The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 2/Number 5/The Dot and Line Alphabet

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Featured in Vol 2., No.5 of The Atlantic Monthly. (October 1858)


Just in the triumph week of that Great Telegraph which takes its name from the Atlantic Monthly, I read in the September number of that journal the revelations of an observer who was surprised to find that he had the power of reading, as they run, the revelations of the wire. I had the hope that he was about to explain to the public the more general use of this instrument,—which, with a stupid fatuity, the public has, as yet, failed to grasp. Because its signals have been first applied by means of electro-magnetism, and afterwards by means of the chemical power of electricity, the many-headed people refuses to avail itself, as it might do very easily, of the same signals, for the simpler transmission of intelligence,—whatever the power employed.

The great invention of Mr. Morse is his register and alphabet. He himself eagerly disclaims any pretension to the original conception of the use of electricity as an errand-boy. Hundreds of people had thought of that and suggested it; but Morse was the first to give the errand-boy such a written message, that he could not lose it on the way, nor mistake it when he arrived. The public, eager to thank Morse, as he deserves, thanks him for something he did not invent. For this he probably cares very little. Nor do I care more. But the public does not thank him for what he did originate,—this invaluable and simple alphabet. Now, as I use it myself in every detail of life, and see every hour how the public might use it, if it chose, I am really sorry for this negligence,—both on the score of his fame, and of general convenience.

Please to understand, then, ignorant Reader, that this curious alphabet reduces all the complex machinery of Cadmus and the rest of the writing-masters to characters as simple as can be made by a dot, a space, and a line, variously combined. Thus, the marks • — designate the letter A. The marks — ••• designate the letter B. All the other letters are designated in as simple a manner.

Now I am stripping myself of one of the private comforts of my life, (but what will one not do for mankind?) when I explain that this simple alphabet need not be confined to electrical signals. Long and short make it all,—and wherever long and short can be combined, be it in marks, sounds, sneezes, fainting-fits, canes, or children, ideas can be conveyed by this arrangement of the long and short together. Only last night I was talking scandal with Mrs. Wilberforce at a summer party at the Hammersmiths. To my amazement, my wife, who scarcely can play "The Fisher's Hornpipe," interrupted us by asking Mrs. Wilberforce if she could give her the idea of an air in "The Butch of Turin." Mrs. Wilberforce had never heard that opera,—indeed, had never heard of it. My angel-wife was surprised,—stood thrumming at the piano,—wondered she could not catch this very odd bit of discordant accord at all,—but checked herself in her effort, as soon as I observed that her long notes and short notes, in their tum-tee, tee,—tee-tee, tee-tum tum, meant, "He's her brother." The conversation on her side turned from "The Butcher of Turin," and I had just time, on the hint thus given me by Mrs. I., to pass a grateful eulogium on the distinguished statesman whom Mrs. Wilberforce, with all a sister's care, had rocked in his baby-cradle,—whom, but for my wife's long and short notes, I should have clumsily abused among the other statesmen of the day.

You will see, in an instant, awakening Reader, that it is not the business simply of "operators" in telegraphic dens to know this Morse alphabet, but your business, and that of every man and woman. If our school-committees understood the times, it would be taught, even before phonography or physiology, at school. I believe both these sciences now precede the old English alphabet.

As I write these words, the bell of the South Congregational strikes dong, dong, dong;———dong, dong, dong, dong,—dong,—dong. Nobody has unlocked the church-door. The old tin sign, "In case of fire, the key will be found at the opposite house," has long since been taken down, and made into the nose of a water-pot. Yet there is no Goody Two-Shoes locked in. No! But, thanks to Dr. Channing's Fire-Alarm, the bell is informing the South End that there is a fire in District Dong-dong-dong,—that is to say, District No. 3. Before I have explained to you so far, the "Eagle" engine, with a good deal of noise, has passed the house on its way to that fated district. An immense improvement this on the old system, when the engines radiated from their houses in every possible direction, and the fire was extinguished by the few machines whose lines of quest happened to cross each other at the particular place where the child had been building cob-houses out of lucifer-matches in a paper-warehouse. Yes, it is a very great improvement. All those persons, like you and me, who have no property in District Dong-dong-dong, can now sit at home at ease,—and little need we think upon the mud above the knees of those who have property in that district and are running to look after it. But for them the improvement only brings misery. You arrive wet, hot or cold, or both, at the large District No. 3, to find that the lucifer-matches were half a mile from your store,—and that your own private watchman, even, had not been waked by the working of the distant engines. Wet property-holder, as you walk home, consider this. When you are next in the Common Council, vote an appropriation for applying Morse's alphabet of long and short to the bells. Then they can be made to sound intelligibly. Daung ding ding,—ding,—ding daung,—daung daung daung, and so on, will tell you, as you wake in the night, that it is Mr. B.'s store which is on fire, and not yours, or that it is yours, and not his. This is not only a convenience to you and a relief to your wife and family, who will thus be spared your excursions to unavailable and unsatisfactory fires, and your somewhat irritated return,—it will be a great relief to the Fire Department. How placid the operations of a fire where none attend except on business! The various engines arrive, but no throng of distant citizens, men and boys, fearful of the destruction of their all. They have all roused on their pillows to learn that it is No. 530 Pearl Street which is in flames. All but the owner of No. 530 Pearl Street have dropped back to sleep. He alone has rapidly repaired to the scene. That is he, who stands in the uncrowded street with the Chief Engineer, on the deck of No. 18, as she plays away. His property destroyed, the engines retire,—he mentions the amount of his insurance to those persons who represent the daily press, they all retire to their homes,—and the whole is finished as simply, almost, as was his private entry in his day-book the afternoon before.

