Unlike FCC, Fans say Morse is Here to Stay

By Brian Albrecht, Reporter

The Plain Dealer
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If you can read this — it means goodbye — you’re conversant in Morse code, a language of dots and dashes that has linked people around the world for more than 150 years.

Recent action by the Federal Communications Commission, however, may prompt some to wonder whether this historic format of radio and telegraphy will soon join hieroglyphics in the dusty locker of dead languages.

Last month the FCC eliminated proficiency in Morse code as part of exam requirements for obtaining an amateur, or ham, radio license.

Noting that international licensing requirements for code proficiency ended in 2003, the FCC concluded that “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 660,000 amateur radio operators currently licensed in the United States and an estimated 3 million worldwide. Many use Morse code, widely known when, in 1912, the luxury liner Titanic sent out the new international distress signal, “S-O-S,” before sinking.

But the code — with its audible series of “dits” and “dahs” forming words — long ago ceased being a mainstay of communication.

One of its last commercial uses ended in 1999, when the code was officially retired by international maritime authorities in favor of satellite technology. Even the Boy Scouts no longer offer a merit badge for it.

That didn’t keep the 158,000-member American Radio Relay League from trying to persuade the FCC to keep the Morse code requirement as part of qualification for the highest level of the three amateur radio license classes.

“We saw it as a skill worthy of people in the highest license class,” said Allen Pitts, the league’s media and public relations manager.

Pitts said the appeal of using an apparent anachronism of the airwaves lies in its long, historic legacy, plus its adaptability to various communicative tools such as flashing lights and semaphores. “You could send Morse code with a rock if you had to,” he said.

Rick Wells, 62, of Brunswick, a ham radio operator since 1959, echoed some critics who faulted the FCC for “dumbing down” amateur radio by eliminating the code requirement. “Sometimes the harder you have to work for something, the more you respect it,” Wells said.

Bob Check, president of the Cuyahoga Amateur Radio Society, said he uses Morse code in 80 percent of his ham radio transmissions because “it’s quick, easy, and I live in a place where there happens to be a lot of interference from local power lines, so it’s a much better mode for working things in a bad environment.”

But Check, 65, of Independence, believes that losing the code requirement will bring more people into the hobby, particularly those who may have been daunted by the task of learning a new language.

Pitts said other countries that have eliminated the code requirement have experienced an increased interest in Morse code as a result.

“It’s the Tom Sawyer effect. When Morse code was seen as a requirement and a task, it often was resented,” he said. “But when the pressure is off and you can learn it for fun, at your own pace, more and more people turn to it as an adjunct to amateur radio work.”

With so many amateur radio operators still around, the immediate future of Morse code seems secure.

“I don’t think it will ever fade away,” said Wells, who cited such enduring attributes as the artistry, like playing a piano, and “the politeness of transferring data” in transmitting the code.

And during visits to area schools to promote amateur radio, Check has noticed a growing interest in Morse code among young devotees of text-messaging — a process which, incidentally, came in second in code vs. text time trials on a recent “Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”

“They love it, and the kids pick up on the code stuff really fast,” Check said.

Plus, for secrecy buffs, the code is much more obscure. As Check noted, “You could be talking to a friend and nobody knows what you’re talking about.”

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

balbrecht@plaind.com, 216-999-4853