Burton on the Bay:
What Hath God Wrought?
155 years ago, the first volley was tapped in the electronic communications revolution
-Samuel F. B. Morse, May 25, 1844
Welcome to the World of Modern Communications. Unless you're a Navy vet, a former Boy Scout or -- better still -- were once a telegraph operator, you probably have no idea what that sequence of dots and dashes means.
A hint: They represent the first word ever sent officially over a costly 40-mile specially laid line between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. If you read your grammar school history book, you might remember; if not you'll never guess.
As I write on May 24, 1999, it's 155 years to the day when, with much ceremony in the U.S. Capitol, Sam punched out his dots and dashes. Picture the tension, the apprehension: $30,000 was a lot of money back when Virginian John Tyler was president. Was it going to work or wasn't it?
We all know the answer. The new-fangled telegraph line that ran along the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad's track from the seat of government to Baltimore's Mount Clare Station lived up to its assignment. Morse's assistant, Alfred Vail, promptly sent the same message back to Morse.
I don't know who was gathered around Sam when the clacking confirmed via the repeat that the original four words came back, but worried scowls must have turned to smiles, maybe even untethered jubilation. That risky gamble of 30,000 bucks -- which represents just the cost of 15 personal computers these days -- changed forever the way we live.
Okay, what was that first word?
That's what it was: "What." The first word also in the Biblical Numbers 22:23: "What hath God wrought."
Quite appropriate, seeing what God -- via Sam and Alfred -- wrought on civilization.
The whole episode probably took less than a minute, the sending, receiving and sending back. It probably would have taken the fastest horse or train 240 times that to accomplish the two-way transmission. Instantly, the smoke signals of Indians and the drums of the jungle were obsolete. The Semaphore alphabet of the U.S. Navy was on its way to oblivion, as were the pennants that also carried messages.
Sam Wrought Trouble for Bill & Buddies
There were times a half century ago when what Sam wrought was a heck of a lot of trouble for this then-young sailor, whose appreciation of the Morse Code was mostly adversarial. In boot camp, it had to be learned and memorized, and the 26 letters in the alphabet translated into 81 dots and dashes that had to be in the right sequence, up to four for each word.
It wasn't like today when a guy can have a cell phone on his belt and talk. So we wondered -- and griped -- about why we had to learn the code. Seabees wouldn't be toting a telegraph keyboard around on their belts. We'd have to go to Western Union, which most everyone did back in the '40s. So why go through the hassle?
But the petty officers whose obvious greatest pleasure in life was harassing recruits thought differently. We had a couple of days to not just get the code in our heads but also be able to communicate via it quickly enough to satisfy those whose job it was to make us competent U.S. Navy sailors.
After a few days, those of us who couldn't keep our dots and dashes straight --and I was in that majority -- were obliged to run an obstacle course before breakfast, a grueling exercise that required sufficient time that the once-gooey eggs in the galley for a tardy mess had turned to bricks, and all the bacon was gone. The coffee was cool and a whole slice of toast crumbled at the first bite.
It was easier in Boy Scouts. We had longer to learn and only had to write to down the dots and dashes -- and that we were granted plenty of time to do. Then we were rewarded with a merit badge to be worn proudly on a sash hanging from the shoulder. The Navy took it more seriously.
To complicate matters, the Navy had us simultaneously learning Semaphore, which for you landlubbers is a visual code made by a sailor waving a couple of flags. Each position signified a letter, and we were expected to communicate swiftly, like a U. S. flag flapping in a hurricane.
That wasn't all in our communications repertoire. There were the flags to be flown, each representing a letter of the alphabet, the numerical flags and pennants representing numbers from one to 10, and let's not forget the special flags and pennants, 17 in all, that signified anything from speed to turn or reply and from first repeat to fourth repeat.
It's a wonder we ever got to eat -- and once we got to mess hall we wondered why we bothered. Come to think of it, it's a wonder we ever won World War II. My communications expertise didn't contribute much to the victory.
I guess the Semaphore is still around. Sailors have to do something besides hanging over the side and chipping paint, and warships presumably still display pennants and flags, though mostly for traditional aesthetics. Crews and their officers have cell phones.
The French Coast Guard held onto the Morse Code until two years ago, but our sailors forced it to walk the plank several years previously -- which was 50 years or so too late for me.
I must admit missing the old traditional Western Union offices, often in railroad stations like the one in Arlington, Vermont, where Spike Campbell and I -- before we joined up -- watched Peter Hebert's father work the key for the Rutland Railroad.
Prior to the war, getting a telegram -- or sending one -- was a status symbol, but after Pearl Harbor those with relatives overseas dreaded the thought of Pete or one of his messengers driving up. That's how the armed forces informed families of casualties.
Hopefully, many -- whether civilians or military -- will at least recall the old dot, dot, dot -- dash, dash, dash -- dot, dot, dot, the international SOS distress signal. In can be transmitted by mirror, flashlight or sound -- and one never knows when the cell phone will go on the blink.
Those interested in primitive e-mail can see a display featuring the
history of the telegraph among other communications methods through Sept.
13 at the Historical Electronics Museum, 1745 Nursery Road, Linthicum, in
| Issue 21 |
Volume VII Number 21
May 27 - June 2, 1999
New Bay Times
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