This is what might be, if the magnetic alarm only struck long and short, and we had all learned Morse's alphabet. Indeed, there is nothing the bells could not tell, if you would only give them time enough. We have only one chime, for musical purposes, in the town. But, without attempting tunes, only give the bells the Morse alphabet, and every bell in Boston might chant in monotone the words of "Hail Columbia" at length, every Fourth of July. Indeed, if Mr. Barnard should report any day that a discouraged 'prentice-boy had left town for his country home, all the bells could instantly be set to work to speak articulately, in language regarding which the dullest imagination need not be at loss,

"Turn again, Higginbottom,
Lord Mayor of Boston!"

I have suggested the propriety of introducing this alphabet into the primary schools. I need not say I have taught it to my own children,—and I have been gratified to see how rapidly it made head, against the more complex alphabet, in the grammar schools. Of course it does;—an alphabet of two characters matched against one of twenty-six,—or of forty-odd, as the very odd one of the phono-typists employs! On the Franklin-medal-day I went to the Johnson-School examination. One of the committee asked a nice girl, what was the capital of Brazil. The child looked tired and pale, and, for an instant, hesitated. But, before she had time to commit herself, all answering was rendered impossible by an awful turn of whooping-cough which one of my own sons was seized with,—who had gone to the examination with me. Hawm, hem hem;—hem hem hem;—hem, hem;—hawm, hem hem;—hem hem hem;—hem, hem,—barked the poor child, who was at the opposite extreme of the school-room. The spectators and the committee looked to see him fall dead with a broken blood-vessel. I confess that I felt no alarm, after I observed that some of his gasps were long and some very staccato;—nor did pretty little Mabel Warren. She recovered her color,—and, as soon as silence was in the least restored, answered, "Rio is the capital of Brazil,"—as modestly and properly as if she had been taught it in her cradle. They are nothing but children, any of them,—but that afternoon, after they had done all the singing the city needed for its annual entertainment of the singers, I saw Bob and Mabel start for a long expedition into West Roxbury,—and when he came back, I know it was a long featherfew, from her prize school-bouquet, that he pressed in his Greene's "Analysis," with a short frond of maiden's hair.

I hope nobody will write a letter to "The Atlantic," to say that these are very trifling uses. The communication of useful information is never trifling. It is as important to save a nice child from mortification on examination-day, as it is to tell Mr. Fremont that he is not elected President. If, however, the reader is distressed, because these illustrations do not seem to his more benighted observation to belong to the big bow-wow strain of human life, let him consider the arrangement which ought to have been made years since, for lee shores, railroad collisions, and that curious class of maritime accidents where one steamer runs into another under the impression that she is a light-house. Imagine the Morse alphabet applied to a steam-whistle, which is often heard five miles. It needs only long and short again. "Stop Comet," for instance, when you send it down the railroad line, by the wire, is expressed thus: ••• — •• •••• •• • •• — — • —

Very good message, if Comet happens to be at the telegraph station when it comes! But what if Comet has gone by? Much good will your trumpery message do then! If, however, you have the wit to sound your long and short on an engine-whistle, thus:—Scre scre, scre; screeee; scre scre; scre scre scre scre; scre scre—scre, scre scre, screeeee scrceeee; scre; screeeee;—why, then the whole neighborhood, for five miles round, will know that Comet must stop, if only they understand spoken language,—and, among others, the engineman of Comet will understand it; and Comet will not run into that wreck of worlds which gives the order,—with his nucleus of hot iron and his tail of five hundred tons of coal.—So, of the signals which fog-bells can give, attached to light-houses. How excellent to have them proclaim through the darkness, "I am Wall"! Or of signals for steamship-engineers. When our friends were on board the "Arabia" the other day, and she and the "Europa" pitched into each other,—as if, on that happy week, all the continents were to kiss and join hands all round,—how great the relief to the passengers on each, if, through every night of their passage, collision had been prevented by this simple expedient! One boat would have screamed, "Europa, Europa, Europa," from night to morning,—and the other, "Arabia, Arabia, Arabia,"—and neither would have been mistaken, as one unfortunately was, for a light-house.

