The first optical telegraph messages sent over great distances were transmitted at the end of the eighteenth century. In 1838, the American painter, inventor and professor Samuel Morse (1791-1872) invented the alphabet that would come to be known as Morse code.

The Morse code as a form of communication

Samuel Morse discovered that numbers and letters could be better transmitted using a combination of dots and dashes. This meant that the receiver no longer had to depend on being able to hear or see the signals. The characters could be transmitted by a signal lamp, flag signal, sound, or – later – by telegraph or radio signal. The introduction of Morse code was perhaps the single greatest breakthrough on the way towards modern telecommunication. It went into use internationally, albeit in a slightly amended form, in 1865. This form of telecommunication had become obsolete by the end of the 20th century.

Morse: a logical code once you understand it

Morse's innovation lies primarily in the use of a logical code, in contrast to the optical signals that had been used previously. Letters, numbers and punctuation marks are transmitted through a combination of dots and dashes, with the dot being the unit of time, a dash having the duration of three dots and the interval between the elements of a combination of dots and dashes corresponding to one dot. Between the letters of a word, the pause is equal to three dots, and between words the pause is six dots. One of the best-known signals in Morse code is the distress call SOS: dot dot dot, dash dash dash, dot dot dot.

Faster communication by radiotelegraphy

After Guglielmo Marconi's invention of radiotelegraphy, Morse code really came into its own. Until then, telegraphic communication required cable connections. Telegraph operators worldwide were trained to be able to transmit Morse code. As radiotelegraphy became more and more widely used, messages could be transmitted faster to more and more places.

Abolition of Morse code in 1998

By the mid-20th century, the use of radio transmissions (and later the computer) was gradually replacing Morse code. After the Second World War, the only place where Morse code was really still being widely used was in the shipping sector. And there too, the fax, satellite phone and e-mail gradually became the standards for ship to shore communication. On 1 January 1998, Morse code was officially abolished in the shipping sector; radio-telephony and Morse code were no longer needed. These days captains can just call or e-mail their shipping company.

The end for the Dutch national coast radio station

One year later, on 31 December 1998, national coast radio station ’Scheveningen Radio’ in IJmuiden, which had been established in Scheveningen in 1904, went off the air. This station had maintained contact with passing ships from its transmission centre in IJmuiden.

As its final message, it sent the following by both radio and in Morse code: ’Wishing you and the crew, for the last time, a safe journey and a prosperous new year.’ Since then, the coast guard in Den Helder has taken over the duties of contact with ships, and does so with digital satellite connections.

Het Scheepvaartmuseum uses cookies. Want to know more? Read our cookie policy.