Morse Code R.I.P.

(and what's that got to do with TCP/IP?)

... --- ... .-. .. .--. (SOS, RIP)

Morse code is being replaced by a new satellite-based system for sending distress calls at sea. Its dots and dashes have had a good run for their money "Calling all. This is our last cry before our eternal silence."

Surprisingly this message, which flashed over the airwaves in the dots and dashes of Morse code on January 31st 1997, was not a desperate transmission by a radio operator on a sinking ship. Rather, it was a message signalling the end of the use of Morse code for distress calls in French waters. Since 1992 countries around the world have been decommissioning their Morse equipment with similar (if less poetic) sign-offs, as the world's shipping switches over to a new satellite- based arrangement, the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System. The final deadline for the switch-over to GMDSS is February 1st, a date that is widely seen as the end of an era.

For although dots and dashes will not die out altogether -- they will, for example, continue to be used by amateur radio operators, spies, and some members of the armed forces -- the switch to GMDSS marks the end of the last significant international use of Morse. The code has, however, had a good history. From its origins in 1832, when an American inventor called Samuel Morse first started scribbling in his notebook, it grew to become the global standard for sending messages along wires and, later, over the airwaves. Morse code was, in effect, the network protocol for the world's first Internet: the international telegraph network, whose cables trussed up the globe in the second half of the 19th century.

The mother of all networks:

Appropriately for a technology commonly associated with radio operators on sinking ships, the idea of Morse code is said to have occurred to Samuel Morse while he was on board a ship crossing the Atlantic. At the time Morse was a painter and occasional inventor, but when another of the ship's passengers informed him of recent advances in electrical theory, Morse was suddenly taken with the idea of building an electric telegraph.

Other inventors had been trying to do just that for the best part of a century. Morse succeeded and is now remembered as "the father of the telegraph" partly thanks to his singlemindedness -- it was 12 years, for example, before he secured money from Congress to build his first telegraph line -- but also for technical reasons. Compared with rival electric telegraph designs, such as the needle telegraph developed by William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone in Britain, Morse's design was very simple: it required little more than a "key" (essentially, a spring-loaded switch) to send messages, a clicking "sounder" to receive them, and a wire to link the two. But although Morse's hardware was simple, there was a catch: in order to use his equipment, operators had to learn the special code of dots and dashes that still bears his name.

Originally, Morse had not intended to use combinations of dots and dashes to represent individual letters. His first code, sketched in his notebook during that transatlantic voyage, used dots and dashes to represent the digits 0 to 9. Morse's idea was that messages would consist of strings of numbers corresponding to words and phrases in a special numbered dictionary. But Morse later abandoned this scheme and, with the help of an associate, Alfred Vail, devised the Morse alphabet, which could be used to spell out messages a letter at a time in dots and dashes.

At first, the need to learn this complicated-looking code made Morse's telegraph seem impossibly tricky compared with other, more user-friendly designs. Cooke's and Wheatstone's telegraph, for example, used five needles to pick out letters on a diamond-shaped grid. But although this meant that anyone could use it, it also required five wires between telegraph stations. Morse's telegraph needed only one. And some people, it soon transpired, had a natural facility for Morse code.

As electric telegraphy took off in the early 1850s, the Morse telegraph quickly became dominant. It was adopted as the European standard in 1851, allowing direct connections between the telegraph networks of different countries. (Britain chose not to participate, sticking with needle telegraphs for a few more years.) By this time Morse code had been revised to allow for accents and other foreign characters, resulting in a split between American and International Morse that continues to this day. On international submarine cables, left and right swings of a light-beam reflected from a tiny rotating mirror were used to represent dots and dashes.

Meanwhile a distinct telegraphic subculture was emerging, with its own customs and vocabulary, and a hierarchy based on the speed at which operators could send and receive Morse code. First-class operators, who could send and receive at speeds of up to 45 words a minute, handled press traffic, securing the best-paid jobs in big cities. At the bottom of the pile were slow, inexperienced rural operators, many of whom worked the wires as part-timers. As their Morse code improved, however, rural operators found that their new-found skill was a passport to better pay in a city job. Telegraphers soon swelled the ranks of the emerging middle classes.

