I Just Called to Say, “I Love You”
By Paulette Richards:
How many times a day do you text or call your loved ones? This past Valentine’s Day the Decatur Makers participated in the Woodruff Arts Center’s Family Festival by paying homage to the father of modern telecommunications technology, Samuel Morse.
Although Morse is best remembered as the inventor of Morse code – the international standard for telegraph – he first won fame as a portrait painter. In 1825 Morse was working on a commissioned painting of the Marquis de Lafayette in Washington, D.C. when a horse messenger (the 19th century equivalent of Fed Ex) arrived with a letter from his father indicating that his wife was ill. The next day a second letter informed Morse that his wife had died. Morse rushed back to New Haven, but the journey took four days and by the time he arrived, his beloved Lucretia had already been buried.
The High Museum owns the portrait above that Morse painted of his young family after his wife’s death.
So a team of makers including Chris Monaco, Kendall Lott, Michael Fletcher, Maureen Haley, Charles Redwine, II, and Cliff Moore adapted the RaspberryPi “Morse Code Virtual Radio” project (https://www.raspberrypi.org/learning/morse-code-virtual-radio/) to create a station where patrons could send and receive Morse code messages in the gallery next to the painting.
Charles Redwine, II designed and 3D printed a clever mount to attach a RaspberryPi to the back of a flat screen monitor. The makers then connected a telegraph key to the RaspberryPi.
The tragic loss of his wife inspired Morse’s interest in developing rapid, long-distance communication. Returning from an extended trip through Europe in 1832, he encountered Charles Thomas Jackson, a Bostonian who had conducted numerous experiments with electromagnetism. Morse developed his concept for the single wire telegraph after witnessing experiments with Jackson’s electromagnet. Although William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone succeeded in commercializing telegraphy before Morse with a multi-wire system, Morse’s single wire system gained wider adoption because it was cheaper.
The standing record for Morse code copying is 75.2 words per minute. While today’s teens may be able to text as fast as Marcel Fernandes of Brazil who recently set the words-per-minute bar at about 82.5 words per minute, most of the patrons who participated in the Valentine’s Day festivities at the High were unfamiliar with Morse Code so Decatur Makers provided cheat sheets.
Morse code represents alphanumeric characters as series of long or short pulses that can be transmitted as tones, flashing lights, or other rhythmic signals. Operators learn to “copy” code by following the left branch of the Morse code chart whenever they receive a long, “dah” pulse and the right branch whenever they receive a short “dit” pulse.
By Aris00 at en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0), GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], from Wikimedia Commons
During the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, optical telegraphy in the form of Claude Chappe’s Semaphore Line enabled governments to transmit military orders and intelligence information rapidly but this system was too expensive for ordinary citizens to use. Morse’s role in improving the electrical telegraph illustrates how the arts can put steam in technological development.
Thanks to Lew Lefton, Michael Fletcher, Chris Monaco, Cindy Williams, Max Baxley, Paulette Richards, and the Galenkamp family (Dan, Pam, Nick, and Evelyn) who all turned out to assist with the demonstration. And the next time you use telecommunications technology to reach out and touch someone you love, remember Samuel Morse.