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Signals and Solutions: Morse Code? Really?

Since retiring, my field of acquaintances has begun to include folks with backgrounds vastly different from the engineers, scientists, and students in my past. When asked what I do to keep busy in my “golden years,” I mention teaching Morse code.

The mention of “Morse code” often results in a circle of silence, and people back away from what they may perceive as someone who may be seriously demented, be a radical from the “Flat Earth Society,” or have an incurable disease. Occasionally, there will be the question, “Does anyone really use that anymore?”  (Of course, you already know the answer to that question, or there would be no reason for me to be writing this!)

Morse code serves a number of functions in modern society that are easily overlooked while we go about our everyday lives. For example, some mobile phones offer an option to alert the user of an incoming text message with the Morse tone ” ▄ ▄ ▄ ▄▄▄ ▄▄▄ ▄ ▄ ▄ ” (representing SMS, or short message service). In addition, applications are now available for mobile phones that enable short messages to be input in Morse Code.

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Notice that the three letters SMS are “run together” without the space between letters which is the normal configuration of letters when sent in Morse code. When this is done, the result is termed a “pro sign” or “procedural sign.”  The most familiar example of a pro sign is the international signal for distress, “SOS,” which is sent as ” ▄ ▄ ▄ ▄▄▄ ▄▄▄ ▄▄▄ ▄ ▄ ▄ ” without a break between the letters.

(Side note: A few months ago, I had occasion to drive a family member to the local hospital Emergency room and, as I was walking back to the hospital entrance after parking the car, I heard an automobile horn bleeping out ” ▄ ▄ ▄    ▄▄▄ ▄▄▄ ▄▄▄    ▄ ▄ ▄ ” (S O S) slowly, over and over again. I called this to the attention of the hospital guard and suggested there might be someone in trouble calling for help. The guard found me later and let me know that a gentleman had driven to the hospital and had a “coronary event” as he parked and could only signal for help with the horn. Fortunately, the man survived.

Aircraft radio homing beacons guide planes from point to point and signal on their assigned radio frequencies with a three-letter code sent in Morse. The code identifies the beacon and is printed on aviation navigation charts along with the radio frequency for that beacon, which most often corresponds to the same three-letter code for the airport. Aircraft pilots still carry current navigation charts as backup when a solar corona mass emission (CME) from the sun disrupts the satellite GPS signals.

Merchant Marine and Navy ships began moving away from the use of Morse code for radio communication at sea around 1999. Naval ships still retain the capability to use signal flags and flashing lamps using Morse code in close ship-to-ship messaging. The flashing lamps are being “upgraded” to “encode” Morse signals by computer to send messages and decode systems on the receiving ship capture the signals and display the received text in plain language.

Yet, the U.S. Navy still teaches some sailors to read, send, and receive Morse code. The Navy’s Information Warfare community uses Morse code as part of the cryptologic technician (CTR) skill set. The Basic Manual Morse Trainer (BMMT) course teaches sailors how to intercept Morse communications, copy and send Morse code, and more. The course also includes the latest Manual Morse software used by the Department of Defense.

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Morse code is still taught to radio intercept troops. Believe it or not, there are still countries that use Morse code for military communication. It is still preferred for long distance communication.

The giant intercept antennas built by the U.S. armed services (Air Force and Navy), known as “elephant cages” because of their large size, were being shut down and dismantled.  Originally used to read the Morse code used by other nations to maintain contact with their pilots and alert our U.S. pilots of developing situations, new Pentagon management had decided they were no longer needed.

Later, I learned that some sites might have been saved from destruction and taken over by “different management” and that “new” government personnel were being trained in the use of Morse code in order to maintain a watch on other countries that still use the code for “intelligence” purposes. Any guesses as to the three-letter code that might identify that management group?

By far the largest group of Morse code users is the Amateur Radio community, and that community usage is growing constantly. Part of that growth results from the improvement in long distance propagation as the Sun pumps more ionized particles into the ionosphere during the current rise of sunspots in this 25th Solar cycle. The total population of Amateur Radio Operators worldwide is currently estimated to be in excess of 3,000,000, and the number in the U.S. is known to be more than 747,000.

A significant growth in Amateur use of Morse code has been noted since the pandemic, encouraged by several organizations promoting the use of CW. (CW == continuous wave, and is another name for Morse code on the air typified by single frequency signals interrupted by switching on and off…. i.e., Morse code.)

One of the more successful examples of this is the Long Island CW (LICW) Club which uses virtual classes to teach sending and receiving Morse code. The LICW Club began operation just before the start of the pandemic and has grown to over 5300 members in 50 states and 59 countries. Its cadre of instructors teaches 138 classes each week for students of all levels.

Many of the LICW Club students have gone on to become net control stations and net traffic managers for the Morse code National Traffic System, which handles emergency communications in the U.S. when a disaster strikes and wipes out all the normal power and communications systems.  Amateur Radio operators are usually the first “call for help” from a disaster area. When government help arrives and establishes its own emergency communications systems, Amateur Radio then handles health and welfare-related messages between the thousands of citizens in the affected area and their concerned relatives and extended family members in the rest of the country.  Most of those messages are handled using Morse code.

So, the long answer to the original question “Does anyone use Morse code anymore?” is yes, and its use is not fading away but growing as more Amateur Radio operators use “Radio’s first language.”

Ham Radio? Is That Still A Thing?

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