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What is Morse Code?

R. Kayne
R. Kayne

Morse code is an alphabetic code of long and short sounds, originally transmitted by telegraph. Each letter in the alphabet has a corresponding sound or series of sounds unique to it. The long sounds are referred to as dashes, while the short sounds are dots. Varying lengths of silence denote spaces between letters or words.

To make a dot on a telegraph, the telegraph key or switch was depressed and allowed to quickly spring back. To make a dash, the key was held down longer before allowing it to rebound. Messages were sent by tapping the key in a rhythm of coded letters. Messages were received via a radio transceiver, sounding like dots and dashes of static.

American Samuel Finely Breese Morse (1791-1872) invented the telegraph and this code in 1836. It was successfully tested on 24 May 1844, when Morse himself sent the first message between Washington DC and Baltimore: "What has God wrought?"

Prior to the era of modern radio operations, morse code was often used to send transmissions by shortwave radio operators who were in non-combat field conditions.
Prior to the era of modern radio operations, morse code was often used to send transmissions by shortwave radio operators who were in non-combat field conditions.

The most well known Morse code phrase is SOS (save our souls). SOS was chosen because the code for it — three dots followed by three dashes followed by three dots — is unmistakable as anything else and recognizable even to those who do not know the code.

Before SOS, the code was CQ which meant anyone listening, please respond. A third letter followed, revealing the reason for the hail. In the case of distress, it was a "D." When the Titanic hit an iceberg shortly before midnight on its maiden voyage in April 1912, operator John G. Phillips sent a mayday message using the old emergency code and the new one. Titanic's exact transmission that cold night was, CQD CQD SOS SOS CQD DE MGY MGY. "MGY" were Titanic's call letters, while "DE" meant from. The innocuous looking message literally translated to:

All hail our distress!
All hail our distress!
Save our souls!
Save our souls!
All hail our distress!
From Titanic!

The California was less than 20 miles (32 km) away and had enough boats to save everyone aboard Titanic, but their radio officer was off duty because it was the middle of the night. Titanic tried to get their attention by firing rockets. On duty officers aboard the California watched the rockets but failed to understand. The next morning when the ship's radio operator resumed duty, he learned from other ships what had happened. The Carpathia did respond to Titanic's distress call immediately, but that ship was 58 miles (93 km) away. By the time Carpathia arrived, it was too late for more than 1,500 of Titanic's passengers. Because of this disaster, it became law that a ship must always have a radio operator on duty.

Telegraph operators created shorthand that endures today in completely unrelated settings. One example is the use of "30" by reporters to mark the end of their copy. This was code for I have no more to send.

Morse code is still used today by the Maritime, Military and Amateur Radio Services. The code can also be sent by light, using short or long flashes to denote dots and dashes.

Discussion Comments


I use the morse code at my high school and I think it is a lot of fun. Everyone in my school speaks it as a language. What I never get is what is the difference between the Japanese morse code and this morse code?

I have to write a paper on that and I do not know how to start because I do not see the difference between them. Can anyone help me please and thank you.


Also, is this the code for SOS ...///...?


What actually is Morse Code? I still don't get it.


Sam Morse is actually my great-great-great uncle on my grammy's side of the family!


What is so special about the Japanese Morse code? The Wabun Code maps kana syllables to specific codes. These specific codes, why are they so different than other codes from other countries?


If anybody can tell me the real meaning for SOS and why the meaning was chosen, that would be really helpful for I am a high school student researching Morse code and its inventor.


I still cannot understand what is morse code.


SOS does not stand for Save Our Souls - this is an urban myth. The letters were chosen as they are a very distinctive and easily read signal.


Teaching morse code through dots and dashes is far easier for primary children. Also, the morse code is often used in music lessons to teach rhythmic duration. It is fun and the theme to Inspector Morse is often used for this purpose too. Children love it and can experiment with the long/short sounds and create their own scores or ideas through its use.

When they get to secondary or above then perhaps it would be appropriate to expand on the 'true' morse code and its hidden agendi. -Primary School teacher.


