Holding the Torch for ‘Dead’ Morse Code

Published December 31st, 2006
By Miguel Helft, The New York Times
E-Commerce Times

“Freed from all pretense of practical relevance in an age of digital communications, Morse will now become the object of loving passion by radioheads, much as another ‘dead’ language, Latin, is kept alive today by Latin-speaking enthusiasts around the world,” Paul Saffo, a fellow at the Institute for the Future, wrote in his blog.

It may be the ultimate SOS. Morse Code is in distress.

The language of dots and dashes has been the lingua franca of amateur radio, a vibrant community of technology buffs and hobbyists who have provided a communications lifeline in emergencies and disasters.

That community has been shaken, however, by news that the U.S. government will no longer require Morse Code proficiency as a condition for an amateur radio license. It was deemed dispensable because other modes of communicating over radio, like voice, teletype and even video, have grown in popularity.

Fight for Survival

While the decision had been expected, some of the operators of so-called ham radio fear that their exclusive club has been opened to the masses and that the very survival of Morse Code is in question.

“It’s part of the dumbing down of America,” said Nancy Kott, editor of World Radio magazine and a field representative for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Metamora, Mich. “We live in a society today that wants something for nothing.”

A woman in a mostly male world, Kott is one of about 660,000 licensed ham operators in the U.S. and is the American leader of Fists CW Club, an organization that calls itself the International Morse Preservation Society. (An “open fist” was the hand position typically used by telegraph operators when sending Morse, which is sometimes called continuous wave, or CW. In ham radio slang, someone who sends fine code is said to have a good fist.)

Within 48 hours after the Federal Communication Commission’s move this month to drop the Morse requirement, a discussion on www.eham.net ran more than 380 messages and 57,000 words long. The postings were divided roughly evenly between those lamenting and praising the commission’s decision.

“CW is just another mode and should not be afforded any special priority over others,” wrote K4UUG, who like many radio aficionados identified himself online using his radio call sign. “Proficiency should not be required for those who do not wish to use the mode.”

As part of its decision to eliminate the Morse requirement, the commission made essentially the same point.

Another Language

Inside a hilltop trailer above Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., a couple of veteran coders seemed to be taking the commission’s decision in stride.

In a room cluttered with electronic equipment, they translated the “dits” and “dahs” that beeped in the background at dizzying speed, the chatter between someone in Canada, VE6NL to be precise, and someone off the coast of Antarctica, VP8CMH.

“It’s a bit like a foreign language,” said W6LD, whose real name is John Fore, a securities lawyer at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. “You learn it and it’s fun to use it.”

With thumb and forefinger barely touching the two metal ends of a Morse paddle, W6NL, aka David Leeson, unleashed his own stream of dits and dahs with the ease of a virtuoso, joining the global conversation.

“I fell head over heels for amateur radio when I was 4 or 5 years old and heard Morse Code signals from afar at the station of a 14-year-old,” said Leeson, 69, a consulting professor of engineering at Stanford. “I still remember the thrill.”

The thrill turned into a hobby, and the hobby turned into a career in technology. In 1968, Leeson founded California Microwave, once a thriving telecommunications equipment company but now dead. Now radio and Morse are just for fun, said Leeson, who is faculty adviser to the Stanford Amateur Radio Club, which once counted William Hewlett and David Packard as members.

Leeson and Fore are both active in radio contests, 48-hour competitions in which hams try to contact as many other hams as possible, often using Morse. Leeson has a station in the Galapagos Islands, where he goes several times a year with his wife, Barbara (K6BL), for contests. They once contacted as many as 17,000 other hams in a weekend. Fore, who is 50 and received his first license when he was 10, has a station in Aruba.

They embody the kind of utility-free passion for Morse that Paul Saffo, a fellow at the Institute for the Future, a forecasting consultancy in Palo Alto, said would ensure its survival.

Today’s Latin

“Freed from all pretense of practical relevance in an age of digital communications, Morse will now become the object of loving passion by radioheads, much as another ‘dead’ language, Latin, is kept alive today by Latin-speaking enthusiasts around the world,” Saffo wrote in his blog.

Morse Code was first devised in the 1830s for use with the telegraph. It later became an essential part of civilian, maritime and military radio communications. However, the military has largely abandoned its use in favor of newer technologies, and the Coast Guard stopped listening for Morse SOS signals at sea during the 1990s.

The U.S. agency with jurisdiction in the matter, the Federal Communications Commission Latest News about Federal Communications Commission, lifted the Morse Code requirement for entry-level licenses in 1991. It later dropped proficiency requirements for higher-level licenses to 5 words a minute, from 20. After international regulations stopped mandating knowledge of it in 2003, it was only a matter of time until Morse Code was no longer required in the U.S. The requirement will formally be phased out sometime next year.

The demise of the Morse requirement, however, could be a boon for ham radio itself. After the communications agency’s decision, demand for information about radio licenses surged from about 200 in a typical weekend to about 500, according to the American Radio Relay League, an organization representing ham radio operators.

“We are very pleased to see that,” said David Sumner (K1ZZ), the league’s chief executive officer.

That is no consolation for the most avid defenders of Morse.

“There is something magical about being able to put two wires together and start going dit-dit-dit dit-dit,” said Kott, the World Radio editor, whose call sign is WZ8C.

“We are just going to have to get on the air and do what we do and hope for the best.”