February 9, 2023

Samuel Morse and the power of thinking smaller

For most of human history, the speed limit on long-distance communication wasn’t a matter of 5G bandwidth or even how fast an operator could connect your phone call. It was how fast a horse could gallop. The legends of breakneck journeys such as Paul Revere’s midnight ride, like the first ancient Greek marathon by Pheidippides, illustrate that information was, up until very recently, a localized phenomenon, a nearly-physical product that needed to be shipped just like wheat or wood.

But then, in the 19th century, a newly understood force gave inventors reason to believe that they could break that speed limit: electricity. Electricity was the closest thing to harnessing the power of the gods that man has encountered since taming fire. However, unlike fire, electricity could be sent great distances along wires – seemingly forever. If this magic could be managed, transformed, and somehow turned into information, it could connect the world in a giant central nervous system – forming one global brain and giving horses a break.

Except, how do you turn electricity into communication?

Many of the world’s greatest engineers and scientists tried to crack this problem with all sorts of elaborate contraptions, with magnets and needles, springs and levers, batteries and litmus papers. They would advance in fits and starts, with some experiments showing promise and others failing miserably. After years of trying, nobody could make it work.

But Samuel Morse, a painter from Massachusetts, had another idea.

While everybody else focused on all the expansive things they could do with electricity, Morse saw that the answer to this communication puzzle was electricity. He discarded all the tools that the other scientists were using and focused instead on the smallest, simplest part: opening and closing a circuit. He didn’t need special needles and paper to receive a message via current – the current itself was the information. The electric telegraph was invented.

Limited to just on and off, Morse, and his collaborator Alfred Vail, then tackled the following challenge: developing a language using just that confined palette. At first, they tinkered with more complex arrangements, including sending a series of digits to correspond with big books of lookup tables. Send •••••• • ••••, and the receiver would look for the 614th word on the list. Beyond being slow and cumbersome, the problem is that language changes – and both sides need to have the same book for this elaborate system to make any sense. It was, in his own words, “a world of labor.”

So, they narrowed themselves to characters, not words, and soon developed a language with just two of them: a short “on,” known as a dot, and a long one, known as a dash. With only those alternating patterns of dots and dashes (plus the spaces in between), operators could send all 26 Latin letters, all 10 Arabic numerals, and a handful of punctuation. A universe of meaning sprung from just a blip.

By constraining his toolkit to only the elemental pieces, Morse helped invent the telegraph. By then embracing the limits of that very innovation, he invented a method that transformed our world, connecting our species in real-time, for the first time.

In 1844, Morse sent the first telegraph message from Washington, DC to Baltimore, Maryland: “What hath God wrought!” Within a few short decades, as cables were laid across the oceans and the globe began to shrink in this web of wires, both world leaders and everyday families could communicate at a speed previously unimaginable. Pheidippides could relax.

And while today, we don’t have to limit ourselves to communicating in Morse code most of the time, the same principles apply to how we connect and create in this century. Like those well-funded and capable inventors that missed the mark, having too much at our disposal often hinders us more than it helps us. Thinking smaller, by stripping away our options or imposing harsh deadlines, allows our minds to squeeze into places where others can’t.

Sometimes the constraints are external, but we can impose them on ourselves to unlock the same effect in our work and creativity:

  • What if you couldn’t use your favorite tool or piece of software?
  • What if you had to finish it before lunch?
  • What if you could only use your left hand?
  • What if it had to be in black and white?
  • What if it had to rhyme?

The pressure of these creative constraints (or -.-. --- -. ... - .-. .- .. -. - … as Morse would translate it) forces us out of our usual grooves and into unknown territory. It wakes us up. And it helps unlock our best thinking.

About the Author

Ben Guttmann ran a marketing agency for a long time, now he teaches digital marketing at Baruch College, just wrote his first book (Simply Put), and works with cool folks on other projects in-between all of that. He writes about how we experience a world shaped by technology and humanity – and how we can build a better one.

Get my new book, it just came out.

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