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Samuel Morse, Igor Sikorsky, and May 24

May 24, 2013

Walter Cronkite (1916-2009), who was the anchorman at the CBS Evening News for nineteen years, was also called "the most trusted man in America." In his early career, Cronkite was the host of the television series, You Are There, which ran from 1953-1957.

That show was unusual, since it featured reenactments of historical events by actors, with CBS News reporters in modern dress interviewing the protagonists and reporting on the action. I saw these as a child; and, in a word, it was strange. These were the early days of television, so there were many such experiments. One thing I still remember is Cronkite's final words at the end of each episode,
"What sort of day was it? A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times … and you were there."
Walter Cronkite, April 4, 1968.

Walter Cronkite, as seen on the April 4, 1968, newscast announcing the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

(Still image from a YouTube Video.)

Well, today, May 24, the 144th day of 2013, appears to be a day like all other days, but on this day there were some important things that happened in science and technology.


May 24, 1844, was the day that Samuel Morse sent the telegraph message, "What hath God wrought," the short distance (less than 40 miles) from the United States Capitol to Baltimore, Maryland, on the first telegraph line. On the receiving end was his assistant, Alfred Vail, who had more of a hand in the creation of the Morse code than its eponymous inventor.

Vail had performed a letter frequency analysis of common English text by an analysis of the movable type in type cases at a Morristown, New Jersey, newspaper. He translated his findings into the most efficient use of "dots" and "dashes" for telegraph transmission. It's much easier to do such a letter frequency analysis in today's digital world (see figure).

Frequency of occurrence of letters in English

Frequency of occurrence of letters in English. Click on the graph to get a PDF chart of the frequency values. (Graph by the author, rendered with Gnumeric.)


On May 24, 1940, Igor Sikorsky's Vought-Sikorsky VS-300 helicopter flew on its first untethered flight. This helicopter was the first to have the now familiar vertical tail rotor to counteract the torque of the main rotor, as can be seen in his 1935 patent (see figure).

A portion of fig. 2 of US Patent No. 1,994,488, 'Direct Lift Aircraft,' by I. I. Sikorsky, March 19, 1935

A portion of fig. 2 of US Patent No. 1,994,488, "Direct Lift Aircraft," by I. I. Sikorsky, March 19, 1935. (Via Google Patents.)[1)]

Sikorsky was an aviation pioneer, having designed and flown the first multi-engine fixed-wing aircraft in 1913. He emigrated to the US from Russia in 1923, founded the Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation, and developed the Pan American Airways flying boat aircraft.

Surprisingly, these two events, spaced about a century apart, are the only significant technology milestones on this date. American astronaut Scott Carpenter orbited the Earth three times on this date in 1962 as part of Project Mercury, but this was just one of many such space milestones at the time. Perhaps the date of the technological singularity will be similarly spaced at a hundred years, to occur on May 24, 2040.

Two notable scientists were born on this date. William Gilbert (d. 1603) was born on May 24, 1544. I mentioned Gilbert and his pioneering studies on magnetism in a previous article (Magnetic Earth, June 26, 2008). He is known principally for his book, De Magnete, which provided evidence that the Earth was a huge permanent magnet. At that time, some people thought that compass needles pointed towards Polaris, the North Star, and not the Earth's (magnetic) North Pole.

Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit (d. 1736), inventor of the Fahrenheit temperature scale for thermometers, was born on May 24, 1686. Fahrenheit's scale was calibrated using three convenient reference points; namely, the temperature of a mixture of ice and water with ammonium chloride (set at 0°F), the freezing point of water (set at 32°F), and human body temperature, by mouth or under an arm, (taken as 96°F).

When Fahrenheit thermometers became more robust and accurate, it was found that water boiled at about 180° on the scale. Rather than carry an odd number on the books, the scale was redefined to have exactly 180 degrees between the freezing and boiling points of water. One reason for this is that the number, 180, is divisible by many small integers, which is the same logic for having twelve inches in a foot.

Nicolaus Copernicus (b. 1473) died on May 24, 1543. His book, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, removed the Earth from its place as the center of the universe. In the five hundred years since that time, we've been finding out how much more insignificant our place in the universe really is.


  1. I. I. Sikorsky, "Direct Lift Aircraft," US Patent No. 1,994,488, March 19, 1935.

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