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Translation: Morse code fans sending out an SOS

By John McCormick

Tribune staff reporter
Published March 2, 2006

A century-old hobby filled with dots and dashes is embroiled in a debate about its future and what level of training should be expected of those called on to help during local and national emergencies.

Morse code, a slowly dying language, has become radio's equivalent of Latin: historically important, but increasingly irrelevant in a world of cell phones, computers and instant messaging.

With mariners and the military having moved to other technologies long ago, ham radio operators are virtually the sole practitioners of a technique that made national and international communication possible with the telegraph.

Now, after decades of requiring code proficiency to obtain certain amateur radio licenses, the Federal Communications Commission is considering a proposal to do away with the qualification, generating strong emotions among the nation's more than 600,000 operators.

The debate comes after the completion of one of the highest-profile missions in decades for amateur radio operators, who relayed messages about everything from medical supplies to missing people when Hurricane Katrina wiped out telecommunications along the Gulf Coast.

As ham radio operators debate the need for Morse code, military officials say it is taught in an expansive way at only two U.S. bases, with just a few dozen members of the full-time military learning it each year. It is primarily used as a backup for joint operations with less-developed nations.

"Morse is a fading skill in today's day of information, especially as we get into networks and cyberspace," said Capt. Kevin Hooley, commanding officer of the Navy's Center for Information Dominance in Florida.

The International Maritime Organization officially phased out Morse in 1999 for ships in peril, replacing it with the high-tech Global Maritime Distress and Safety System. Before that, in 1993, the Coast Guard shut down its Morse code emergency distress network, a system that was a throwback to when ships used the chilling "SOS" as their internationally recognized call for help.

Nations drop requirement

Code requirements for amateur radio licenses have already been eliminated in some other nations, including New Zealand, Ireland and Singapore. The FCC is expected to issue a decision this year after reviewing more than 3,700 written comments.

Although his radio is capable of transmitting voice with near-perfect clarity, Mike Dinelli prefers to tap away on a Morse code key when he sends messages around the world to other radio hobbyists. "It's part of the romance of radio," said Dinelli, 49, a commercial real estate broker from Skokie who has been a ham radio operator since 1980.

Others say the code requirement is needed to keep the ham radio bands from degrading to the level of citizens band radio, which peaked in popularity during the 1970s and was known for its often-colorful conversation.

"I've always said that we need some hoops to jump through to make it viable," said Ed Hayes, a ham radio operator in Longview, Wash. "If you don't have to do anything to get the license, it puts you in the CB world."

Hayes, a retired community college teacher, learned the code when he was a Boy Scout. He belongs to the International Morse Code Preservation Society, which claims about 12,000 members in North America.

Hayes can send and receive about 25 words per minute in Morse code, a glacial rate compared to modern, digital technologies. "I don't even have a microphone hooked up," he said.

Pure nostalgia for some

For others, such views are pure nostalgia for a hobby that has been hurt by the popularity and communications power of the Internet.

"To require young people to learn an old language that is very seldom used is a stumbling block for a lot of people to get in the hobby," said John Kuntz, a ham radio operator from Fennimore, Wis., who wrote the FCC to support eliminating the code requirement.

Making it easier to obtain a license could increase the number of operators at a time when the frequencies authorized for their use have come under increased pressure. Some in the hobby fear the government could move to auction off portions of their radio spectrum for other purposes.

Although few young people are entering the hobby, about 660,000 are licensed nationally, and roughly 22,000 in Illinois, according to the American Radio Relay League, a national organization with about 170,000

Kuntz, an electronics technician, said he has little concern that the ham radio bands will be turned into the trash-talking environment of CB radio if the Morse code requirement is dropped.

"A bigger problem is not getting enough new people into the hobby to keep it going," he said. "If we don't keep attracting young people into the hobby, we aren't going to have that backup system of radio communications out in the country, which can really be an asset for public service."

Backers of the code requirement, meanwhile, maintain that Morse has tremendous advantages during crises. Morse can be sent and received when less favorable radio conditions prevent voice signals from being heard, and it requires only basic equipment that is readily available during emergencies.

"There are counties that are very poor that don't have other kinds of equipment," Dinelli said. "Hams have to be able to use this mode so they can communicate in times of need."

Morse code's storied history started on May 24, 1844, when Samuel Morse transmitted the question, "What hath God wrought?" over 35 miles of wire from Washington to Baltimore.

The accomplishment amazed observers and started the process of speeding information across the country and world, replacing the Pony Express and courier pigeons.

Titanic used wireless code

After the 1912 sinking of the Titanic, which used wireless code to try to attract help, Congress enacted legislation that required U.S. ships to use Morse code radiotelegraph equipment for distress calls.

Over the years, the code has changed very little. Bowing to the importance of the Internet, the @ sign was added in 2003 by the International Telecommunications Union, the first new character in decades.

Hooley, the commanding officer at the Navy's information center, said he is not aware of any military usage of Morse code in recent years. Still, during operations in the Middle East, he said there were discussions about whether coalition partners had the capability.

"We never had to resort to it, but it was sometimes asked as a possibility," he said. "It is a skill that we have to keep."