Old high tech on display

Morse code was once America's lifeline

Morse code was once America's lifeline

December 26, 2008|By CHRIS COPLEY

"Come at once. We have struck an iceberg."

This line, transmitted by wireless telegraphers aboard the sinking Titanic, was sent via cutting edge telecommunications -- Morse code.

An exhibit at Discovery Station in Hagerstown highlights Morse code and telegraphy. A collection of "keys," the units that transmit or receive Morse code, are on display through March.

For most people, Morse code is as dry and dusty as any outdated technology. But 170 years ago, Morse code and its hardware -- the telegraph system -- were revolutionary, according to Dave Ingram, an Alabama ham radio operator and Morse code expert who contributed some items to the display at Discovery Station.

Ingram said telegraphy was developed in the 1830s. American painter and inventor Samuel F.B. Morse became intrigued by practical applications for electromagnetism, the new science of the day. Morse devised a way to send electrical charges through a wire to a receiver, which produced marks on a strip of paper. Morse also developed a code -- a binary, on-off alphabet that could make use of the electrical pulses. Eventually, telegraphers discarded the paper strips and used their ears to "read" Morse code.


By the 1850s, telegraph lines spread across America and Europe and even across oceans. Still, it was a young technology.

"After that came the rush. Telegraph proved itself in the Civil War," Ingram said. "It took (10 or 11 days in 1861) to get a message from the East Coast to the West Coast by Pony Express. But with telegraph, it was a matter of minutes."

Most of the telegraph keys in the Discovery Station exhibit are part of the collection of area resident Mark Kraham.

"I received my first key from a good friend more than 20 years ago," Kraham said by e-mail this week. "But I really didn't start collecting until about seven years ago."

Kraham reads Morse code, and is interested in how telegraphy changed American society.

"It's interesting to consider the 'cutting edge' technology of the past," Kraham said by e-mail this week. "Telegraphy ... had a significant impact on business and commerce in the days before fax machines. Of course, Western Union capitalized on it by also offering other services including the 'wiring' of money."

Ingram said although Morse code is no longer in wide use, it remains useful.

"Some ship operators are still using Morse Code, because it will get through when nothing else will," he said. "'I can't understand your voice, but I can hear your Morse.'" It is (the backup) mode. It will never die."

If you go ...


WHAT: Morse code key collection and an associated 1/60th-scale model of the RMS Titanic

WHERE: Discovery Station, 101 W. Washington St., Hagerstown

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 2 to 5 p.m. Sundays. The exhibit is on display through March.

COST: Museum admission is $7; $6 for ages 2 to 17; $5 for seniors and military personnel; and free for children younger than 2. There is no additional cost to see the exhibit.

CONTACT: Call 301-790-0076 or go to

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