Telegraphy was also deemed suitable work for women. By 1870, a third of the operators in the Western Union office in New York, the largest telegraph office in America, were female. Just as skilled operators found that they could recognise each other over the wires from their style of Morse code, many operators claimed to be able to recognise women operators. Inevitably, romances were initiated over the wires -- just as they are today by e-mail. There were even a handful of weddings by telegraph.

In a dramatic ceremony in 1871, Morse himself said goodbye to the global community of telegraphers he had brought into being. After a lavish banquet and many adulatory speeches, Morse sat down behind an operator's table and, placing his finger on a key connected to every telegraph wire in America, tapped out his final farewell to a standing ovation. By the time of his death in 1872, the world was well and truly wired: more than 650,000 miles of telegraph line and 30,000 miles of submarine cable were throbbing with Morse code; and 20,000 towns and villages were connected to the global network. Just as the Internet is today often called an "information superhighway", the telegraph was described in its day as an "instantaneous highway of thought".

But by the 1890s the Morse telegraph's heyday as a cutting-edge technology was coming to an end, with the invention of the telephone and the rise of automatic telegraphs, precursors of the teleprinter, neither of which required specialist skills to operate. Morse code, however, was about to be given a new lease of life thanks to another new technology: wireless.

Following the invention of radiotelegraphy by Guglielmo Marconi in 1896, its potential for use at sea quickly became apparent. For the first time, ships could communicate with each other, and with the shore, whatever the weather and even when out of visual range. In 1897 Marconi successfully sent Morse code messages between a shore station and an Italian warship 19km (12 miles) away. The first sea rescue after a distress call sent by radiotelegraph took place in 1899, when a lightship in the Dover Straits reported the grounding of Elbe, a steamship. Two years later, Marconi sent the first transatlantic radio signal: three dots, the letter "S" in Morse code. By 1910, Morse radio equipment was commonplace on ships.

The sinking of the Titanic in 1912, however, highlighted the need for radio operators to listen at all times for distress signals. After the disaster it emerged that the liner Californian had been only a few miles away, and that hundreds of lives might have been saved had the Californian's radio operator been on duty and so able to receive the Titanic's "SOS" distress call. At the first International Convention for Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), held in London in 1914, it was agreed that large vessels should maintain 24-hour radio watch.

This rule has remained ever since, with subsequent SOLAS conventions gradually introducing new rules to keep pace with the development of technologies such as radiotelephony. The advent of satellite technology led the International Maritime Organisation to amend the SOLAS convention in 1988 to introduce GMDSS, an automated emergency communications system based on satellite and radio links.

Optional since 1992, GMDSS equipment will be compulsory worldwide from February 1st on all ships that exceed 300 tonnes, carry 12 or more passengers, or travel in international waters. (Owners of smaller vessels can install the equipment if they wish.) Under GMDSS, anyone on board a ship in distress merely has to press a button to send a distress call containing the vessel's identification number and its precise location -- there is no need for a skilled Morse operator. And so, after nearly 170 years, Morse code will finally slip beneath the waves.

Over and out:

As communications protocols go, Morse has lasted a surprisingly long time - -- admittedly with a few tweaks here and there. So how might its modern descendant, the Internet Protocol (TCP/IP), fare in comparison? TCP/IP was devised in 1973 by Robert Kahn and Vinton Cerf (a man with Morse-like stature in the Internet world who is often known as the "father of the Internet").

As with Morse code before it, TCP/IP is being improved to respond to new challenges and technologies. Its addressing system is now being overhauled to make room for billions of additional connections, to allow for the wireless devices expected to proliferate over coming years and to enable even household appliances to go online. Mr Cerf is also working on how to extend the Internet to such other places as the moon and Mars, since the time delays as radio signals travel through space make the current protocol unsuitable.

Further improvements will follow: indeed, since it is spoken by computers, not humans, TCP/IP is easier to adapt than was Morse. Even so, in today's fast-changing computer world, it seems unlikely that TCP/IP will remain in continuous use for anything like as long as the century and a half managed by Morse code, its distant digital ancestor.

From: The Economist, Jan. 23, 1999 SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY

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