A Clever use of Binary Celebrates 175 Years

At 8:45 am on Friday May 24th, 1844 an individual repeatedly pressed two strips of metal together so they ever so briefly made contact before springing back apart. Each click sent an electrical impulse on a journey from its starting point in the old Supreme Court Chamber in Washington. The impulses travelled along a 16-gauge wire insulated with cotton thread mixed with shellac, beeswax, resin, linseed oil and asphalt.

As the impulses travelled along the wire, they crossed above the some five-hundred chestnut poles standing seven meters tall and almost six-hundred meters apart ignoring the world and people below them. Almost instantaneously the electrical impulses arrived at their destination at the Mount Clare railroad station in Baltimore.

Here, the impulses engaged an electromagnet forcing down a stylus into a ribbon of paper slowly moving by the steading rhythms of mechanical clockwork. The impulse gone, the spring hauled the stylus back up out of site until the next impulse hit, then the next and again and again until the impulses stopped.

Alfred Vail picked up the paper tape and began to decipher the code his counterpart back in Washington had sent:

.~~   ….   .~   ~      ….   .~   ~   ….      ~~.   . .   ~..      .~~   . ..   . .   ..~   ~~.   ….   ~


The celebration that day must have been incredible. Sure, it was not the first message via commercial telegraph, no Vail and his partner were some seven years late for that international title, which goes to William Cook and Charles Wheatstone of England. It was however the first transmission in the United States and certainly worth celebrating. What was really at play was the ingenious code that Samuel F. B. Morse used to send the message to Vail.

The binary use of Morse’s dots and dashes took into account letter frequency in English. Letters that are used more often have shorter codes and letters that are used less frequently have longer codes. This made transmission and deciphering messages much easier.

With time operators were able to pick up on the clicks of the code receiver and started writing out the code by hand. First, the mechanical code receivers disappeared, then here and there in the world small adjustments were made to Morse’s code to make the letter frequency more internationally friendly. In 1865 Morse’s code became a standard – International Morse Code.

In the new International Morse Code, Morse’s original message would be:

.~~ …. .~ ~ / …. .~ ~ …. / ~~. ~~~ ~.. / .~~ .~. ~~~ ..~ ~~. …. ~

And if you wanted to practice saying it out loud you can discover the rhythm and beauty found in it:

Di dah dah   di di di dit   di dah   dah       di di di dit   di dah   dah   di di di dit       dah dah dit   dah dah dah   dah di dit       di dah dah   di dah dit   dah dah dah   di di dah   dah dah dit   di di di dit   dah

By 1895 Guglielmo Marconi had invented the first practical radio transmitters and receivers and Morse Code went wireless, texting was born!

Today, Morse Code is still used by some amateur HAM radio operators (as you are no longer required to know Morse Code to get a licence). It may even appear that Morse is not as popular as it was 175 years ago, but it is finding a niche outside the enthusiasts. Individuals with speech and mobility difficulties have been able to use Morse Code to communicate and smartphones now often come with Morse Code keyboards to make input easier.

I personally started learning Morse Code when I hit with a big dip in my depression. Learning the rhythmic dits (dots) and dahs (dashes) was a way to pull my brain out of negative loops. Now well back on my feet, I use it to send coded texts to my older brother just for fun and keep up practice by using writing in my journal (For journaling I’ve traded – (dashes) for | (lines) making it more compact and easier to tell a dot from a dash with hurried writing.).

Morse Code has come a long way and Morse would surely see the great influence of his code beyond the telegraph, after all, we live in a world that runs on binary.


Bumble Charges Up to Assist Astronauts on ISS

Just a quick update about the Astrobees. The first of them, Bumble, is charging up and has under gone its first hardware check. Honey, who launched with Bumble on the Northrop Grumman’s commercial resupply mission on April 17th, hopefully will be up and running soon as well.

Astronaut Anne McClain performs the first series of tests on Bumble.
Credit: NASA
Bumble at its charging station.
Credit: NASA

B.O.B. Lives! – Well not quite but getting there

I have been living under a rock. Somehow I missed the launch of what could be the closest thing to a long-standing image of what robotics should look like from my childhood.

At some point in my childhood, I sat down with my dad to watch the 1979 classic The Black Hole. Truthfully, most of the film is lost to time in my mind (meaning I really should sit down and re-watch it) but two floating robots forever caught my imagination: V.I.N.CENT and B.O.B.

They were what all space robots should look like. Small, compact, cute and most importantly they float. Turns out not only does NASA have floating robots on the International Space Station (ISS) called SPHERES that have been on the station since 2006, but NASA has just recently sent up the second generation of these robots named Astrobee. These second-generation bots will conduct research, be an extra set of eyes for ground control and assist with certain tasks.

Image courtesy NASA

SPHERES got their start thanks to professor David W. Miller of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Space Systems Laboratory gave his students a challenge. He wanted them to build a space robot that was like the lightsaber training droid in Star Wars: A New Hope. The result was three satellites that tested formation flight and docking control algorithms. SPHERES also started the Zero Robotics competition that allowed students to have their code tested in space!

Astrobee robot family
Image courtesy NASA
NASA Astrobee space robot
Image courtesy NASA

The Astrobees will continue this tradition alongside assisting with tasking on the ISS, testing robotic components, trying out navigation algorithms, and just being plain awesome if you ask me. The three Astrobees (Honey, Bumble and Queen) all use fans to move them through zero gravity. With little to no weight restrictions on their lifting capabilities, because they don’t have to overcome the effects of gravity, these little robots pack quite the punch. I am very excited to see how they will change life on the ISS and am now thinking I need to get into robotics so I can maybe get my code tested on these inspiring robots.

Curious to learn more about them? Check out the NASA webpage or the code on GIThub.