The long and short of it is, that whoever can mark distinctions of time can use this alphabet of long-and-short, however he may mark them. It is, therefore, within the compass of all intelligent beings, except those who are no longer conscious of the passage of time, having exchanged its limitations for the wider sweep of eternity. The illimitable range of this alphabet, however, is not half disclosed when this has been said. Most articulate language addresses itself to one sense, or at most to two, sight and sound. I see, as I write, that the particular illustrations I have given are all of them confined to signals seen or signals heard. But the dot-and-line alphabet, in the few years of its history, has already shown that it is not restricted to these two senses, but makes itself intelligible to all. Its message, of course, is heard as well as read. Any good operator understands the sounds of its ticks upon the flowing strip of paper, as well as when he sees it. As he lies in his cot at midnight, he will expound the passing message without striking a light to see it. But this is only what may be said of any written language. You can read this article to your wife, or she can read it, as she prefers; that is, she chooses whether it shall address her eye or her ear. But the long-and-short alphabet of Morse and his imitators despises such narrow range. It addresses whichever of the five senses the listener chooses. This fact is illustrated by a curious set of anecdotes—never yet put in print, I think—of that critical dispatch which in one night announced General Taylor's death to this whole land. Most of the readers of these lines probably read that dispatch in the morning's paper. The compositors and editors had read it. To them it was a dispatch to the eye. But half the operators at the stations heard it ticked out, by the register stroke, and knew it before they wrote it down for the press. To them it was a dispatch to the ear. My good friend Langenzunge had not that resource. He had just been promised, by the General himself, (under whom he served at Palo Alto,) the office of Superintendent of the Rocky-Mountain Lines. He was returning from Washington over the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, on a freight-train, when he heard of the President's danger. Langenzunge loved Old Rough and Ready,—and he felt badly about his own office, too. But his extempore train chose to stop at a forsaken shanty-village on the Potomac, for four mortal hours, at midnight. What does he do, but walk down the line into the darkness, climb a telegraph-post, cut a wire, and apply the two ends to his tongue, to taste, at the fatal moment, the words, "Died at half past ten." Poor Langenzunge! he hardly had nerve to solder the wire again. Cogs told me that they had just fitted up the Naguadavick stations with Bain's chemical revolving disc. This disc is charged with a salt of potash, which, when the electric spark passes through it, is changed to Prussian blue. Your dispatch is noiselessly written in dark blue dots and lines. Just as the disc started on that fatal dispatch, and Cogs bent over it to read, his spirit-lamp blew up,—as the dear things will. They were beside themselves in the lonely, dark office; but, while the men were fumbling for matches, which would not go, Cogs's sister, Nydia, a sweet blind girl, who had learned Bain's alphabet from Dr. Howe at South Boston, bent over the chemical paper, and smelt out the prussiate of potash, as it formed itself in lines and dots to tell the sad story. Almost anybody used to reading the blind books can read the embossed Morse messages with the finger,—and so this message was read at all the midnight way-stations where no night-work is expected, and where the companies do not supply fluid or oil. Within my narrow circle of acquaintance, therefore, there were these simultaneous instances, where the same message was seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and felt. So universal is the dot-and-line alphabet,—for Bain's is on the same principle as Morse's.

The reader sees, therefore, first, that the dot-and-line alphabet can be employed by any being who has command of any long and short symbols,—be they long and short notches, such as Robinson Crusoe kept his accounts with, or long and short waves of electricity, such as these which Valentia is sending across to the Newfoundland Bay, so prophetically and appropriately named "The Bay of Bulls." Also, I hope the reader sees that the alphabet can be understood by any intelligent being who has any one of the five senses left him,—by all rational men, that is, excepting the few eyeless deaf persons who have lost both taste and smell in some complete paralysis. The use of Morse's telegraph is by no means confined to the small clique who possess or who understand electrical batteries. It is not only the torpedo or the Gymnotus electricus that can send us messages from the ocean. Whales in the sea can telegraph as well as senators on land, if they will only note the difference between long spoutings and short ones. And they can listen, too. If they will only note the difference between long and short, the eel of Ocean's bottom may feel on his slippery skin the smooth messages of our Presidents, and the catfish, in his darkness, look fearless on the secrets of a Queen. Any beast, bird, fish, or insect, which can discriminate between long and short, may use the telegraphic alphabet, if he have sense enough. Any creature, which can hear, smell, taste, feel, or see, may take note of its signals, if he can understand them. A tired listener at church, by properly varying his long yawns and his short ones, may express his opinion of the sermon to the opposite gallery before the sermon is done. A dumb tobacconist may trade with his customers in an alphabet of short-sixes and long-nines. A beleaguered Sebastopol may explain its wants to the relieving army beyond the line of the Chernaya, by the lispings of its short Paixhans and its long twenty-fours.

This work was published before January 1, 1927, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.