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Maritime Morse Code Slips Gradually Under the Waves

Technology: The dot- and-dash radio signals are being phased out in favor of global satellite communications, which are clearer and easier to use.

August 16, 1998|JONATHAN OATIS | REUTERS

NEW YORK — Tap out an SOS for Morse code. At least as far as many ships at sea are concerned, it is going down for the last time.

As of Feb. 1, 1999, all passenger ships and all cargo ships of 300 gross tons or more will no longer use Morse code for distress calls, relying instead on the global satellite communications system that has all but taken its place under an international agreement.

Wired magazine, the popular chronicler of the Digital Age, recently noted the impending death of maritime Morse in the briefest of stories.

The beginning of the end came in 1988 when an international treaty on safety and rescue at sea was amended to phase out Morse worldwide, beginning in 1992, in favor of the satellite setup dubbed the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System.

U.S. civilian ships dropped Morse for distress calls in 1995. On Jan. 31, 1997, France's coast guard tapped out its final, poetic message: "Calling all. This is our last cry before our eternal silence."

The fading away of Morse at sea is food for thought on how new technologies change the world, only to fall by the wayside when the next new thing comes along. In a way, the telegraph was the information superhighway of the 19th century, enabling rapid communication between distant cities and across oceans.

The first public telegram was sent in 1844 from Washington to Baltimore by inventor/artist Samuel F.B. Morse, who tapped out "What hath God wrought?" in a demonstration for Congress. The telegraph changed the way business was conducted and wars were fought, most notably the American Civil War. And it played a pivotal role in the birth and growth of the oldest worldwide news organizations: the Associated Press (1848) and Reuters (1851).

Morse code--the system of dots and dashes that stand for letters of the alphabet--has a rich history.

1899 Rescue

The first sea rescue resulting from a radiotelegraph message came in 1899 when a lightship in the Dover Straits reported the grounding of the steamship Elbe, according to the International Maritime Organization, a U.N. agency.

But it was the legendary sinking of the Titanic in 1912, with the loss of more than 1,500 lives, that spurred the use of radio by ships at sea. Although 700 people were saved when the liner Carpathia picked up the Titanic's distress call, fewer might have died had the California, which was relatively close to the Titanic, also received the doomed ship's call for help, but the California's wireless operator was off duty.

Three months after the disaster, an international conference in London decided that, although all ships did not have to have radio equipment aboard, some should have to maintain a permanent radio watch. At the same 1912 conference, the letters "SOS"--dot dot dot, dash dash dash, dot dot dot--were adopted as the international distress call, replacing "CQD."

"Contrary to popular myth, the letters are not an abbreviation [for 'Save Our Souls'] and have no special significance except that the familiar '...---...' is easy to remember and transmit in the Morse code," the International Maritime Organization said in a paper on the subject.

As time passed, Morse began losing some of its importance at sea. As early as 1907, a radiotelephone was installed on a Hudson River ferryboat by Lee de Forest, whose invention of an electronic component made wireless voice communication possible.

Sea Treaty

In 1975, radiotelephone equipment was recommended for all ships over 300 gross tons by the International Maritime Organization. Six years later, it was made mandatory by an amendment to the treaty known as the International Convention on the Safety of Lives at Sea.

Why scrap conventional radio in favor of satellites? The International Maritime Organization says its drawbacks include the need for years of training and practice to use Morse.

"If something happened to the radio operator it was unlikely that anyone else on board would be able to use the telegraphy equipment," the organization said.

Other reasons: reception problems, uncertainty about the message being received and the airwave congestion that came with the development of radio on land.

Old-fashioned radio's place will be taken by a network of satellites--two positioned above the Atlantic Ocean and one each over the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. Only the North and South poles, where shipping is infrequent, are uncovered.

Big cargo ships and passenger liners will also have to carry equipment designed to improve the chances of rescue, including satellite emergency position-indicating radio beacons and search-and-rescue transponders for ships and survival craft.

This is not to say that Morse is dead. The U.S. military still uses it. On Navy ships, for example, sailors have to know how to use lights to flash out ship-to-ship messages in the code. And the Federal Communications Commission requires proficiency in Morse for some amateur radio licenses.

Morse has its fans. Recent searches of the Web and discussion groups on the Internet--today's revolutionary way of communicating--turned up thousands of Web pages and hundreds of discussion group postings mentioning Morse code. They include "Morse Goes to the Movies," a Web site cataloging uses of Morse and telegraphs in movies, TV shows, commercials and cartoons (http://web.idirect.com/~rburnet/movies.html).

Another site, "Telegraph Lore" (http://www.cris.com/~Gsraven/index.shtml), contains links to a wealth of telegraph history and anecdotes.

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