The way we see things

Morse Code – The Dash and Dot Parade

February 23, 2012 by Bobb Drake

Last season, while the rest of the world was telephoning, texting and interwebbing, USA won gold at the world championship of Morse code. This was in the pileup category, in which a participant listens to a mix of several ongoing messages at different volumes and speeds.

The International Amateur Radio Union (IARU) puts on the High Speed Telegraphy World Championship every odd-numbered year, this recent one having taken place in Bielefeld, Germany. Participants transmit and receive Morse code messages as quickly as humanly possible in different competitive categories, under these rules).

Morse might seem difficult, but a statistical research project shows that frequently used letters do have shorter codes. The long-term goal of an operator, according to this relatively popular telegraphy guide, is to eventually reach a point of understanding the series of long and short sounds as naturally as if they were words. Here's a quick demo:

Technically, Morse and Braille differ from language because they are not massive environments of interdependent symbols, symbols by which to understand and transmit our thoughts. These codes are simply a means to transcribe and/or transmit segments in existing languages. Because of their relationship/integration with existing language, though, even though Morse is "just a code", personal style manifests itself. For example, the personalities and communication habits of World War II radio operators would leak into their work, sometimes making it possible to tell their identities and locations merely by receiving their messages and guessing at form or cadence.

And if users of American Sign Language also develop their own slang and personal styles, is ASL a language or a code? Drawing boundaries around the definition of a language is a tricky subject because the answer really depends on whom you ask.

Recent years of telephone and Internet use have left Morse code by the wayside. The FCC eliminated Morse code in 2003 from the FCC exam requirements for amateur radio service, as "the public interest is not served by requiring facility in Morse Code when the trend in amateur communications is to use voice and digital technologies for exchanging messages."

There are few remaining modern uses –Morse code has made its way into assistive technology for people in rehabilitation settings or with special needs – for example, those who cannot use communication devices that require the voice (one such Morse device is the TandemMaster). Even in such settings, Morse code is becoming less and less useful as newer assistive technology becomes available.

When all else falls away, the telegraph remains an art piece. Telegraphy still belongs to a romantic steampunk aesthetic – one that unites time-traveling and futuristic technology with the brass, leather, and gears of the H.G. Wells and Thomas Edison era. We're far from consumer editions of a telegraph to transcribe your thoughts, but somewhere, there at least are instructions to make one that delivers your RSS feed...in Morse. 

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