The roots of computer code lie in telegraph code Unlike Samuel Morse's one-key telegraph, Baudot's used five keys. (Wikimedia Commons/Markus Spiske/Flickr)
The roots of computer code lie in telegraph code
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What was the first long-distance message Samuel Morse sent on the telegraph? It was "What hath God wrought?" It's a question that's still being answered when it comes to digital progress.

The telegraph was a revolutionary means of communication. It's also connected to the development of modern computer languages. Its creation had a ripple effect. It provoked a wide range of other innovations. Jean-Maurice-Émile Baudot was an engineer. He was an important telegraph innovator. His telegraph system laid groundwork. It was for modern computers.

Baudot had been a telegraph operator since 1869. That's according to Fritz E. Froehlich and Allen Kent. They were writing for The Froehlich/Kent Encyclopedia of Telecommunications. Baudot learned how to operate Samuel Morse's original telegraph. That was when he was training. He also learned to use other telegraph models. He practiced on the Hughes telegraph. It was an early printing telegraph. It had a keyboard. It was like a piano. He also practiced on the Meyer telegraph. It was the first to use paper tape. The paper had holes in it. It recorded telegraph signals. That's according to author Anton A. Huurdeman. Baudot built on these innovations. He added his own touch.  

Baudot Code

Morse Code was first used in the 1840s. Baudot Code's biggest advantage over it was its speed. This was also true of other earlier codes. Earlier systems sent characters of information. They used different lengths of character. They were distinguished by a short gap. An example of these is the "dits" and "das." These are from the Morse code system. 

"Baudot's code sent characters in a synchronized stream," writes author Robin Boast. "As each character code was exactly the same length and had exactly the same number of elements." 

Some of the ideas he used had been pioneered before. But Baudot was the first to connect them all in a system, Boast writes. He goes on to explain, "most significant for us is that Baudot was the first to recognize the importance of a simple five-bit binary code. A digital code." Baudot had a fixed-length binary code. It is a direct predecessor of some digital codes. These are still used today. 

ASCII is the most widely accepted code. It translates computer information. It puts it into words. You see them on your screen. It is based on Baudot code. It went through several changes. That was after Baudot's original innovation. Baudot's code "laid the first brick in the road to our digital universe," writes James Draney for Review 31. 

"Baudot's Printing Telegraph was an encoding system. It ran off five-bit binary code. It was not the first binary code. But it was the first to be properly considered digital. And its essence still exists in our computers, tablets and mobiles today."

Printing on paper tape

Baudot patented his printing telegraph. He did so in France. He did so in England. And he did so in Germany. Then he secured an American patent. It was for his printing telegraph. That was on August 21, 1888. The inventor wasn't the first to use a paper-punch system to record telegraph signals. But Baudot Code was widely embraced. So were his custom-built telegraph machines. They helped keep the system alive. His printing telegraph was a precursor to computers. That's because it ran without human intervention. The data (codes) were input. Then it presented the information to the receiver. It was in a readable form. It came out on paper tape. It hadh coded holes in it. 

Baudot's teletype machine was also called a teletypewriter. It used a five-key keyboard. That's according to Froehlich and Kent. 

"Borrowing from Meyer, Baudot developed a distributor. It allowed five instruments to share the same wire," they write. 

His prototype was tested in the later 1870s. It was widely adopted in France. That was "by 1892," the pair write. "France had 101 Baudot-printing multiple telegraphs in operation."

Digital printing used perforated paper. It was still used in the twentieth century, Boast writes. It was "one of the first recording media used for electronic computers in the 1940s and '50s." Think punch cards. Think ticker tape.

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why do you think it's important to study precursors to today's computer code?
Write your answers in the comments section below


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