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Who Needs Texting?

A small number of people love to use an old way of communicating called Morse Code.

Woman from the 1920s or 1930s wearing headphones and using a telegraph machine

© everettovrk/

Telegraph machines were used to send messages in Morse Code.

More than 20 billion text messages are sent each day. Billions of texters can’t be wrong—or can they? A small number of people say they prefer a different form of communication: Morse Code. 

You could say that Morse Code is the ancestor of texting. Invented in the 1830s by Samuel Morse, the code was used to send short messages across distances through a telegraph machine. In Morse Code, each letter, number, and punctuation mark is represented by a combination of dots and dashes. These codes are sent through the machine as electrical pulses that sound like long and short beeps.

Morse Code existed before the telephone, at a time when the only other way to send a message was to have an actual messenger (like a postal worker) deliver it—and that could take days or weeks. But as exciting as Morse Code probably was when it was first invented, it was eventually replaced by faster forms of communication, like texting. 

Still, Morse Code remains a favorite for a handful of amateur radio operators (known as hams) who use their radios to transmit messages to one another as a hobby. Many hams say that sending Morse Code is like returning to a simpler time. Tapping out a message in Morse Code is much slower than texting, which can be a relief to people who wade through a ton of texts every day. And using Morse Code requires a bit of brain power. It is an actual code, after all—all those dots and dashes need to be translated!

You don’t need a radio or a telegraph machine to use Morse Code. If the recipient can see or hear the sender, messages can be sent by tapping a finger against a table or blinking the eyes.

Morse Code isn’t likely to replace texting anytime soon. But for some people, it’s a nice break from it.

© opal2—Creatas Video+/Getty Images Plus

Listen for the short tone (dots) and long tones (dashes).


Black History Month

A GIF that scrolls through the portraits of many well known and influential Black Americans

Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (LC-DIG-ppmsca-08978, LC-USW3-001546-D, LC-USZ62-127236, LC-USZ62-27663); Addison N. Scurlock—Michael Ochs Archives, Kean Collection—Archive Photos, © Michael Ochs Archives, Evan Agostini/Getty Images; Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C. (object no. 2009.50.2); PRNewsFoto/XM Satellite Radio/AP Images; AP Images;  NASA; National Archives, Washington, D.C. (2803441); Pete Souza—Official White House Photo; Animation Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

February is Black History Month in the United States. Want to read more? Check out the January 31 edition of In the News!

Did You Know?

A woman uses a telegraph machine as a talk bubble states in Morse Code, “I wish there was a faster way to communicate.”

George Grantham Bain Collection/The Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (LC-DIG-ggbain-26645); Animation Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Opera singer Ada Jones uses Morse Code, around 1915-1920. (We’re just guessing what the message was!)

The very first text message was sent in 1992, but texting didn’t take off until the early 2000s, when cell phones became popular. 

While texting has been around for about 30 years, Morse Code was in wide use for nearly 150 years.

How Morse Code Works

Morse Code was used by individuals, businesses, and the military. Telegraph operators were trained to be able to translate Morse messages into English (or another language). But while the code may seem complicated, there’s logic to all those dots and dashes. 

The most common letters in the English language are represented by the least number of dots and/or dashes. E is represented by a single dot. T is represented by a single dash. After that, the number of dots and dashes representing a letter increases the rarer that letter is. For example, Q, a rarely used letter, is “– –.”

© DeCe/

This is the international Morse Code system of letters and numbers.

See if you can figure out what this message says. Flip the card to see the answer.

• – – • • – •• • • – ••• •
– ••• • – • •• – • – – •
– – •
• –
• – •• • – • – • – – • •
• – – • •• – – •• – – •• • –

Message Decoded


Sending You a Telegram…

A man in a suit and bowtie looks at a message on a piece of paper while using a telegraph machine.

Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

How were messages sent before the Internet existed? The telegraph machine was one option.

Find out at Britannica School!






: a letter or other written message

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