The end of Morse code?

The Vancouver Sun has an interesting article about the last “native” speakers of Morse Code.  George Campbell, 85, believes that “(w)hen we die, Morse will die, forever”:

… no one needs to learn telegraphy or Morse code these days — not amateur radio operators, not even sailors, he said. The U.S. Coast Guard stopped monitoring Morse code for distress calls back in the late 1990s, he added. “We’ve got satellites now; we’ve got all kinds of radio that’s a lot better.

As someone old enough to remember a pre-internet world, I grew up reading, thinking about and studying morse code, and I think that their fears are unfounded.

It’s obvious that morse is now more of an interesting anecdote, an evolutionary step in communications theory and practice, than it is a practical way of communicating. But it has a number of advantages over other “dying languages”, primarily that it was used extensively within living memory in the developed world and it’s practice and structure will be recorded for future generations:

Campbell recently wrote a book entitled Good Night Old Man about his experiences as a wireless operator, and said the slow death of the Morse code is one of the reasons he was inspired to record his memories.

I’m sure that a subset of future nerds will continue to learn and practice morse in the same way that ham radio still exists, that vinyl records still exist, that any old tech still exist. There is even a strong case for it remaining in some part of our cultural memory on the chance the satellites fall from the sky or some other catastrophe occurs. And I imagine that the phrase SOS will remain the international code for distress – a fitting legacy, and a mighty cross cultural achievement.

To call it a language is problematic – while it does require study and translation, it is merely an addition to an underlying language – it has no stand alone grammer of its own. Despite this, it does show itself to be a precursor to current trends in the some ways:

Munsey said telegraphy isn’t that far removed from the phone texting younger people do now. “But we never had LOL,” he added with a chuckle. “We just said, ‘Hi.’ When you said, H-I (in Morse code), that meant you were laughing.”

But there’s no denying it’s a skill to think in this other system, even if it’s just another encoding of the underlying language, or whichever cipher that language had been processed with.

3 thoughts on “The end of Morse code?

  1. The original article said that I, and my two colleagues, were wireless operators. The reporter got it quite wrong. We were NOT wireless opereators. We were landline Morse telegraph operators. Munsey and Buchanan were railroad operators, whose main purpose was to copy and deliver train orders. I was a commercial Morse operator, and as such, never saw a train order, and was not authorized to handle them.

    Landline operatoprs all over North America, used the original Morse code invented in thed 1830s by Alfred Vail, who was Morse’s assistant. That code is the one that is rapidly dying. When it crossed the ocean and entered Europe via France in 1851, it bumped into accented letters, and was changed into what eventually became known as International Morse.

    That one — as we pointed out to our audience that afternoon — is aliver and well. The reporter made the errorfs.

    George Campbell

    • George, I certainly didn’t expect a response from you, but thank you for the clarification – I am not a journalist, but I know they (their bosses…) have papers to sell and often (I’ll be generous) make honest mistakes due to a lack of thorough understanding. From what I’ve seen on Wikipedia’s Morse code page, using the term Morse Code is somewhat disingenuous given that it represents at least three codes – International Morse, American Morse and Continental.

      I also don’t think it’s necessary for something to be “dying out” for there to be a history written – a good yarn and some historical context is sufficient to keep me fascinated. Thanks again for the clarification.

  2. The original reporter is the responsible for erroneously calling the three Morse men wireless operators. The audience was well aware that the men who made the presentation were all land line Morse operators, talking about American Morse or Railroad Morse. Yes, we briefly mentioned wireless and radio ham, but when we said that the original Morse Code was dead, we meant American Morse, not International Morser.

    Take it up with that reporter. Not our fault.

    George Campbell

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