Ode to the Code

As the Morse Code is officially retired,
a former radio operator recalls its glory days.

3 February 1999

CBC Radio One in Halifax
102.7 MHz FM

Promo: 6:04am

Don Connolly:   Good morning, and welcome to hour one of Information Morning for Wednesday, the third of February. I'm Don Connolly —

Elizabeth Logan:   And I'm Elizabeth Logan.

Don Connolly:   Coming up in our first hour, an ode to the code. As the Morse Code is officially retired, a former radio operator recalls its glory days.

Interview: 6:10am

Connolly:   It's ten minutes after six.

Logan:   SOS will never be the same again. After more than 150 years, mariners have officially retired the Morse Code. The language of dots and dashes will be replaced by a satellite-based mayday system. It's the end of an era that Spud Roscoe remembers well. He's a retired navy operator, and still avid ham radio operator.

Connolly:   Good morning, Mr. Roscoe.

Spurgeon Roscoe:   Good morning, sir.

Connolly:   How are you this morning?

Roscoe:   Oh, just fine.

Connolly:   When did you find out that they were kicking Morse Code out the window?

Roscoe:   Oh, I guess I've known it all along. Back in Radio College in Toronto 38 years ago they told us that one day we'd be cooking by radio — that's the microwave oven — and that we radio operators would no longer be required, and that the transistor would replace the vacuum tube. Three things they predicted back then, they've all panned out.

Connolly:   Why did they say that Morse Code — which was so effective for all those years — should be put aside? What's the rationale behind getting rid of it these days?

Roscoe:   Well, it's just modern technology taking over. They wanted a more accurate means for rescue, and with modern beacons and satellites, they can pinpoint a distress much more accurately. Morse Code has lasted this long because it was so cheap, and it was effective.

Connolly:   How do you feel about this? Is this just the inevitable march of time, or is this maybe a step backwards despite the fact the technology is fancier?

Roscoe:   It's like you say, the inevitable march of time, but the only way we're going to know whether it's a step backwards or not is to compare the figures. Back around 1910 when radio operators first went on ships, there was a dramatic decrease in lives lost and property damage. If they keep an eye on it now, and there's an increase in this, that will mean the new system isn't working the way it's supposed to be working.

Connolly:   Let's go back. You say around 1910 we first saw Morse Code as a regular feature on ships?

Roscoe:   It first went aboard ships in 1900. In 1909 there was a bad accident off of New York. The liner Republic, which was a sister of the Titanic, was involved in a collision with the passenger liner Florida. Republic was fitted with wireless and Florida wasn't. Republic managed to make contact with Baltic, another sister ship, and get her in along side these two wrecks, and get the passengers off of both ships before Republic sank. Florida made it into New York for repairs. At that stage, the ship owners were entertaining this new wireless fad, hoping that would soon pass, and be over and done with. When that accident happened, they realized it was a good means of communication. Ships started fitting wireless, so much so that by 1912, when the Titanic accident happened, things were getting out of hand. There was no licensing for the operators, no licensing for the stations. Something had to be done to police this system.

Connolly:   Let me stop you there. What do you mean it's getting out of hand? What possible harm...

Roscoe:   There were so many of them being fitted in ships, and there was no licensing or policing of either the stations or the operators. If you were an operator back then, and you got mad at someone, you'd simply turn your transmitter on full power, throw a book on your telegraph key and go away and forget about it — create a lot of interference and the others could not communicate through it. So, when the Titanic came along, they had the London Radio Conference at that time, which really cleared this system up. They came out with radio officers' certificates, and station licenses. They came out with a system of radio call signs where they could identify the nationality of the ship.

My last day at work in 1995 had Titanic written all over it. The systems we used, and the procedures we used, were still from this 1912 Convention.

Connolly:   But in your opinion, still worked pretty well.

Roscoe:   Oh, worked finest kind, yes. There was nothing wrong with it at all, other than this new technology is much more accurate. It can take a fix of a person's position when they send an SOS, and I presume that's the reason the big push is on to fit everybody now and make sure they have this new system.

Connolly:   You know, because of where we live we tend to think of Morse Code as ship to shore. In the old dusters, the old cowboy movies, we saw the Morse Code... It was a means of communication, here in Nova Scotia, on land, for a long time as well.

Roscoe:   Oh it was, yes. Samuel Morse started it back in 1844. Land line telegraphy lasted through to the early 1960s around Nova Scotia. A lot of people will remember the old telegraph office in the railroad stations around here. It's a great means of communication. I wouldn't doubt that if you went to some of the third world countries right now you'd still find the land line telegraph in use. What we have here is just the radio use of Morse Code terminating, although it's been dying for quite a few years.

Connolly:   I was just looking at some notes before starting the interview with you. Down in Digby they had a telegraph station some twenty or thirty years before they had a railroad.

