers 24/7.
For example, one of the passenger’s messages that were telegraphed to LA said: “No sickness. All well. Notify everyone interested in poker”. The chief telegraphist was overwhelmed with the number of messages that it had to send. In fact, he was so busy fulfilling his ‘most important responsibility’ that when a nearby ship telegraphed that it was surrounded by ice, the operator answered: “Shut up! I’m busy”.
The mood of the telegraphist changed, when the Titanic hit the iceberg. He used the CQD signal (the sign was adopted by Marconi telegraphers from the UK and meant “seek you” and “danger). At one point, the chief telegraphist’s assistant proposed trying SOS as well. The operators would switch between CQD and SOS while the ship was sinking.
What Happened Next?
The ship’s call for help didn’t really grab anyone’s attention. The wireless operator of the closest ship switched off the wireless set and went to bed because Titanic’s telegraphist told him to shut up. Moreover, the line was constantly tied up with irrelevant questions from other operators and signals from amateur radio operators.
Only one rescue vessel came to the Titanic’s rescue and saved a few hundred people. The chief telegraphist went down together with the ship. He continued sending distress signals until the very end.
After the tragedy, the Radio Act of 1912 was adopted. The law restricted the use of long-wave frequencies by amateurs and SOS was proclaimed the standard distress call in the USA and, later on, internationally. By the way, SOS is not an abbreviation for anything (though some think that it means ‘save our souls’), it’s just an extremely simple pattern that is easy to remember and transmit.
Morse Code ; World War II
Morse code also played an important role during WWII. It was used to send important messages over long distances from warships to naval bases. People who were not in the military would also use Morse code to provide information to their allies.
When did ships start using Morse code? Now you know that it happened with the invention of radiotelegraphy.
The majority of large ships nowadays stopped using Morse code and switched to the satellite-based GMDSS. But there will always be situations in which the dots and dashes could be the only method of communication able to get through.