A view from Dave Trott: Simplicity works, complexity doesn't
A view from Dave Trott

Simplicity works, complexity doesn't

By 1830, people began wondering if electricity could be used to communicate over long distances.

It would be called telegraphy, and there were two competing versions.

In the UK, there was Sir William Cooke and Sir Charles Wheatstone’s; in the US, there was Leonard Gale and Samuel Morse’s.

Cooke and Wheatstone’s system was the more elaborate – it sent electric signals that would move needles at the receiving end into semaphore-like patterns. 

It required complicated equipment to send and receive, and also two people – one to watch the needles and one to write down the letters as they were shouted out.

It worked well enough in the UK, where it was mainly between cities.

But Gale and Morse’s system was better suited to the vast open spaces and small towns of America.

Their system was much simpler – it just switched the electric current on or off, it could be on very briefly or slightly longer, that was it.

If it was short it counted as a dot, slightly longer and it counted as a dash.

They arranged the dots and dashes into an alphabet, and that was all there was to it – no moving parts, no elaborate equipment.

The simple sound of the dots and dashes meant it only took one operator to write down the letters without having to look at the machine.

The letter E would be just one dot, the letter I would be two dots, the letter T just one dash, the letter M two dashes, the other letters a mixture of dots and dashes.

One person sitting on their own in the middle of nowhere could send and receive messages.

The simple code was called Morse, named after the inventor.

Cooke and Wheatstone’s system disappeared, and Morse code dominated all communication for the next 100 years.

Cooke and Wheatstone’s failed because it depended on complicated hardware, the Morse version succeeded because it depended on the simplest possible software – people.

Morse code could be learnt and used anywhere, with or without electricity.

Ships at sea could use lights to blink messages in dots and dashes, prisoners in jail could tap messages on the bars using tin cups.

The system adapted to people, even without any hardware at all.

In a prisoner of war camp in 1941, Major Alexis Casdagli knitted a wall hanging, which he took with him from camp to camp.

The Germans let him display it as an example of how “effete” the British soldiers were.

But all the other British prisoners could read the pattern that was stitched into it.

It clearly read “FUCK HITLER”, stitched many times over in Morse code.

In Vietnam, in 1966, a downed US pilot was forced to make a video.

To camera, he said: “I get adequate food and clothing and medical care when I require it.”

Meanwhile, his eyelids blinked “T-O-R-T-U-R-E” in Morse code.

The reason Morse code is still in use nearly 200 years after its invention is its simplicity.

Morse knew that, with the human mind, simplicity works and complexity doesn’t.

We could learn from that.

Complexity is a security blanket, it makes us feel safer, as if we’ve been clever.

But actually complexity is weakness, it just means we haven’t thought long enough to get to the simple answer.

It means we stopped while it was still complicated, we didn’t persevere to simplicity.

So we never bought a ticket into the mind of people.

And that’s the place where simplicity always beats complexity.

Dave Trott is the author of The Power of Ignorance, Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three