by Megan Bittner
Codes have been used throughout history to communicate, signal distress, and transmit secret information. One of the most recognizable codes is Morse code, developed by Samuel Morse in 1836 as a means of long-distance communication. It was soon in use by the military industry worldwide, and the universal distress signal derived from Morse code–SOS–is one of the most recognizable emergency codes in use. Explore these fascinating lesson plans, games, and activities to commemorate the birthday of this American artist, scientist, and inventor on April 27.


Samuel Morse and the Morse Code 

Begin with an overview of the history of the telegraph and its impact on military strategies, news and business, economics, and personal communication at

The first long-distance message was transmitted by Samuel Morse on May 24, 1844 on an experimental line from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore.

Although Samuel Morse is well-known for the communication method named for him, you may not know of his career as an artist, his motivation for his long-distance communication method, or memorable final Morse code message. Check out these six things you may not know about Samuel Morse.

Although the lifespan of Morse code as a means of communication was short-lived, having been replaced in relatively quick succession by telephone, email, and text message, the invention proved to be the catalyst that helped launch the world of instantaneous networked communication that we take for granted today.

Use this printable code listening tool to learn how to decipher morse code by ear, and use the visual Morse code alphabet chart to decipher this (partial) quote from Bill Gates.

•- -• -•– – — — •-•• – •••• •- –  • -• •••• •- -• -•-• • •••  -•-• — — — ••- -• •• -•-• •- – •• — -•  •••• •- ••• 
•–• •-• — ••-• — ••- -• -•• • ••-• ••-• • -•-• – •••


BookShark 2018 Convention Exhibitor

Bookshark offers a four-day unit study on Samuel Morse and his invention suitable for children ages 6 through 13. Learn about the life, the scientific breakthroughs, and even the failures of inventor Samuel Morse through an engaging narrative and an easy to assemble hands-on activity–a simple, working telegraph using the kit and directions provided. Now through August 31, 2018, use discount code TKHEAV at checkout to receive this unit study FREE! Thank you so much to Bookshark for this amazing offer! (And be sure to visit them in booth #317 at the convention and thank them!


Emergency Communication

One way that codes are commonly used is in emergency communication and signals. There are many variations on the universal SOS signal that can be used in outdoor survival situations.

The International Code of Signals (ICS) is a system of codes and signals used by ships to communicate important messages regarding safety, navigation, and more.

Semaphore flag signalling is an alphabet signalling system based on waving two hand-held flags in a specific pattern.

Learn the Semaphore alphabet here.

Improve your outdoor survival skills with these universal whistle signals utilizing an essential survival tool–the simple whistle.


Keeping Secrets

The most fascinating types of codes are secret codes and ciphers, which have been used throughout history to transmit sensitive information and prevent it from falling into the wrong hands.

Cryptography is the study of enciphering and encoding (sending coded messages) and deciphering and decoding (interpreting coded message).

Discover the history of codes and ciphers at Top Spy Secrets.

One of the oldest known ciphers was used by Roman ruler Julius Caesar (100 B.C.–44 B.C.) for secret communication.

Mary, Queen of Scots used a polyalphabetic cipher to send coded messages to her co-conspirator Anthony Babington in her plot against Elizabeth I of England.

George Washington and the Culper Spy ring used the Culper Code to transmit spy communications during the American Revolutionary War.

Check out some of the many spy techniques used during the Revolutionary War, including ciphers and coded letters, mask letters, and even invisible ink!

President Jefferson devised the code we now know as the Secret Code of Lewis and Clark to enable Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to encode the information they learned on their famous expedition.

During the American Civil War, both the Union and Confederate armies used coded messages and ciphers to communicate. The Confederate army commonly used a variation of the Vigènere Cipher, and both armies used flag-based codes with multiple alphabets and ciphers.

Not all codes are a mish-mash of symbols and ciphers; some codes are hidden in plain “sight,” through song and verse. Some of the most well-known examples of this are the songs of the Underground Railroad, used before and during the Civil War. Slaves would use the lyrics of the songs to communicate specific messages and plan escapes.

Coded messages had become more “high-tech” by World War II. Both the German and Japanese used a code creator called the Enigma machine to create ciphers, and British scientists created a machine called the “bombe” to decipher messages created by the Enigma.

A lower-tech method of transmitting coded messages during World War II was through the use of carrier pigeons using tiny canisters. These carrier pigeons were used extensively to carry information to Britain from mainland Europe. The remains of one such pigeon were discovered in 1982 in a disused chimney of a home in Surrey, England, with an encoded message still intact in its canister. Despite some claims made by enthusiastic cryptologists, it is debatable whether the cipher has been or will ever be solved.

An unfortunate result of code books and algorithms being lost, or the creators of ciphers taking the secret to their graves, is that there are many secrets that may never be discovered. Check our these seven fascinating codes from around the world that have yet to be broken.

One way to learn how to decipher codes is to learn how to write them. Explore a collection of known codes and ciphers and even learn how to create your own with WikiHow.

Try these five simple codes that kids can write from Kids Activities.

Even very young children can practice cryptology with these six secret codes for kids.

Experiment with these five methods of making invisible ink to add another level of secrecy to your coded messages.

Try your hand at deciphering and decoding with these 15 free online code and cipher games.

Extra Credit!

If you have a copy of the Spring 2018 issue of Home Educator magazine handy, use the Ottendorf book cipher described here to decode the following message:

21 1 34 – 7 1 3 – 18 1 3 – 11 3 1 – 7 3 6 – 21 1 6 – 11 3 41 – 10 1 1 – 20 2 17 – 17 6 5 – 8 2 37 – 9 3 4 – 6 1 2 – 15 3 30 – 14 1 4 – 19 2 6 – 18 5 10 – 7 3 12 – 9 2 6 – 15 1 14 – 18 1 13 – 19 9 2 – 21 12 12

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