Attic Salt for March 19
Morse Code in danger of disappearing
By ED CULLEN
Published: Mar 19, 2006
An editor who was a Coast Guard radioman handed me a copy of a wire story about the Morse Code. Across the top, he’d written — “dit, dit, dah, dit — dah, dit, dah, dah — dit, dit.”
The editor’s coded message, written in a way discouraged by our instructors at Navy radio school, said “FYI.”
In the 1960s, radio telegraphy was still taught in military communication schools. It differed from the way Samuel F.B. Morse’s code sounded. Modern Morse Code, sent by radio transmitter, is a series of short and long tones. Early Morse Code relied on holes punched in paper or the spaces between clicks generated by electricity passing through an electromagnet.
In the Boy Scouts, we learned the code in written form first, a practice frowned upon by serious telegraphers because it slowed one’s deciphering the received code. Code, it was argued, should be regarded as another foreign language. The operator should be able to hear a series of dits and dahs and recognize a word. He shouldn’t have to first visualize the code. He should hear it and know the words as though someone were speaking to him in French.
When the U.S. military abandoned the Morse Code as outdated and slow, old radiomen wrote letters to the newspapers defending their art. It is true that the code can be “copied” when the radio bands make voice communication unworkable, but not enough people knew the code or could copy it at speed sufficient to make it practical.
There was the telephone, after all. And cell phones. And, of course, computers. All of which failed during Hurricane Katrina.
Ham radio operators didn’t use much code during Katrina, compared to the thousands of messages relayed by voice, but it was there if needed.
One of the great ironies of Katrina is that state-of-the-art communications systems, private and ones run by the government, failed. Ham radio operators using relatively inexpensive equipment carried the ball for weeks after the storm.
Now, even ham radio may be turning its back on the code or CW (continuous wave).
The FCC has been asked to drop the code requirement in ham radio licensing which makes sense. CW isn’t used by that many hams, and it keeps young people from applying for radio licenses. Without new blood, it’s feared the government will auction off parts of ham bands to commercial interests.
But hams fear that if the FCC makes it too easy to get an amateur license amateur radio will go the way of Citizens Band.
The code is what attracted me to ham radio. When I get on the air, it is code that I use. I haven’t anything urgent to communicate, so the speed of CW is just right.
I think there’s an argument for keeping the code. Why should everything be easy? Require learning the code, but lower the speed for licensing.
Morse Code is part of the romance of radio, a pastime once so accessible to its devotees that many operators built their own transmitters and receivers.
Old radios with their softly glowing tubes, homemade antennas and handsome brass telegraph keys are art practiced by ordinary Joes and Janes.
The Morse Code was something you could start to learn on a front porch on a rainy afternoon. Last week, when the story on Morse Code ran, men across the country took the occasion to use a language they learned in the service or the Scouts to communicate with kindred spirits. And not in e-mail but by making the sounds themselves or writing out the code.
So primitive. So neat.
73 de Larry W2LJ