Code Comfort

By | March 11, 2016

Here’s one for Inspector Morse, perhaps: what does this mean in Morse code?

· – – · – ·

I’ll tell you later.

Today, everyone talks about the importance of “multichannel marketing,” but as far as I know, in only one case has Morse code actually been one of those channels.

One of the iconic structures in downtown Los Angeles is the Capitol Records Building, constructed to look somewhat like a stack of LPs, albeit made of white vinyl. On the roof of the building is a tall spire with a blinking light at the top. Since the building opened in 1956, the light has flashed HOLLYWOOD in Morse code—and in fact, the light was first switched on by Leila Morse, granddaughter of old Samuel himself. The coded message has only been changed twice in the history of the building: once in 1992 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Capitol Records (where the light flashed CAPITOL 50), and again as part of a summer 2013 multichannel marketing program launched to promote Katy Perry’s then-forthcoming album Prism, where the light flashed KATY PERRY PRISM OCTOBER 22ND 2013.

You can probably see the problem. I would imagine that if you drew a Venn diagram of Katy Perry fans and Morse code aficionados, it would probably resemble two circles separated by about 50 miles of blank paper. As a result, no one actually noticed the message. Commented Ms. Perry:

“[N]o one reads Morse code anymore besides that guy, like, in the (Hollywood) Hills that doesn’t wear any pants (Carroll, 2013).”

(To prove that theory, maybe they should have the light flash PANTS SALE OCTOBER 22ND 2016. Just a thought.)

Although Morse code has been superseded as a way of transmitting messages, particularly by those in distress, there are still some users of it. The U.S. Air Force still trains a few people each year in Morse code, amateur radio operators—be they pants-wearing or not—still communicate using it, and museum ships, as befits their nature as preservers of history, transmit Morse code.

Speaking of which, the word museum—from the Greek Μουσεῖον (Mouseion) “seat or shrine of the Muses”—was first coined in 1610 and was initially used to refer to a library, specifically the original library at Alexandria founded by Ptolemy I circa 250 B.C. Eventually the term came to encompass institutions dedicated to displaying art and artifacts, which had originally been referred to as “cabinets of curiosities.” These were more often than not wealthy individuals’ private collections of random objects that were opened to the public. (If you have ever been to Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, you get the idea.)

The oldest known museum in this context is believed, albeit not unanimously, to be Ennigaldi-Nanna’s museum, founded in 530 B.C. by Princess Ennigaldi in what is now southern Iraq. Princess Ennigaldi was the daughter of Nabonidus, the last Neo-Babylonian king and ruler of the city of Ur. She was high priestess to the god Nanna, and her worship space was in a small room at the top of the Ziggurat of Ur. She was also an administrator of a school for priestesses, and the curator of the first museum dedicated to the display of antiquities, although, this being the 6th century B.C., there weren’t a whole lot of antiquities to choose from. (It’s like when you walked into your grandmother’s house and would say, “Look at all the antiques!” to which she would respond, “They weren’t antiques when I bought them!” We continue.) But, yes, various centuries-old Mesopotamian artifacts were on display, accompanied by clay cylinders on which were etched descriptions of the exhibits, or what we would call “museum labels,” in three languages.

Sadly, admission to these early museums was limited to “respectable” people (i.e., the wealthy elite), and the display of private collections became a way for social climbers to ascend a few rungs higher. I don’t imagine that has changed all that much.

The first of what we might call a “natural history museum” was a cabinet of curiosities collected by Italian naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522–1605). Linnaeus, among others, called Aldrovandi “the father of natural history studies,” although he got into the subject in a roundabout way. In 1549, Aldrovandi was arrested for heresy and while under house arrest, he befriended various scholars and became interested in botany, geology, and zoology (he is acknowledged as having coined the word “geology”) and after his release in 1550 he mounted various collecting expeditions throughout Italy. Aldrovandi would amass in excess of 7,000 specimens to add to his cabinet of curiosities, and he was also instrumental in establishing Bologna’s botanical gardens, one of the first in Europe.

It was during the Renaissance that the majority of museums began to spring up, at least in Italy, although it would take until the Enlightenment in the 18th century for museums to proliferate throughout most of the rest of the world.

The first art museums were generally religious institutions, which amassed and commissioned great numbers of original works. Many of these collections were private, or only on display in the temples and churches themselves, so the audience was fairly limited. In the Middle Ages, royal palaces like the one at Versailles opened their collections to the public, at least part of the time (to get into Versailles, attendees needed to wear silver shoe buckles and a sword—although one hopes that wasn’t all they were required to wear).

