Morse code is a system of communication developed for use with the telegraph in which letters of the alphabet and numbers are represented by sequences of dots and dashes (or short and long signals). It was invented by Samuel Morse and Alfred Vail in 1835. Morse code may be transmitted in numerous ways: as an audio tone, a steady radio signal switched on and off, an electrical pulse down a telegraph wire, or as a mechanical or visual signal (like a flashing light). Most people are who are familiar with the sound of it will think of a fast, syncopated pattern of long and short beeps. The first message, sent on a line between Baltimore and Washington on May 24, 1844, was "What hath God wrought!"
In some sense, Morse code is an early form of digital communication; however, unlike modern binary digital codes that use just two states (commonly represented as 1 and 0), it uses five: dot (·), dash (-), short gap (between each letter), medium gap (between words) and long gap (between sentences). Morse code is also a binary code, in that it's based on only two states: on and off.
Talking Popcorn is a sound sculpture that evolved out of my interest in language, translation, and Morse Code. A microphone in the cabinet underneath the popcorn machine picks up sound of popping corn, and a laptop hidden in the pedestal runs a custom-written program that translates the popping sounds according to the patterns and dictates of Morse Code. A computer-generated voice provides a simultaneous spoken translation.
The computer program for Talking Popcorn was written by Josh Goldberg using Max/MSP. Since Morse code consists of a system of long and short sounds, and popcorn only pops in short sounds, the first challenge we faced was how to overcome this disparity. I remembered that the doomed sailors on the Russian submarine Kursk had tried tapping out messages on the hull. If this was possible, it must be a matter of pacing the knocking differently in order to communicate long/short marks. This is in fact what Talking Popcorn does: it listens to a series of pops in a group, taking a running average of the amount of silence that follows each pop, and then designates each of those pops as a dot or a dash. Measuring the lengths of silence in groups also helps account for the acceleration that happens as the kernels heat up and pop and peak speed and density.
Talking Popcorn blurts out words in many different languages, but ultimately it speaks a "language" very much its own (one person dubbed it "popcornese"). When this piece has been exhibited, I have kept a daily journal of the popcorn machine's speech, placing samples of popcorn inside a vacu-formed capsule next to a text panel that shows everything spoken by the machine on that particular day. One of these capsules is hung on the gallery wall at the end of each day of the show. In a play on the tradition of bronzing a baby's first shoes, I also bronzed the popcorn machine's first word, "WE," (dot dash dash, dot) and preserved these kernels in a wooden jewelry case (Talking Popcorn's First Words, 2001).