Yearly Archives: 2010

… ––– … = “Save Our Ship”? Nope!

Most people believe that S.O.S or “… ––– …” means “Save Our Ship”. Right? They’re wrong!

Prior to the modern radio days, when a ship was out of visual range of land or another vessel, they were pretty much completely isolated and unable to communicate. That is until the introduction of wireless Morse Code! Wireless telegraphers used Morse Code to send and receive messages from ship to ship or ship to shore.

By 1904, many ships were set up with Morse Code capabilities. …–––… was created as a way to send a distress call fast.

It had the following attributes:
• Anyone would remember it
• It could not be misinterpreted
• It was easy to send and listen to

It does not mean “Save Our Ship” or “Save Our Souls” and was actually only a Morse Code distress call.

A Short History of Morse Code

Morse code is a way of transmitting individual characters through a standardized pattern of dots or dashes to a listener or observer. It was developed by Samuel Finley Breese Morse (1791-1872), an American painter and inventor. Morse became particularly interested in electricity around 1872 and was from this time period that the electric telegraph was invented. Since outdated, the telegraph is a communication system that transmits electric signals over wires from location to location with the intent of communicating a message.

Originally messages that needed to be delivered over great distances had to be delivered by messengers who carried them in writing or could recite them from memory. Due to the time constraints of this type of horse-driven delivery system it was no wonder Morse was successful for helping to expedite this process. In fact by 1851 the United States had over 50 telegraph companies most of which used technology that held Morse patents.

Morse code was sent over a series of electrical signals referred to as dits and dahs. The short signals are referred to as dits and are represented by dots. The long signals are referred to as dahs and are represented as dashes. Morse code and its interpretation are based on defined time intervals that define characters, time between characters, and time between words. As such the speed of transmitting Morse code is measured in words per minute (WPM) just as in typing. A savvy Morse code operator is said to be able to transmit and receive information at between 20-30 WPM. Learn Morse Code.

To transmit messages, operators use the electric telegraph to tap out Morse code. Because each character, letter or number, is represented by defined codes it was possible for the transmitter to send electrical impulses over wires so that a receiver could decipher them. The original machine would produce codes onto a piece of paper and then was modified to emboss the paper with dots and dashes.

The device became famous in 1838 but was not put to use by the US congress until some five years later. The first experimental telegraph was then funded to be transmitted from Washington to Baltimore. After the results of a Whig national party nomination on May 1, 1844 the first news to be sent of electric telegraph was transmitted through part of the finished telegraph line. Hand-carried news reached a point between the two cities where Morse’s partner wired it to the Capital. It’s message? “What hath God wrought?”

A Cool New Way to Learn Morse Code

Wow, I found this cool new way to learn Morse Code. I’m not sure what it’s called, and I wish it was around when I learned Morse Code, but it’s pretty awesome.

Basically, Morse Code can be learned pretty easily visually. Once you have the visual Morse Code learned pretty well, you then need to start LISTENING for Morse Code. (You can look on the products section of this website to find kits and the such to help you learn to listen to Morse Code…)

I learned Morse Code out of an encyclopedia. It took me only about 2 hours of actual memorization. We used to pass noted in grade school written in Morse Code, and the coding/decoding also helped me to learn and retain it.

Anyways, back to the cool new way of learning Morse Code – check out this image:

Learn Morse Code the Visual Way

Learn Morse Code the Visual Way

If you memorize each letter individually, and then think back to it later, it’ll be somewhat easier to learn Morse Code. The only problem is timing – for instance, look at the Y. Y in Morse Code is “-.–” which is said, “dah-dit-dah-dah.” It’s tough to see in the picture above that the Morse Code Y should be that way, but at least you know that there are three lines and one dash, or three dah’s and one dit.

Does that make sense?

Morse Code Alphabet

The Morse Code alphabet can be written on a computer. For instance, in the International Morse Code, the letter “A” in the alphabet is “.-”. This is a dot-dash, and you say it, “Dit-dah.”

Here is the rest of the Morse Code alphabet via a table.

Morse Code Alphabet

The International morse code characters are:

Morse Code Alphabet
A •-
N -•
0 —–
B -•••
O —
1 •—-
C -•-•
P •–•
2 ••—
D -••
Q –•-
3 •••–
E •
R •-•
4 ••••-
F ••-•
S •••
5 •••••
G –•
T –
6 -••••
H ••••
U ••-
7 –•••
I ••
V •••-
8 —••
J •—
W •–
9 —-•
K -•-
X -••-
• •-•-•-
L •-••
Y -•–
, –••–
M –
Z –••
? ••–••

Why Learn Morse Code in Our Modern Age?

Morse code was first used to communicate more than 160 years ago when it was created and adapted to use as a simple, quick, and straightforward way of communicating over the telegraph. All this for the purpose of being able to communicate (though limited) over long distances, practically instantly. Also known as CW, is the language of the telegraph, which relays communications through the combination of electronic sound. In the case of Morse code, two sounds (known as dits and dahs) are used in different combinations to represent each letter of the roman alphabet. When written, the dits and dahs, short and long sounds, are signified by dots and dashes. One huge advantage to CW is that it can be used to communicate and interpreted through many different mediums by using sound, touch, and light, enabling long-distance or even silent communication. The only requirement: the pattern of dits and dahs is kept constant, over the years, distances, and mediums used.

