Adventures In Morse Code

Some interesting thoughts about an old-fashioned comms tech that was the Tw*tt*r of its day. By Nick Sullivan
Samuel Finley Breese Morse clearly missed a trick. If only he had given Harold Bride, the doomed telegraph operator on the equally doomed RMS Titanic, the wherewithal to beef up his SOS message (perhaps with an emoticon or two, maybe a smiley being eaten by a shark or treading water) then perhaps the whole dour story of the Titanic’s maiden voyage to the bottom of the North Atlantic might have been leavened a touch.

If only Morse, having sent the first ever Morse telegraphy message in January 1841 “What hath God wraught?”, from Baltimore to Washington DC, had appended “touchin cloth.gotta go@ bog” as an afterthought, then he might have caught some of the instant charm of Twitter too. Still, with a 150-year head start on text messaging, Morse was clearly not a complete chump. He did manage to jump on the telegraph bandwagon and create a blissfully simple binary language that could eventually be transmitted round the world in a matter of seconds and provide a system of emergency and covert communication.
Whatever happened to Morse code?
In the Seventies my brother was the custodian of a shortwave radio, and would tune in to it late at night (sometimes with me at his shoulder), listening from deepest Dorset to the weird subaquatic muzak of disembodied voices from as far afield as Vladivostok or Stavanger, even Swindon. In shortwave, see, you could reach far beyond anywhere in a child’s known world and tune in to sounds live and direct, if slightly Dalek-like. It was brilliant. Unintelligible – since you couldn’t understand a word, even the stuff in English – but brilliant nonetheless.
Constant but equally unintelligible, like wallpaper whenever you turned the heavy dial, would be tons of Morse fluttering about the airwaves. The insistent warbling was, we liked to speculate, the distress calls from the commander of a stricken Soviet submarine in the Barents Sea or off the Grand Banks. But it probably wasn’t, it was probably a middle-aged American radio ham who in the decade before home computers needed only a few valves and knobs to keep himself amused.
It’s all About The Timing
It is remarkable though just how far Morse penetrated into the culture. A favourite little in-joke among musical composers known as an Easter egg, it figures in soundtracks and theme tunes as diverse as “Inspector Morse” (geddit) and “Some Mothers Do ’Ave Em”. It is not known quite what he was getting at, but even Sting had a go with “De Doo Doo Doo, De Dah Dah Dah” (possibly). Technically he is saying EJ EJ or possibly ET ETT - clearly a beginner.
Then there’s Kraftwerk who pip out the word “radioactivity” in the song of the same name. This is no mean feat. Mistakes in Morse are everywhere. The theme and incidental music for the “Inspector Morse” series was written by Barrington Pheloung (-- --- ·-···· ·) and has microscopically prolonged spacing between the first two dashes of the rhythm, so instead of MORSE the sequence actually spells out "T T O R S E".
It’s all about the timing. The first thing you have to learn about Morse code is that it is less a code than a language. And just as you wouldn’t learn German letter by letter but by word by word, Morse users learn to treat a sequence of dits and dahs not as a series of uniform noises but as the inflexion of the letters and syllables which together make a word.
So you learn the word battleship (-... .- - - .-.. .... .... .. .--.) not by adding the letters together, one by one, but by recognizing the whole sound made by all the dots and dash that make up the 10 letters. This eventually makes both decoding and transmitting Morse very much faster. Once it is mastered, Morse is more like a spoken monologue than a sequence of tones.
With modern communication there are always two types of communicator.
There are people like me who (mostly) use it to communicate data: meet you at 4.30, my hovercraft is on fire, and so on. And there is he who is fascinated by its possibilities and will use it to communicate less vital information. My head hurts, I am watching X Factor in my underpants etc.
Morse does both! And it’s not only instant, it’s live. And it’s also in code. This is way cooler than texting which just turns up in your inbox and hangs about until you can be bothered to read it.
If only the iPhone had a Morse app. Two big buttons on the touchscreen, even just one for advanced users. Some clever geek could even come up with a vintage-looking Morse key graphic. But sometimes technology just refuses to move backwards.

Notes
1. Disco Morse Code: Kraftwerk “Radioactivity”. The word “radioactivity” in Morse throughout. The Clash “London Calling” - at the end, the acronym “SOS”. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony: The first four notes were used by the BBC at the end of WWII because they signify “V for Victory”.
2. Morse Trivia: the term “OK” was first mentioned in Morse Code manuals as early as the 1840s. The first Morse machines punched dots on a strip of paper, but as operators found they could recognize the pattern of noises made by the punchers, the machine quickly became obsolete.
3. Slash Dot Dash: .... . .-. . / .. ... / .- / --. .-. . .- - / -- --- .-. ... . / -.-. --- -.. . / - .-. .- -. ... .-.. .- - --- .-. / .- - : morsecode.scphillips.com/jtranslator.html