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Va telegraph experts bring accuracy to 'Lincoln'

Tuesday - 12/25/2012, 12:08pm  ET

By DAVID A. MAURER
The Daily Progress

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - For more than a century, lives and the world were affected by messages sent and received via a series of formalized "dits" and "dahs" known as Morse code.

The tones are created by a hand-operated key and transmitted electronically. This was the first practical use of electricity, and the combination of the key and a sounder makes up what is known as the telegraph.

Skilled telegraph operators once were the hinges on which doors of fate often pivoted. Messages of joy and sorrow, as well as vital information, were transmitted first through wires and later the atmosphere.

Samuel Morse and his assistant, Alfred Vail, are credited with inventing the electric telegraph, but they were helped by the ideas of others. When Morse sent the first official telegraph message from Washington to Baltimore on May 24, 1844, few could have realized the extent to which this new invention would affect human history.

Annie Ellsworth, the young daughter of the commissioner of patents, was given the honor of choosing the first message. Perhaps she had an inkling of the magnitude of the moment, because she selected the biblical statement "What hath God wrought."

By the outbreak of the Civil War in the spring of 1861, the telegraph had proved to be a wonderful means of quick, long-range communications. Abraham Lincoln was the first president to use the system to stay in touch with his generals in the field.

Steven Spielberg's new film, "Lincoln," dramatically shows the importance of the telegraph during the war years. Local Morse code enthusiasts Jim Wilson and his son Matt helped the renowned filmmaker attain a remarkable level of historical authenticity as it pertains to the telegraph of that era.

"In July 2011, advertisements in newspapers, especially in the Richmond area, announced they were looking for extras for the `Lincoln' movie," said Jim Wilson who lives in North Garden.

"Matt and I drove down there and found a line about three blocks long of people wanting to be in the film. We were thinking our chances weren't very good.

"We had to fill out a form about ourselves, and one of the questions asked if we had any special talents. We put down that we were Civil War telegraph operators."

Jim Wilson is the longtime editor of Dots & Dashes, the official publication of the Morse Telegraph Club Inc. For years, he and his son have participated in Civil War re-enactments as telegraph operators of the period.

"Usually, when people hear we're telegraph operators, their eyes glaze over _ but this time, boy, did they perk up," Jim Wilson said with a smile. "It was like, `What? We found somebody who knows something about Morse code and the telegraph in the 1800s?'

"They immediately wanted us to be technical consultants and put together a class for the actors who would be portraying the operators. We did that, and on Oct. 17, 2011, in Mechanicsville, we taught about 30 people about things like how to hold the telegraph key.

"And we showed them how to send the original American Morse code, not the international Morse code that was introduced later."

The two types of code are similar, but the international version became the gold standard, because it was simpler and more exact. It takes considerable time and practice to learn the code and be able to send and receive it at a reasonable speed.

"The main telegraph operator in the film was brought down from a stage play he was doing on Broadway," said Jim Wilson, a Vietnam veteran who taught Morse code while serving in the Army.

"They had him there for three days, and in that time we were supposed to teach him Morse code. It usually takes months to become proficient at it, but he asked to borrow our telegraph key and sounder overnight.

"When he came back the next day, he had that particular message memorized and could send it perfectly."

Jim Wilson learned Morse code from his father, who was a ham radio operator. In turn, he taught it to his son when he became interested in it.

"When I was in the third grade I wanted to learn it, because it was cool and interesting," Matt Wilson said. "At the time, I didn't appreciate the wider historical context of it.

"It was just this secret code, and my friends wanted to learn it, too. It was a fun thing we could use with our Walkie Talkies.

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