End of Morse Code on the High Seas

Farewell to Morse Code

Saviour on the High Seas
Ends Its 100-Year Reign

by Shawn Ohler
The National Post
page A1 (front page)
2 February 1999

Canadian marine radio operators mourned yesterday the official phasing out of Morse code as the worldwide distress call of the high seas.

"Losing Morse code is like losing an old girlfriend that you kind of liked," said Spurgeon "Spud" Roscoe, a 59-year old retired radio operator from Halifax who sent countless Morse messages over a 40-plus-year career.

The International Marine Organization set yesterday as its target date to replace Morse's familiar dots and dashes with a satellite-linked communications system called the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System.  It is mandatory for all passenger vessels and the tens of thousands of international freighters larger than 300 gross tonnes.

As a precaution, the Canadian Coast Guard will wait until March 1 before shutting down the equipment it uses to receive Morse transmissions from ships, said George Olmstead, a coast guard official based in Ottawa.

But yesterday's official date, he said, still marks the end of an era.

"Yes, it is sad to see it go," said Mr. Olmstead, a radio operator for 29 years.  "But you can't keep looking back.  You have to look forward."

Unlike the Morse system, which required trained telegraphers to send an SOS, a distress call on the new system can be operated by anyone on a ship.

Once activated, the distress system beams signals from a ship to a satellite, which relays the alert to a rescue co-ordinating station in Germany, England, Australia, or California.  Under the new system, a ship hand can push a specific button for a specific problem – a fire, sinking, capsizing, bodies in the water.

Mr. Roscoe, the radio operator on 12 ships, including naval frigates, bulk ore carriers, and the boat on which Marlon Brando was filmed during the 1962 film Mutiny on the Bounty, acknowledges the new system is superior.  But he still insists nothing will match the odd romance of communicating via Morse code.

"There was something about the swing of the thing, talking with other ships from those little radio rooms.  It grows on a man," he said.

The first public Morse message was sent in 1844 from Washington to Baltimore, when inventor Samuel Morse tapped out "What hath God wrought?" in a demonstration for the U.S. Congress.

With Marconi's invention of the wireless in the 1890s, Morse code's reach extended to ships at sea.  The first Morse-related sea rescue came in 1899 off the coast of England.

The system had flaws, however, namely that transmissions were worthless unless someone was present at the other end to receive them.

On April 14, 1912, after the English passenger liner Titanic hit an iceberg, the ship's telegrapher broadcast, "SOS.  Come at once.  We have struck berg." However, the radio operator on the closest ship, California, had gone off duty and never heard the message.  More than 1,500  died, and after that ships monitored Morse code transmissions around the clock.

Technology's march means Morse code, which changed the way business was conducted, wars were fought and news was gathered, is now used by few people other than amateur ham radio operators.

"It's just one of those things.  New technology is taking over," Mr. Roscoe said.

From his Halifax home yesterday, Mr. Roscoe tapped out a farewell 15-second series of beeps that echoed over the telephone lines.

"I just said,'Goodbye Morse'," he said.

"She's over and done with."

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Go To:   Ode to the Code
Go To:   Spud Roscoe's website
Go To:   History of Telegraph and Telephone Companies in Nova Scotia

Go To:   Nova Scotia's Telegraphs, Landlines and Cables by D.G. Whidden (1938)
Go to:   Communications Links between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in 1849
Go To:   History of Railway Companies in Nova Scotia

Go To:   History of Automobiles in Nova Scotia

Go To:   History of Electric Power Companies in Nova Scotia

Go To:   Nova Scotia History, Chapter One

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