— -. . — .- -. .—-. … -… .. -.. – — … .- …- . — — .-. … . -.-. — -.. .
by Michael M. Phillips
The Wall Street Journal Online
PRESCOTT, Ariz. — Nostalgic for simpler days, retired astrophysicist Chuck Adams is translating classics of boys’ lit into a language he fears is going the way of kit radios and marbles: Morse code.
Holed up in his high-desert home crammed with computers, radio receivers and a very patient wife, Mr. Adams uses homemade software to download online books with expired copyrights, convert the typed words into Morse code tones and record them on compact discs he sells on the Internet.
So far, Mr. Adams says he has sold or donated thousands of Morse versions of such novels as Edgar Rice Burroughs’s “At the Earth’s Core,” Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe,” and H.G. Wells’s “The Time Machine.” In about an hour his software can take any book in the public domain and turn it into a string of digital dits and dahs; last weekend, he turned out a version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s – …. . / -… . .- ..- – .. ..-. ..- .-.. / .- -. -.. / -.. .- — -. . -.. (a.k.a., “The Beautiful and Damned”).
For the 65-year-old Mr. Adams, it’s a labor of love, mixed with equal parts hope and despair. “Morse code is going to die off unless you can talk someone into coming into the hobby,” he says.
“I do it because it’s fun, and to keep it going,” he says. Then he adds in the next breath: “But I have no delusions of grandeur that I can save Morse code from extinction. I’m not Don Quixote. I’m not going to go out and fight windmills.”
Mr. Adams grew up in Wink, a blink of a town in West Texas. Six-foot-six himself, he shared a small bedroom with his three younger brothers, each of whom measures nearly 7 feet tall. He hand-built his first bike with parts from a junkyard and flew model rockets high above Wink while the Soviets flew Sputnik even higher.
And, at the age of 15 — inspired by his father, a ham-radio operator — he taught himself Morse code from a book. At the time, ham operators had to transcribe Morse code at a rate of five words per minute in order to earn the most basic federal license. Soon young Mr. Adams was spending every night sending coded messages to anyone who could hear them, and eavesdropping on UPI news dispatches broadcast to ships.
Many other radio amateurs use voice transmissions, but Mr. Adams preferred code, because of the challenge — and because he thinks his voice is too high and his West Texas accent too twangy.
Mr. Adams completed a Ph.D., won tenure at the University of North Texas, worked high-powered jobs in the defense and computer industries, and dabbled in the professional poker circuit. But he never lost his love for Morse code.
The code is the creation of a painter, Samuel F.B. Morse, who needed a way to transmit messages over the telegraph that he and Alfred Vail had invented. In 1844, the men famously sent a transmission from Washington to Baltimore that read, “What hath God wrought?”
The telegraph soon replaced the pony express. As late as World War II, ham operators found themselves using their Morse skills as radiomen in the military. During the Vietnam War, POW Jeremiah Denton, later a U.S. senator from Alabama, blinked “T-O-R-T-U-R-E” in Morse code when his captors put him on television.
But over time, the telephone and satellites have rendered Morse code almost obsolete. “If the satellites go out and power goes out, Morse code can still get through,” says Nancy Kott, president of a code club called FISTS — someone who sends good code has “a good fist.” “All we need is a battery and two wires to tap together, and we can communicate.”
In February, the Federal Communications Commission eliminated the Morse requirements for ham-radio licenses. Mr. Adams resigned from a ham-operators organization because of what he saw as its flaccid defense of Morse code.
“It is a sad state of affairs when the U.S. doesn’t even attempt to keep the language alive or give an incentive to work on it,” says Mr. Adams.
Chuck Adams is tied for 8th fastest Morse code communicator in the world. WSJ’s Michael Phillips meets him at his home in the Arizona desert to find out how and why he keeps up the code culture.
Many of those who still know Morse code test their skills with a German computer game called Rufz, the standard for determining world transcription-speed rankings. Players listen to coded, five-character call signs, combinations of letters, symbols and numbers that identify individual license holders. The faster and more correctly they type them, the more points they score. (Transcribing regular text is much slower.)
Last month in Belgrade, Goran Hajosevic broke 200 words per minute — an extraordinary pace. Mr. Adams is tied for eighth in the world, at more than 140 words per minute.
Scanning the list recently of the 60 fastest Morse coders under the age of 20, Mr. Adams spotted just two with American-issued call signs. “What this shows me is in the United States, we have no one who’s interested in learning Morse code anymore,” he lamented.
Mr. Adams and other Morse aficionados don’t speak of dots and dashes; that imagery is too visual, and Morse is an aural language. So they prefer to describe the language in dits and dahs, the sounds of the short and long tones. A, for instance, is dit dah. B is dah dit dit dit, or simply dah dididit. Between two letters, the sender allows a three-dit silence. Between words it grows to seven dits.
‘In the Zone’
Like all Morse experts, Mr. Adams rarely breaks signals down into letters, instead hearing complete words much as readers recognize words on a page. When he transcribes a message at high speeds, his fingers are five or 10 words behind his ears. When he is “in the zone” he isn’t even conscious of what he is transcribing, he says. He has to read it later to understand the message.
When he listens to one of his books, the code is like a voice speaking to him. “It’s like you don’t count the i’s when someone says Mississippi,” he explains.
[Paddle-style key and radio used to send Morse code.]
Paddle-style key and radio used to send Morse code.
He produces his audio books to play at different speeds, depending on the expertise of the buyer. Ken Moorman’s bedtime listening is Mr. Adams’s 25-word-per-minute version of “The War of the Worlds,” which he purchased for $10.50. “It’s so much easier to pick up a microphone and yell,” says Mr. Moorman, a 65-year-old retired electrical engineer in Williamsburg, Va., and a coder since 1957. “The people who do [Morse code] today do it because it’s a lost art.”
Earlier this year, Mr. Adams sent Barry Kutner, a 50-year-old ophthalmologist from Newtown, Pa., and another world-class coder, a 100-words-per-minute version of the book. To Mr. Adams’s chagrin, Mr. Kutner wrote an email back pointing out that the gap between words was eight dits long, instead of the prescribed seven. At that pace, a dit lasts 1.2 one-thousandths of a second.
Much as he did growing up in Texas, Mr. Adams enjoys sitting in front of a gray radio, not much bigger than a hardcover book, and sending code with a $500, Italian, stainless-steel, paddle-style key that he operates with a pinching motion. With the slightest touch of his right thumb on one paddle, the key sends an audible dit. A touch of his right pointer finger on the other paddle sends a dah.
His wife, Phyllis, 62, doesn’t begrudge him his long hours in front of the radio. “I’m just glad he has something to keep him busy,” she says. “All my friends with retired husbands complain they follow them around the house all day.”
One recent Sunday morning, Mr. Adams’s radio came alive with Morse tones. It was a guy named Gary McClain in Pryor, Okla. The transmissions were pretty slow, just 22 words per minute.
Mr. McClain, a 65-year-old retired mill worker, learned Morse code in the Boy Scouts half a century ago. He had nothing urgent in mind; he just wanted to make contact with someone far away.
“Weather here is cloudy and chance of showers,” he tapped, as Mr. Adams transcribed the words in a notebook.
Mr. McClain signed off, and the radio went silent. “It will eventually die,” Mr. Adams mused. “I’ll hate to see it go. I won’t have anybody to talk to. I’ll have to go back to reading.”