Morse Code: A Gateway Between Computing and the Humanities

Upon reading James Gleick’s, The Information, I found it difficult to draw connections between the computing world and the humanities. For me personally, I was unable to fathom how these two completely different areas could possibly share any connections, or cross paths with one another. However, Gleick’s narration on the various technological innovations over the course of history, dedicated to helping spread information more efficiently, quickly, and widespread has helped increase both my awareness and knowledge of how interconnected these two fields of study are.

Gleick provides various detailed descriptions on multiple ‘information’ inventions. However, the one invention, or technological advance in terms of the spread of information, or communication that I was able identify a connection between the computing world and the humanities was Samuel F. B. Morse’s ‘Morse Code.’ Nearing the second half of the 19th century, Morse was working on designing his own version of percussive code, involving the utilization of electromagnets to “pulse” along a telegraph wire. The complexity of this process was more than Morse initially planned. His objective was to transmit language with the help of a clicking electromagnet. He didn’t want to look at this process with a mentality envisioning code, but rather as “a system of signs for letters, to be indicated and marked by a quick succession of strokes” (Gleick 19).

This quote specifically stood out to me in regards to an interconnection between computing and the humanities, because it reminded me of the significance of the alphabet and the writing system in the humanities. Gleick touched upon this fundamental aspect later on, noting that the evolution of the writing system took the longest out of all communicative inventions to develop. Ultimately, the alphabet itself represented “one symbol for one minimal sound” (Gleick 32). The same complexity of this notion is reflected in Morse’s invention, which he struggled in producing with his design.

Morse’s initial idea was to first send a series of numbers, one digit at a time, with dots and pauses in between. Therefore, each English word would be represented by a specific number. The telegraphists at the end of each line would meet these codes messages with a dictionary in hand to dissect each code. Obviously, this proved to be a time-consuming and inefficient process as the whole objective was to make communication more efficient, accessible, and quicker. With this road block in mind, Morse and his apprentice, Alfred Vail, worked on developing a more efficient form of communication. They constructed a coded alphabet, in which they would use signs in place for letters, instead of numbers. This made it easier so that the signs/symbols would spell out every word, thus making this form of communication much more efficient. An entire language would therefore be “mapped onto a single dimension of pulses” and would adopt the term of the “dot-and-dash alphabet” (Gleick 20).

The broader, more critical connection I drew between the computing world and the humanities in relation to this event was the magnitude of the writing system which plays a fundamental role in not only the humanities, but the computing world, and everywhere else for that matter. Many individuals, including myself, tend to overlook how crucial of a role the writing system/the alphabet plays in all aspects of our everyday lives. The invention of this universal system draws humans as well as all fields of studies from complete opposite worlds to connect on a basic level of understanding.

In addition, it spurred a gateway for a string of new inventions designated to promoting the spread of communication far and wide, like Morse Code. The areas of both code and the humanities seem to be on two opposite ends of the spectrum, but both of them use the alphabet on an everyday basis, pulling their ideas out of the same toolbox. Although Morse code differs from the form of pure writing, the symbols it comprises are representative of the alphabet which is powerful in itself. To me, it seemed as if both worlds, computing and the humanities, rely on each other in a means to stimulate growth in terms of knowledge and further technological advances. Both these worlds rely on the writing system and the alphabet more than they probably realize. Without this universal foundation that is consistently present in our everyday lives, Samuel F. B. Morse wouldn’t have the tools to create his own form of communication, and I wouldn’t be reading about his invention and its significance to humanity. Without the melding of these two worlds, of whom I originally saw as polar opposites, humanity may not be where we are today in regard to our various advancements in communication and technology.

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