All About the Telegraph and Deciphering Morse Code Text

Even though the telegraph may not be used much anymore, it was a tremendous development in communication when it was invented and for many years after. An optical telegraph invented in the late 1700s required a line of sight between the people communicating, but the electric telegraph is what most people think of when they hear the words “telegraph.” The electric telegraph was the culmination of the efforts of numerous inventors that were finally brought together in the 1840s. With this technology, electrical signals could be sent from one location to another, where they would be translated into messages. This changed the entire nation, as messages could now be sent and received almost instantly. There was a decreased need for written letters, although these were and are still a major form of communication. Telegrams could be costly to send, so they were generally reserved for more urgent matters; letters were still used for the majority of communication.


William Sturgeon invented the electromagnet in 1825. Sturgeon used the electromagnet to lift heavier weights than previously possible, but his invention would also be used in many communication advancements.

The Emergence of Telegraph Systems

In 1830, Joseph Henry was able to use an electromagnet to ring a bell more than a mile away by sending an electric current over a wire. William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone used similar electromagnetism concepts to create an early telegraph, which they patented in 1837. But it was Samuel Morse who invented the commercially viable telegraph system that we know today.

  • Joseph Henry
  • Cooke and Wheatstone Five-Needle Telegraph

Samuel Morse

Samuel Morse was a New York University professor in 1835 when he successfully produced a message on a strip of paper using electromagnets and pulses of electricity. A year later, he developed his idea to include a system of dots and dashes. A few years later, Congress agreed to pay Samuel Morse $30,000 to create a 40-mile-long telegraph line between Baltimore and Washington; once legislators saw how much easier the telegraph could make communication with their constituents, more lines were added. Morse was also an artist who was known for his ability to capture the essence of people’s personalities through his delicately created portraits.

“What Hath God Wrought?”

The first-ever telegraph message sent on an official line was “What hath God wrought?” The message was chosen by Annie Ellsworth, who was the daughter of a friend of Morse’s. She chose this line from Numbers 23, and it was recorded onto a paper tape as dots and dashes that were later translated by an operator.

The Telegraph Spreads

Small telegraph companies began to spring up throughout the United States, as Samuel Morse and other investors used private funds to run lines to Philadelphia and New York. In 1851, Western Union was founded, and railroads began to dispatch trains using telegraphs. However, 1861 was an even more historically important year for the telegraph: This is when Western Union completed the first-ever transcontinental telegraph line, which ran mainly alongside railroad tracks. Morse code messages were originally printed on paper tape, but this system evolved into an auditory process in which operators transcribed the messages, listening to the pauses and sounds and taking down messages at 40 to 50 words a minute. In 1900, an automated system that converted Morse code to text was invented, and in 1914, automatic transmission technology was developed.

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Multiplex Telegraph, Teleprinters, and Other Advancements

Multiplexing, developed in 1913 by Western Union, allowed four messages to be sent in each direction at the same time. In 1936, this number increased to 36 transmissions per direction. In 1938, Western Union created the first facsimile device, somewhat similar to the fax machines of today. The next major telecommunication advance was the creation of the telex network, which came about in 1959. This technology allowed subscribers to communicate directly with each other, which drastically improved communication capabilities nationwide.

Telephone Rivals the Telegraph

The telephone was invented in 1877, and by 1879, the telegraph and telephone were being operated as two separate services. Ultimately, the telephone would become the more common form of communication, but without the telegraph, we would not have much of the communication technology that we use today.

Morse Code Basics

Learn Morse Code: Trace this chart as you listen to decipher Morse code.
International Morse Code Basics: Learn the basics of International Morse code.
Morse Code Alphabet: See the Morse code alphabet here and begin learning how to translate Morse code.
Morse Code and Phonetic Alphabet: Learn the various phonetic alphabets and the accompanying Morse code letters.
International Morse Code: Read about the history of Morse code and see a chart of the letter codes here.
Morse Code Facts for Kids: For children interested in Morse code, this page is a great resource.
History of Morse Code: Delve into the history of Morse code and see if you can solve the puzzle at the end.
Why Was Morse Code Invented? Learn how the meaning of SOS as an emergency call came from Morse code.
Morse Code: Invention, History, and Systems: Watch a video of a telegraph operator in action and read all about the history of Morse code’s development here.
The Brief History and Importance of Morse Code: Learn how Morse code is used today and how to send an SOS.
Morse Code Translator: Type a message in Morse code or in regular text to get a translation.
Maritime Morse Is Tapped Out: Dive into history and read an article from 1998 discussing the change from Morse code to satellite communications as the mode for international maritime distress calls.
Why the Navy Sees a Future in Morse Code: Learn how the U.S. Navy is combining Morse code, lamplight communication, and texting into a new and improved system of water-based communication between ships.

Updated by Chris Russell

Chris Russell has spent 20 years in the online recruiting space building job boards, recruiting apps and publishing a variety of content for the recruiting industry through articles, podcasting and webinars. Also a former talent practitioner, he’s a popular voice helping to inform the modern recruiter.

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