How communications have changed: From Morse Code To Mobile Phones

Lady in raincoat using morse code

Mankind has always had a natural desire to communicate, but until relatively recently, all communication was either limited to very short distances or else it was painfully slow. In the 19th century, thanks to pioneering work by scientists and inventors such as Edison, Hertz and Morse, communications took a quantum leap.

Telegraphy and Morse Code

By sending bursts of electricity along wires according to an on/off code where sequences of short bursts and longer bursts could represent letters and numbers, Morse Code was invented and telegraphy was born. Cables were laid across countless miles of countryside between Post Offices in cities and towns enabling distant and instant communication. Undersea cables were also laid that enabled inter-continental communications, too. Eventually, it was discovered how to send voice messages instead of simple code and, thanks to Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone, the public telecommunications network became a reality, enabling users to hold telephone conversations worldwide.

Morsecode smartphone


Radio waves had been known about for years, but it wasn’t until the Italian inventor, Guglielmo Marconi, in 1896, patented the first system that could actually transmit and receive Morse Code communications wirelessly that radio communications became a viable proposition enabling communications with ships at sea. His greatest achievement in this field was the first Morse Code transatlantic radio communication. As the earth isn’t flat, however, there were limits on how far a radio wave could travel and still be received. The birth of the Space Age in the 1950’s saw the introduction of artificial satellites. These provided a means of overcoming the physical barriers that prevented reliable, inter-continental radio communications. Radio signals could be sent into space and relayed via a growing network of satellites to be sent back to any part of the world.

WW2 Radio

Telephone calls 

Early telephone calls relied on an operator putting each call through to the correct line. However, this began to change when the Post Office, whose telephony arm later became BT, opened automatic exchange. These allowed customers to be connected without the use of an operator. Human switchboard operators remained the norm in many areas for several years, both for areas that did not have automatic exchanges and for all long-distance or “trunk” calls.

The Queen made the first long distance call that did not require an operator. She called the Lord Provost of Edinburgh from Bristol. The call marked the inauguration of Subscriber Trunk Dialling, or STD for short, which allowed Bristol customers for the first time to dial other parts of the UK without the need for an operator

Old Phone

The Internet and The World Wide Web

Digital technology came along and enabled the transmission of so-called ‘packets’ of data. From the early 1960’s, the Internet was a growing network of connected computers designed to send encoded data, at first between military computers and later between large business computers. In 1989, Sir Tim Berners Lee invented a graphical interface for the Internet, which he called The World Wide Web. It enabled anyone with a home computer to access the Internet and send and receive all kinds of information: audio, video, text, graphics and more with companies and other connected users.

Windows 95 Internet

The Smartphone Era

Mobile phones became available soon after the invention of digital radio communications, but they weren’t exactly pocket-sized. In addition, like land-line telephones, they were limited to audio communications only. It wasn’t too long, however, until they could be made small enough to be not only pocket sized but also capable of accessing the Internet and sending and receiving all forms of content that digital technology enables. New services arose including video chat, email, and multimedia messaging services via social media platforms. Mobile phones or ‘smartphones’ as the more sophisticated ones are called, communicate by radio with nearby mobile phone towers, which, in turn, relay the information through the telecommunications network to landline phones or other mobile phones anywhere in the world.


The Internet of Things

The Internet of Things is at the forefront of technological developments, currently. It involves automated communication between personal devices and appliances via the Internet. For example, apart from displaying the time, there are smart-watch that constantly monitor the wearer’s heart rate. On detecting irregularities they can communicate via the Internet with the wearer’s smartphone to warn of the situation. Driverless cars of the future will also rely heavily on this technology as vehicles will need to communicate with each other in order to avoid collisions.

Advanced Computer tech

Why was Morse Code invented ?

Morse Code was developed by three people in the mid-1830s – American artist Samuel Morse (for whom the code is named), American physicist Joseph Henry, and American inventor Alfred Vail. The code was originally invented so that messages could be sent along telegraph lines in the form of an electric current. Each letter of the alphabet and number from 0 to 9 was translated into a series of electrical pulses (for example, A is a short pulse followed by a long pulse, B is a long pulse followed by three short pulses, and so on), with each letter being followed by a silence to indicate that the code was complete. 

Morsecode code

Operators at either end could input the code and could listen to the clicks made by these pulses when transmitted over an electrical cable to send messages quickly over long distances. Originally, Morse, Henry and Vail developed the code so that it could be ‘punched’ into a length of paper at the receiving end, which meant that an operator was not required to e continually present at the receiving end. Any received messages were punched into paper strips and could be picked up and translated at a later time. The receiving piece of equipment (known as an armature) made a clicking sound when punching through the paper, which operators realised could easily be translated into dots and dashes and written out by hand, removing the need for paper to punch the message on to. Highly trained operators at either end could rapidly transcribe messages and send and receive them over long distances, opening up new forms of telecommunications at speed.

In the late 1800s (around 1890), Morse code had been refined into a standardized alphabet, and began being used over radio rather than relying on physical electrical cables. Although most messages were still send over physical cables, this meant that communication with aircraft was now possible, and began being regularly used in the 1920s once the receiving equipment was reduced to a useful size. Although radiographic communication was therefore available during the First World War, it was little used. However, radio communications over Morse code were vital during World War 2, especially for carrying radio communications between bases and craft on missions. Although international Morse code is still used in the present day, its use has been superceded by the development of voice communications technologies. Only a small number of people are now trained in its use every year, with amateur enthusiasts the main users now.