While many people think dits and dahs are practically an ancient way of communicating, in reality there are still many people in this modern time who learn and know CW. And some of those people have brought up the idea of incorporating Morse code into the modern and heavily used technology of cell phones.

  • Ringtones

One of the first ideas that comes to mind, that would be the most universal in usage for those who both learn and know Morse code, is by turning the audio use of dits and dahs into a ringtone. There are currently websites available that have mp3 format audio files of individualized dits and dahs with thousands of common names and other everyday contact list entries (such as “home”, “work”, “school”, etc). Or, combine any three characters to make up an “audio monogram”, as it were. This “audio monogram” would be most effect for those who learn Morse code who have multiple friends with the same name. Learn Morse code to use a very sophisticated from of caller id.

  • Other Cell Phone Alerts

Other reasons to learn Morse code and then apply that knowledge to your cell phone can extend to the other various alerts phones give off besides incoming call ringtones. Audio dits and dahs could also be used to let an cell phone owner know they have a new voicemail, text message, or something on their calendar.

  • Silent Vibrations

As mentioned before, because Morse code can also be communicated through touch, all the afore-mentioned uses of audio dits and dahs on a cell phone can also be extended to the vibrating ringtone phone profile. Where a normal cell phone is much more limited on the vibrating setting than on the normal ringtone setting, by using Morse code, the vibrating profile setting would not limit what is trying to be communicated to the owner.

What better way to learn Morse code than through a medium most people use multiple times a day. As the old saying goes “practice, practice, practice”, and turning a cell phone, something that is so heavily used and relied upon by many people, into a means of practice is a brilliant idea.

How I Learned Morse Code

When I was about 11 or 12 years old, I would come home from school to my father pounding away on a straight or paddle key sending Morse Code back and forth to some person from an unknown destination. I always wanted to know how to send and receive Morse Code, but I was never able to understand.

One day, I asked my father, “How do I learn Morse Code?” He sent me over the the Encyclopedia Britannica set that we have, and I studied Morse Code for days. I memorized the dots and dashes and was able to quickly learn Morse Code easily.

I was able to write down the entire Morse Code alphabet, but learning to hear Morse Code was a totally different story. Learning Morse Code by ear was much harder than learning Morse Code by looking at it from an encyclopedia! The only problem was that I learned the wrong version of Morse Code, and I had to re-learn the entire thing!

Today, it’s much easier to learn Morse code, especially since you can now learn Morse Code online!

That Dad-burned Morse Code

I’ve always liked carrots better than sticks. Since the beginning of time…well, since the beginning of radio, anyway…which for many of us are equivalent events, knowledge of Morse Code has been a requirement. People used exclusively Morse Code (more accurately termed the International Radiotelegraph Code) on the radio long before anyone figured out how to make voices go over the air. It is still one of the most efficient means of getting a radio signal from point A to point B. Because of its simplicity, efficiency and universality, Morse Code has been considered the Lingua Franca of amateur radio. That’s Latin for “If you don’t know this, you’re a retard.”

Morse Code is no longer a requirement for any class of amateur radio license now, the culmination of a step-by-step dismantling of this time-honored tradition. Now, many new hams are surprised to find that, tuning around the shortwave bands, there is still TONS of high speed Morse Code being flung around the ether waves.

“Why would anyone be doing this if they didn’t have to?!” is a common question.

Of course, the toughest questions are answered best by further questions. The correct “question-answer” for this is, “Why would anyone go though the trouble of chewing and swallowing food, when you can you can just take it intravenously?”’

The fact of the matter is that tens of thousands of radio amateurs actually enjoy using Morse Code, and wouldn’t have it any other way. And these numbers don’t just include those Luddites who haven’t discovered the microphone yet. Many extremely technically-minded and cutting edge hams use Morse code for the sheer challenge and pleasure of it. Morse code is an art form, just like calligraphy, playing the didgeridoo, or crop-dusting. Plus, there are a few experimental modes where Morse Code is the only viable means of communication. Examples of this are Moonbounce, meteor scatter, and ELF (extremely low frequency) communications.

Learning the Morse code isn’t all that hard. Look at it this way; over a BILLION people speak, read, and write Mandarin Chinese, which has 1,062 basic characters. (Those basic characters are about enough to let you clear your throat in Chinese).

Morse code has about 50 characters total, if you include all the punctuation and a few other doodads like prosigns. How hard can it be?

It’s interesting and encouraging to see that, now that Morse code is no longer required, we hear more high quality “fists” on the air than ever. Hams are doing it because they want to, not because they have to…and this is always the recipe for excellence.


Learning the Dad-burned Morse Code Thing

Now that we are free to learn Morse Code because we want to, we can go about doing it a bit differently than has been done in the past. I’ll present some controversial issues here, for which I claim no expertise. I’m not a psychologist by any means, but I’m pretty observant.

