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"Love To Soph", Hidden Morse Messages From The SS Great Eastern

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Jennifer Bainbridge, Conservator on the new Information Age gallery, writes about the conservation of Morse code tapes from the SS Great Eastern, 1865, a ship which undertook the laying of transatlantic telegraph cable. John Liffen, Curator of Communication, provides details of transcription.

As one of the conservators working on the new Information Age gallery, opening in September 2014, I handle, document and carry out treatments on objects destined for display.  Working so closely with artifacts means I am often in the lucky position of discovering new quirks or secrets, as I was recently reminded when undertaking conservation of some Morse code tapes from the S.S Great Eastern voyage of 1865.

Morse code tapes before treatment (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Looking at the tapes on a shelf in our Telecommunications Store, sitting alongside larger and grander objects, they appeared deceptively small and manageable, while at the same time they held the promise of untold stories.  Curator of Communication, John Liffen, informed me that within living memory at the museum the tapes had never been unravelled and no transcription of the message existed. It was now my job to enable this task! Firstly, I had to determine the object’s condition. Wound round an old paper envelope core the tapes were overlapping as they were coiled round and round.

While providing a compact means of storage, the tapes looked under stress.  They were, however strong enough for unravelling to take place.  The unwinding was quite a slow process as it turned out there were nine tapes wound together, with some being very lengthy.

You can see why the tapes were wrapped around an old envelope, they’re a little unwieldy when unwrapped. (Credit: Jennifer Bainbridge)

Once unravelled, the tapes were lightly cleaned with Smoke Sponge, a natural vulcanised rubber which gently picked up dust and dirt.  The tapes then needed to be humidified to relax the bends and creases caused by having been rolled.  Direct moisture causes cockling of paper and potential running of inks, so instead the paper was rested on a one-way permeable membrane to allow vapour, rather than water though.  Once lying flat the tears were repaired using heat set tissue, activated with a heated spatula.

With the tape repaired John then stepped in to commence the transcription. (Credit: Jennifer Bainbridge)

The main problem encountered at the transcription stage was that the dots and dashes inked on the tape can at times be ambiguous, with a dot often looking like a dash and vice versa.  As John says,

“To a twenty-first century researcher much of the Morse on the tapes translates as random letters. However, in places recognisable words can be read. On piece 1, the phrases ‘still in Vienna have red red’ and ‘none from Paris’ can be seen. Piece 6 was indecipherable, but when the tape was inverted the phrase ‘concludes lead iron cable’ was found within a string of Morse letters. This is more promising as part of a possible message. Most intriguingly, on piece 4 can be found ‘love to Sophbin’. Presumably ‘Sophie’ is the intended word but the Morse clearly shows a ‘b’ after the letter h. Whoever Sophie was, how did she come to be on board the Great Eastern during its cable-laying voyage?”.

Written by Jennifer Bainbridge

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