Roscoe:   That's right. The Western Union put a telegraph line through... Well, I don't think it was Western Union there, it would have been Nova Scotia Electric Telegraph Company, which was formed in 1851. It went around the province. Then when the railroad came through they had their telegraph lines. Eventually — and I'm not sure just when it happened — I know during World War One, in Weymouth, Nova Scotia, which is just west of Digby, they had both Western Union telegraph and the railroad telegraph there, at that time. At some time Western Union disappeared and the railroad took over communications for the general public, plus train orders...

Connolly:   Generally speaking, the land lines... They used a lot of young women, did they not, in Morse Code work? Weren't women quicker to pick up Morse Code than men?

Roscoe:   Yeah, they sure were. Up until 1956, the coastal marine radio stations, around the coast here, had to know both the radio code and the land line telegraph code. There was a bit of difference in the characters in the Morse Code. The land line code was a much faster code. The coastal radio operator's job, back then, was to communicate with ships via the radio code, and then he'd have to swing around on his desk and use the land line code to send the message on to Halifax, which went on to Australia or Ontario or wherever the message was going. A lot of the operators at the land line terminal in Halifax were women. I know a lot of the older radio operators told me they were scared to death of them because they were so much faster and better operators than they were.

Connolly:   Do you speak both official Morse Code languages?

Roscoe:   No, I don't. I know the land line code, but I was too young to use it on the coast stations. I know the code, and if you sent it to me in the radio fashion — radio is a buzz-buzz sound, and on the land line it was clickety-click, and I never got used to the clickety-click.

Connolly:   Do you still use your key in your communications?

Roscoe:   Yeah. I'll take it to the end of my days. Yesterday, we gave a quick call just to see if anybody was around in Morse Code on the amateur bands, and a guy by the name of Mike in Cincinnati, Ohio — that was his home — answered me, and here he was driving his car around Dayton, Ohio, sending Morse Code from his car. Anybody that loves Morse Code is a fanatic at it.

Connolly:   (Laughing) He was driving his car in Dayton...

Roscoe:   In Dayton, Ohio, of all places. I wouldn't dare drive mine around Halifax using Morse Code. I'd have to concentrate more on the driving than on the radio operating, but he seemed to be right at home with it. I had no problem working him, that's for sure.

Connolly:   People complain about people using cellular phones in traffic...

Roscoe:   Yeah. This is much worse than the cellular phone, I would think.

Connolly:   No kidding.

Roscoe:   You'd have to concentrate more. At least I would.

Connolly:   A lot of ham radio operators still continue to have a Morse Code key around, if they want to go to more distant stations with... People who have lower-end technology still communicate in Morse Code.

Roscoe:   Oh yeah. Definitely. You can get a piece of equipment on the air in Morse Code for so much less money than you can with radio telephone. Although the amateur community is getting into computers in a big way as well. A lot of the amateur meetings and magazines — quite a lot of it is computer talk. I'm one of the old diehards. I don't even own a computer yet.

Connolly:   Spud, we only have a minute left. There still is some Morse Code around. It has been officially retired but there still is some Morse Code around? I mean apart from the amateurs.

Roscoe:   Yes, there is. I don't know how they can do away with it, Don, because — you take aircraft beacons, that aircraft home in on — they still use Morse Code to identify these beacons, to make sure they're tuned in to the right beacon. I'm going to hate to see it go completely.

One of the recent times it was used was a guy named Jeremiah Denton, a prisoner of war in the Vietnam war. He was in a forced television interview. He managed to flash t-o-r-t-u-r-e with his eyelids to let the world know that he was being tortured. I have his exact words here in front of me. "Had I not known the Morse Code I would have been denied the one viable option of communications open to me while a prisoner of war." It's going to be a sad day when we lose it completely.

Connolly:   Spud, It was great to talk to you. Thank you very much for getting up to talk to us this morning.

Roscoe:   No problem, Don. Any time. I love to talk about it.

Connolly:   Okay. Thanks Spud.

Roscoe:   Thanks. Good morning. Bye.

Logan:   Spud Roscoe is a retired navy operator.

Connolly:   It's 21 minutes after six o'clock.

The Wayback Machine has archived copies of this webpage:
Morse Code officially retired
CBH interviews S.G. Roscoe

Archived: 2000 April 16

Archived: 2000 August 29

Archived: 2001 January 19

Archived: 2001 June 20

Archived: 2002 April 19

Archived: 2002 November 01

Archived: 2003 January 21

Archived: 2003 November 03

Archived: 2004 January 18

Archived: 2004 August 08

Archived: 2005 March 09

Archived: 2005 December 15

Archived: 2006 May 06

Archived: 2002 October 21

Archived: 2007 April 11

Go To:   Farewell to Morse 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

Go To:   Nova Scotia Historical Biographies

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