Morse code by Tony Selmes G4KLF

Morse code’s history started on May 24, 1844, when Samuel Morse transmitted the question, “What hath God wrought?” over 35 miles of wire from Washington to Baltimore. Now the century-old skill, filled with dots and dashes is embroiled in a debate about its future and what level of training should be expected of those called on to help during local and national emergencies.  Morse code, a slowly dying language, has become radio’s equivalent of Latin: historically important, but increasingly irrelevant in a world of cell phones, computers and instant messaging.   With mariners and the military having moved to other technologies long ago, ham radio operators are virtually the sole practitioners of a technique that made national and international communication possible with the telegraph. Now, after decades of requiring code proficiency to obtain certain amateur radio licenses, the Worlds Radio Amateur Societies did away with the qualification, generating strong emotions among the World’s more than 600,000 operators.

The debate came after the completion of many high profile missions in decades for amateur radio operators, who relayed messages about everything from medical supplies to missing people when tragic natural disasters were to hit in many places around the world
As ham radio operators debate the need for Morse code, military officials say it is taught in an expansive way at only two U.S. bases, with just a few dozen members of the full-time military learning it each year. This is also true of British Military, but there is a considerable pool of Intelligence gatherers who maintain these skills. It is primarily used as a backup for joint operations with less-developed nations. Morse is a fading skill in today’s day of information.

The International Maritime Organization officially phased out Morse in 1999 for ships in peril, replacing it with the high-tech Global Maritime Distress and
Safety System. Before that, in 1993, the Coast Guard shut down its Morse code emergency distress network, a system that was a throwback to when ships used the chilling “SOS” as their internationally recognized call for help.

Others say the code requirement is needed to keep the ham radio bands from degrading to the level of citizens band radio, which peaked in popularity during the 1970s and was known for its often-colourful conversation. For others, such views are pure nostalgia for a hobby that has been hurt by the popularity and communications power of the Internet.

To require young people to learn an old language that is very seldom used is a stumbling block for a lot of people to get in the hobby.

A bigger problem is not getting enough new people into the hobby to keep it going, If we don’t keep attracting young people into the hobby, we aren’t going to have that backup system radio communications out in the country, which can really be an asset for public service.” Morse can be sent and received when less favourable radio conditions prevent voice signals from being heard, and it requires only basic equipment that is readily available during emergencies. I also found out during the bad Indian Earthquake disaster a decade ago that although voice communications were good the accent of the operators to the ears of the receiving station (i.e. myself) were very hard to interpret and when it contained personal details it was imperative to get the message correctly, Morse was the best mode at that time. Hence there are countries which are very poor that don’t have other kinds of sophisticated equipment but still have a need for communications. In 1978 I was in a very basic town at the foot of the Himalaya mountains in India and the local post office sent off my telegram to UK using Morse sounders (I could not interpret a single character) but was told that it was Morse- well the telegram got through to UK exactly as I wrote it in the town of Manali.

Over the years, the code has changed very little. Bowing to the importance of the Internet, the @ sign was added in 2003 by the International Telecommunications Union, the first new character in decades. To send this character (called Commat) you just send the characters AC with no break between the two letters.

A US Navy officer of high rank was questioned about the use of Morse Code during the recent Middle East conflicts, he stated that discussions with other NATO countries had been held as to their capability to use that mode of transmission.

Finally the Morse code for use as communication, often quoted, is in the case of seriously disabled persons only able to be understood by using the code.  Using an Aldis lamp as a means of communication requires the knowledge of Morse and can literally mean life or death as many a sailor can verify. I first learnt to read Morse by talking to the then Royal Sovereign lightship from the Hastings Sea Cadets.

Tony Selmes (G4KLF) From Vital Spark Jan 2010.

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