On the morning of June 18, 1831, the world was introduced inadvertently to the first rudimentary form of “texting” through an event that would ignite communications technology development spanning almost two centuries. I’m speaking of course about the creation of the Morris Code, which, though similar, should not be confused with the more commonly known Morse Code, which was created a full five years later.
That fateful morning in 1831, Dwayne Morris, a well respected New York City prosecutor, suffered a series of minor ordinary inconveniences (i.e. spilled his coffee, stubbed his toe, ran out of toilet paper, etc). On any other morning, these events would have only soured the lawyer’s mood, but due to mounting pressure from a high profile case he was working, these became the catalyst for a debilitating mental breakdown. Seconds before he was to give his closing arguments, somewhere in the area of his brain that controlled speech, a wire became crossed as a fuse burned out and Morris’ speech was reduced to a series of high pitched beeps and erratic screeches. As you can imagine, those who witnessed this event immediately labeled Morris insane, costing him the case.
The laughing stock of the law world, Morris descended into a deep depression and refused to see anyone. It wasn’t until a year later that Morris’ wife, in an effort to lift his spirits, hired a young painter/inventor named Samuel Morse to come to the house to paint a portrait of her husband. After much beeping and screeching, Morris finally conveyed through exasperated arms that he would concede to having his portrait painted. Now if you’ve ever had your portrait painted (which I’m assuming most of you have), it’s a long and grueling process to hold a continuous pose. In an effort to make the time go faster, Morse, unaware of Morris’ condition struck up a conversation, only to be met with a frustrated tirade of beeps and screeches from behind his easel. For the genius mind of Morse, it didn’t take long to recognize a pattern developing in the beeps and screeches and soon the two men were hard at work deciphering the meanings behind each sequence of sounds. As the two men mastered the new language, a friendship blossomed and they even developed a shorthand of saying things which was remarkably similar to the acronyms used in modern day “texting”.
In the summer of 1935, Morse began telling Morris of his idea to convert his “beep/screech language”, which they had dubbed “Morris Code”, into a series of electric pulses that could be carried over wire for long distance. He was certain it would be a communications breakthrough and make both men very rich. Unfortunately, Morris had never been a fan of witchcraft, which he assumed this to be and he asked Morse to never speak of it again. Only two weeks later, Morris arrived home to find his study in disarray and the notes and research that he and Morse had compiled to be missing. Scrawled in large dots and dashes across his desk were four simple letters in Morris Code: YOLO. He never heard from Samuel Morse again.
Though it seems like a tragic end to the story of Dwayne Morris, he was not entirely forgotten by history. A small group of Morris supporters still exist today and are unusually vocal about their disdain for the Morse Code (many still believe it to be witchcraft and Tweet about it constantly). Most people don’t know, but the famous puppeteer Jim Henson was a “Morris man” and created his lovable Muppet character Beaker as a tribute to his hero.