Communicating with Symbols and Codes

When you think of telecommunications today, what comes to mind? Fiberoptic lines? Satellites? Massive global networks? Those certainly help define modern telecommunications, but it’s not all high tech wizardry. In fact, mankind has long used low tech measures to communicate across distances with symbols and codes helping to make it possible despite the actual delivery mechanism. Below are a few examples of how we have communicated with symbols and codes over time.

Symbols and Communicating Ship to Ship

Symbols with colorful and with bold patterns, nautical flags represent much more than fanciful boat decor. They were, and still are, used to communicate from ship to ship and from ship to shore. Nautical flags are an international code system consisting of 26 square flags (one for each letter of the alphabet) along with 10 numbered pennants. Not only can nautical flags be used to spell out messages alphabetically, one-flag signals have specific internationally-understood meanings. For example, the ‘O’ flag, when flown alone, means “man overboard”; ‘V’ means assistance is needed; ‘W’ means medical assistance is needed; ‘J’ means the vessel is on fire and to stay back. Each letter, except for ‘R’, has a specific meaning.

Morse Code

As you likely know, Morse code was used to send messages over the telegraph. Each letter of the alphabet was assigned a set of dots or dashes which could be relayed by tapping the telegraph key to match. Dots required a quick tap while dashes were held slightly longer. For example, the term “save our ship” — or SOS — in Morse code translates to “… – – – …” (’s’ is three dots; ‘o’ is three dashes; and ’s’ once again is three dots). In addition to using Morse code over telegraphs, sailors used it with lamps to transmit their messages from ship to ship or from ship to shore.

As old-fashioned as Morse code may sound, it’s still in use today. In fact, the U.S. Navy has created a flashing light to text converter system (called the Flashing Light to Converter System) that converts text messages to Morse code, transmits them via a signal light, and then converts the Morse code back to text message. Now, sailors can simply enter a text message and transmit it via light signals to another ship, which can either translate the Morse code by hand or use its own Flashing Light to Converter System unit to read the actual text message.

Pager Codes

In the 1980s and 1990s when pagers were all the rage and before alphanumeric support became available, pager code was developed. Pager code used numbers that resembled letters (for example, the number 3 looks like a backwards E; thus, 3 = E). According to Urban Dictionary, page code is as follows:

A=6 B=8 C=0 D=0 E=3 F=7 G=9 H=4 I=1 J=7 K=15 L=7 M=177 N=17 O=0 P=9 Q=9 R=12 S=5 T=7 U=17(or 11) V=17(or 11) W=111 X=25 Y=4 Z=5.

17103 (Nice).

Symbols | From Emoticons to Emoji

Finally, let’s take a look at the ever-popular emoticon 🙂 and emoji 😀. Emoticons came first and were used to convey human emotion in icon form. They began to immerge in the early 1980s. Using just your keyboard, you can convey your feelings. For example, 😉 is an emoticon for winking while :-/ indicates skepticism or annoyance. In 1999, Japanese artist Shigetaka Kurita, a member of the “i-mode” development team for a cellphone carrier, designed an a set of 12-by-12-pixel images that could be selected and sent via the i-mode interface — and the emoji was born. Today, an estimated 92 percent of all people use emoji. In a way, we’ve come full circle to the early days of creating cave art to communicate.

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