Another morse code reference in modern times is with Cell phones. The original text message alert (SMS) was the three letter in morse code. An inside joke with the developers at Nokia.


Learn Morse Code: what you need to know.

Morse code is widely referred to as a system of dots and dashes. In the early days of telegraphy, this was the case. However, with the advent of wireless telegraphy around 1897 communications via Morse code has been largely aural (by ear) where each character or letter has a unique sound. The letter “F,” for example, is didi_da_dit. The separation of sound elements (in this case three) within each character or letter and use of the under_score are for instructional purposes to indicate that the elements are sent as complete characters or letters. The separation of sound elements within each character or letter enables students to better recognize and properly replicate the sound for each Morse code character or letter.

Unfortunately, some teachers continue to refer to Morse code as dots and dashes and their teaching materials include the English alphabet with the traditional identifying dots and dashes or a system of dits and dahs as if the two were synonymous. This is incorrect as the former is Morse code in written form, while the latter is Morse code by unique sounds. Nevertheless, within the sounds of Morse code there appears to be confusion on the proper use of di and dit sounds. A review of the frequency of Morse code sounds within the 26-letter-English alphabet revealed the following:

di sound 38.4% (or 33 times) (di has a short vowel sound as in the word di-lem-ma)

dit sound 17.4% (or15 times) (the dit’s only function is to end a character or letter).

da sound 30.2% (or 26 times) (the da is sounded within a character or letter. See dah for ending a character or letter)

dah sound 13.9% (or 12 times) (the dah sound ends a character or letter).


Morse code sounds are all around us. Two examples come to mind -- birds chirping at sunset and the honking of automobile horns. During World War II, to conserve gas and tires, the national speed limit was set at 35 mph. When a speeding motorist passed you on the highway, it was national policy to alert the offending driver via your automobile horn with a didi_di_dah – the letter “V for the sound of victory.” It is interesting to note that the Morse code sound for the letter “V” is also the opening phrase of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony -- didi_di_dah.

David Edward Hughes (1831-1900), was, in 1878, one of the first to transmit and receive Morse code using radio waves. In addition to being an experimental physicist, mostly in the areas of electricity and signals, Hughes was also an accomplished musician and a professor of music. Morse code and music have a

history of working in concert. The sounds of Morse code in music range from classical to country. Johnny Cash, the now deceased entertainer, was a member of the US Air Force during the Cold War. Cash spent three years in Germany copying Russian Morse code transmissions and had this to say. "That rhythm of the Morse code had a lot to do with the rhythm I felt in my music and I realized that its got a rhythm that just begs to have a drum added to it, or a guitar. After I got out of the Air Force, I could still hear it, and when I started writing songs again, I had that rhythm in my head.”

To test the rhythm in your head for Morse code, read on.

You may have heard comments on how challenging Morse code is to learn. Nothing could be further from the truth. These instructions are designed to provide sufficient information for the student to master basic Morse code on his/her own with little or no oversight by an instructor. Unbelievably, there are only four-sounds students must commit to memory: They are:

di – has a short vowel sound as in the word di-lem-ma..

didi – sounded as ditty; a double didi_didi is sounded as ditty-ditty

dit – no other sound follows a dit for that character or letter.

da – is used within characters or letters. While dah is sounded the same as da, dah is used to indicate the ending of a character or letter.

Success in learning Morse code is a matter of syllabification.

A dictionary separates words into syllables as a way of segmenting the stream of speech. Syllabification gives words a rhythm of strong and weak beats, as we hear in music. Syllables make speech easier for the brain to process. Likewise, the brain can more easily process and recognize the sounds of Morse code when characters or letters are separated into sound elements in the same manner as words are in syllabification. For example, the letter F normally sent as -- dididadit – has a three-element syllabification sound -- didi_da_dit. The underscore indicates that the elements within each letter or character are sent as a unit in the same manner that polysyllable words are spoken as one word.

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    • Prior to the era of modern radio operations, morse code was often used to send transmissions by shortwave radio operators who were in non-combat field conditions.
      By: StockHouse
      Prior to the era of modern radio operations, morse code was often used to send transmissions by shortwave radio operators who were in non-combat field conditions.