The great public art museum boom began in earnest in the 18th century, and the Musée du Louvre in Paris—which opened in 1793 during the French Revolution—was one of the first state-owned art museums that was open to the unwashed masses.

The art museum was slow to make it across the Atlantic, and there was actually no art museum in the United States until the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened in 1872. As a result, the only Americans who were aware of the great works of art of the European masters were those who had studied abroad, or had gotten hold of any of the bad copies of European masterpieces that made it to the States.

One of these art students was an American painter, born in Massachusetts in 1791. A Yale graduate (class of 1810), he went on to study art in Boston with painter Washington Allston and then went to London to attend the Royal Academy of Arts. While overseas, he completed a large painting called Dying Hercules, which got good reviews in Europe, but was generally panned by the public back in the States. Indeed, this painter found Americans’ taste in art fairly uncultured, so he set about trying to rectify that. First, he helped found the National Academy of Design in New York City and then he embarked upon a massive painting eventually called Gallery of the Louvre, which he began in 1831 and finished in 1833. It was six by nine feet, and painstakingly reproduced in miniature 38 great works of art found in the Louvre’s Salon Carré, including the Mona Lisa. It was not an original idea, but rather is an example of what is known as the “Kunstkammer tradition of paintings,” which “shows people studying a collection of artwork hanging in a known architectural space” (Gambino, 2011). Alas, Gallery of the Louvre was about as well-received as Dying Hercules had been, and was panned by critics and the public alike.

Still, our guy was a successful and in-demand portrait painter—until a family tragedy sent his career on a different course. In 1825, he had been hired by the City of New York to paint a portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette, the great French ami of the American Revolution, and thus he journeyed to Washington, DC. While he was in DC working on the portrait, he received a letter informing him that back home in New Haven, Conn., his wife was very ill. The next day, a second letter informed him that she had died. He dropped the Lafayette portrait and rushed home, but by the time he arrived, she had already been buried.

Distraught that he had not had any word of her condition all through her illness—thanks to the pokey communications at the time—he virtually dropped everything to devote his energies to developing a faster means of communication. On a transatlantic journey in 1835, he met an American expert in electromagnetism, and after witnessing various experiments with electromagnets, developed an early prototype of the invention he would be famous for.

So it was that Samuel Morse gave up his career as a painter to develop the telegraph, which, in 1844, was demonstrated as a practical system. His 1849 patent now resides in the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian.

The telegraph changed the way people communicate and laid the groundwork for all the developments in communication in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Getting back to the beginning: any idea what · – – · – · stands for?

Well, on May 24, 2004, to mark the 160th anniversary of the first telegraph transmission, the Radiocommunication Bureau of the International Telecommunication Union (ITUR) added the @ sign to the official Morse character set. So if you have ever needed to send your email address in Morse code, now you can. Alas, if you need to send Twitter messages by Morse code—which would be a damn strange thing to do—the hashtag (#) has yet to be given a Morse code equivalent.

Contact the author at · – ·   · ·   – · – ·   · · · ·   · –   · – ·   – · ·   · – – · – ·   · – –   · · · ·   · –   –   –   · · · ·   ·   – · – –   –   · · · ·   · ·   – ·   – · –   · – · – · –   – · – ·   – – –   – –

If you enjoy these historical digressions, 21 of my Digital Nirvana posts from last year have been collected into a new book called Printing Links, available in paperback from Amazon.



Sarah Carroll, “Katy Perry Used Morse Code Months Ago To Reveal ‘Prism’ Album Release Atop Capitol Records Building,” AMP Radio/Los Anegles, October 15, 2013,

Megan Gambino, “Samuel Morse’s Other Masterpiece,”, August 16, 2011,

“The Morse Telegraph,” History Wired, Smithsonian Institution,

“Art Museum,” Wikipedia, last modified on February 27, 2016, retrieved February 29, 2016,

“Capitol Records Building,” Wikipedia, last modified on February 13, 2016, retrieved February 26, 2016,

“Ennigaldi (Ennigaldi-Nanna),” Wikipedia, last modified on January 31, 2016, retrieved February 26, 2016,

“Ennigaldi-Nanna’s Museum,” Wikipedia, last modified on February 1, 2016, retrieved February 26, 2016,

“Morse Code,” Wikipedia, last modified on February 27, 2016, retrieved February 29, 2016,

“Museum,” Wikipedia, last modified on February 2, 2016, retrieved February 26, 2016,

“Samuel Morse,” Wikipedia, last modified on February 23, 2016, retrieved February 29, 2016,

“Ulisse Aldrovandi,” Wikipedia, last modified on February 11, 2016, retrieved February 26, 2016,

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