Morse code, like many other similar skills, is best learned by bypassing the brain, entirely. (Now, for those of you who believe that MOST things Radio Amateurs do bypass the brain entirely, I can offer no rebuttal). When I was in grade school, they taught this thing called “penmanship.” They stopped teaching that here, I understand, but they probably continue the torture in England. [G’s and M’s, correct me if I’m wrong on this]. I was roundly rebuked by third grade teacher, Miss Fiddaman, for “drawing” my letters. She told me I was thinking too much. (This was probably the last time I was ever accused of that). She said the letters should go right in my eye and out my hand. Actually, my handwriting improved considerably after this…though any ground I gained over the years has been lost by my nearly exclusive use of the keyboard.

But Miss Fiddaman was right. Highly repetitive tasks like writing, or playing scales on a musical instrument, or learning Morse Code are best done without a brain in the way.
One problem with traditional ways of teaching Morse Code is that it almost always guarantees hitting plateaus in speed. (The graduated licensing structure didn’t help with this much, either). When people ask me what speed they should learn Morse Code at, I tell them “thirty words a minute.” Then they clarify their question for me. “No, I mean, what speed should I START at?” I repeat my answer. “Thirty words a minute.”

“But the Extra Class License even in the bad old days didn’t even require that!” they protest, vehemently. “They only required 20!”

“That’s precisely the problem,” I respond. “You set your goals too low because you’ve been taught how hard it is. Actually, I’m being way too conservative by saying 30 words a minute.

The reason you reach plateaus in Morse Code is because you’re listening for dots and dashes…much like the “drawing” of cursive letters of which Miss Fiddaman accused me. You want to START your Morse Code training by listening to characters that are too fast to count individual dots and dashes. You learn to hear each letter as a sound in itself.

Now, the good news is this. You don’t have to copy 40 WPM text to copy 40 WPM letters. You can space these out as much as you want…your average code speed can be down at 5 words a minute…or 1 word a minute. It doesn’t matter. You will be hearing letters comfortably the very first day at 40 words a minute. I tried this out on my six year old grandson. After just a half hour after hearing the code for the first time, he could tell me if I was sending an A or an N at 50 WPM. Perfectly. (And, though grandparental pride would like to think Jeremiah’s a genius; I know that’s not the case; he’s MUCH more of a jock than a brain. Now I just have 24 more letters to work with him on). You will find that your speed automatically increases, without even thinking about it. My electronic keyer tops out at 50 wpm…otherwise I’d like to see if Jeremiah could do 55…or even 60!

I never told Jeremiah that fifty words a minute was positively screaming. It never even occurred to him. I’ll never tell him. I’ll let him figure it out for himself, some day. When he got his A’s and N’s right, I just told him, “that’s good,” and sent him off to play with his rubber dinosaurs.

Now, of course, kids really do have the advantage in learning Morse Code; there are a lot more cranial ruts formed in adults…all of which reinforce the “drawing” mode of learning, for most of us. I say most of us, because musicians seem to have an easier time of learning code than the average Joe. Most of them learned how to play scales without the brain…music instructors have known how to teach this for ages…oddly, this same technique seems to have bypassed the Morse Code teachers. I’ve never heard any music student complaining about having to play a piece at 40 notes per minute; they just assume it’s something that will eventually have to be done.

And they just do it.

Expectations are everything.

Now the wonderful news in all this is that Morse Code really, really, really becomes fun at high speed. It really does. Really!

Weird Hardware with a Wonderful Purpose

It really is amazing. There is no function in all of “electricdom” that is simpler than opening and closing a switch. A switch has two states: on or off.
And yet, nothing has elicited more creativity, more artistry, and more poetry in all of Amateur Radio than the hardware used to perform this aboriginal function. The telegraph key has been with us in one form or another for about 150 years. Some telegraph keys are marvels of human craftsmanship, imagination, and beauty. Every ham…no, every HUMAN BEING…should own a telegraph key whether they have any intention of using Morse Code or not.

Allow me to wax poetic for a moment. (I have an ample supply of poetry wax, so don’t worry, I won’t run out).

The telegraph key is the ultimate interface between human being and machine. It is the “Excalibur of the Electrical Age.” (I invented that phrase my very own self, but you are free to use it at any social gathering…with attribution, of course).

Like the renowned sword, not only is a telegraph key a thing of beauty in its resting state, but wielded in capable hands, it is poetry in motion. A goodly telegraph key has a personality of its own; a worthy one, as Excalibur, seemingly anticipates its master’s intentions, yea, and his very thoughts.

A telegraph key is a Grand Piano with but one key; O, but what a key that is! Nay, it is far greater than that; it is a magnificent Cathedral Organ with the majesty of every console, register, and pedal concentrated into one point of contact! Dare I continue?

No, I dare not; the risk of igniting these very pages into flames of glory is too great. You must find out for yourself.

Behold the wonderful telegraph keys displayed in the following pages.