Recalling Dashing Days of ... -- ... Distress

Article excerpt

The tap-tap-tap of Morse code is going silent at sea as satellite technology makes the system obsolete. Still, Morse could come in handy if the year-20000computer bug proves problematic.

Vessels carrying more than 50 passengers long have been required to have radio or telegraphic equipment that employs Morse code. As of Feb. 1, 1999, however, cargo ships weighing more than 300 tons and passenger ships on international voyages no longer will use the code as a means of communication.

Morse has been fading from use for years, starting in the 1940s with the widespread adoption of two-way radio. More recently, the Global Marine Distress and Safety System, known as GMDSS, generally has replaced Morse code. If a ship is in trouble, an operator simply hits a distress button and the GMDSS message controller sends out the call to every vessel and land station equipped with the system.

But in its heyday, Morse was used for almost everything: by the railroads for traffic control, by newspapers for transmission of news, even by prisoners to tap out messages from cell to cell. The Rev. Richard Wurmbrand, a Romanian imprisoned for years starting in the late 1940s for leading an underground church, learned Morse code while in solitary confinement. After another prisoner taught him by tapping on the wall, the pastor reciprocated by sharing the Gospel -- in Morse.

Younger generations know Morse mostly from movie classics such as Citizen Kane and The Enemy Below, along with recent films like Contact, Hunt for Red October and, of course, Titanic. Jim Adkins, president of the Morse Telegraphy Club in Chicago, is not surprised by the official retirement of Morse.

"Since the invention of the teletype machine after World War I, Morse code has declined," he says. "Morse telegraphers considered themselves professional people and took pride in their work. It was a real blow to them when Morse code declined."

Take Aubrey Keel, for example. One of the four surviving telegraphers of the 1,500 employed by the Associated Press, in the 1920s Keel began as an apprentice with the Santa Fe Railroad at age 16. Back then, Morse telegraphers were able to transmit 40 words a minute. With today's technology, AP transmits 9,200 words a minute. "In two minutes, the AP can transmit about as many words as we could in a full eight-hour day," says Keel. …