18 November 2007

What Hath God Wrought?

Something happened to me this weekend that made me realize how fast things are changing in the field of communications. A friend of mine introduced me to a computer based voice transmission service called “Skype”. This service is free to people who want to communicate from computer terminal to computer terminal over regular phone lines and there is no cost for the service. If you want to call a regular land line or cellular phone from a computer anywhere in the world there is a small charge of two to three cents per minute. I ended up talking with a friend in Australia for two hours for free and other friends in the United States, Germany, and Italy. The only thing that I needed to do was download and install a free program from Skype and purchase a very cheap microphone for my laptop computer. The program is so simple to use that a child can do it and it operates with ring tones just like a regular phone. It is like magic.

It made me reflect a bit on the history of data collection and transmission. About 4000 B.C. the human race discovered writing and "Read Only Memory" was born. Before that, data could only be transmitted by talking, shouting, whistling, or smoke signals. To permanently store anything you had to carve it into stone and that was the first "hard disk". That's about all we had for the next few thousand years. I guess you could say that we had some floppy discs in the form of animal skins and papyrus but copying files was a very labor intensive process and there were many, many errors. File copying got a little easier around 1500 A.D. with the invention of the printing press and you could store the files in a library where they were fairly easily retrieved. You couldn't transmit them across town very fast, however, and the fastest transmission speed was limited to the speed of the fastest horse.

In the late 1840's a man called Samuel Morse came along and gave us our first electronic data transmission capability. It was still limited by geography and the topography of the earth's surface. In about 1910 it became wireless and data began to fly through the air. In the 1920's our storage capability was improved with the invention of audio and video recording. In the 1940's we began to send pictures through the air and in the seventies we acquired the capability to transmit entire documents at the push of a button.

When I was reading about John Gutenberg and Samuel Morse I was amazed at the amount of effort they put into their inventions. Not only did they invent the process but they also invented the product. Gutenberg was a goldsmith by trade and such a perfectionist that even today his bibles are some of the most beautiful printing ever done. I always had a mental picture of Morse as having had the good fortune to have stumbled upon a use for some odds and ends of wire and stuff that he threw together. Not so! He took great pains to make sure that his invention was a complete system before he introduced it. He used a process that today is called "frequency analysis" by data transmission engineers. When he decided to use an alphabetical system with his new invention he went to a newspaper and studied the type cases. He assigned the shorter dot and dash symbols to the most commonly used characters. He counted the type in one particular newspaper's bins and found 12,000 e's, 9,000 t's, 8,000 each of a, o, m, I, and s. He found 6400 h's and so on and so on. He assigned a single dot to the letter "e" which was the most common letter and a single dash to the letter "t" which was the second most frequently used letter, etcetera.

Morse finally came up with a code in which an English message consisting of 100 letters requires the transmission time of around 940 individual units where the transmission of a dot equals one unit and a dash equals three units and a space equals either one unit or three units depending upon whether it is between words or letters. If the signals had been assigned at random the same 100 character message would have required the transmission of 1160 units instead of 940. Even so, about the fastest that they could transmit information was about 25 words per minute. Consider the fact that that one "byte" equals one character and that there are 8 "bits" in a byte. To that let's add one "start" bit and one "stop" bit for normal data transmission via generic modem. We then have the formula that 10 "bits" equals one character. Therefore 1200 baud is equal to about 120 characters per second. If we assume that each of the "words" in Morse's 25 "words per minute" is equal to eight characters then 25WPM is a little over 3 baud. Even if you only have a dial-up Internet connection of 56,000 baud you can transmit around 40,000 words per minute. Wow!

On May 24th 1844 Mr. Morse inaugurated his telegraph by sending the first message which said “What hath God Wrought”. It is a quote from the King James version of the Holy Bible (Numbers 23: 23). For the next 151 years it was a standard medium of communication in the United States. For 94 years the Coast Guard used Morse Code to send and receive messages via radio on the high seas. But on Apr. 1, 1995, the Coast Guard sent its last Morse Code message from Chesapeake, VA, and the last words were:

“What Hath God Wrought?”.

Yesterday, when I connected with my friend from Australia and the sound was clear as a bell like they were sitting in the same room with me, the words of Samuel F.B. Morse came to my mind like an echo from the past that wouldn’t die. I then realized that the phrase should be change to a new phrase from that same Holy Bible. This time, however, it should come from Jeremiah 33:3:

“Call unto me, and I will answer thee, and shew thee great and mighty things, which thou knowest not.

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.