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Understanding Morse Code Calls

A Practical Guide to Morse Code

Before there were phones and computers with seemingly unlimited methods of communication such as calling, text messaging, emailing, voice-calling to name a few, sending a letter was the only available means of communicating across long distances. The only alternative to letter-writing was England's "needle telegraph." Unfortunately, this system was very slow and complex in its design so not many people were able to make use of it. While there was need for a simple, user-friendly interface of cross-country communication, the Morse system was not created until the 1830s.

Samuel Morse

In 1791 Samuel F. B. Morse was born in Massachusetts. Morse was a professor, a professional painter and the original founder of the Royal Academy. Stemming from a 1832 conversation he had during an overseas trip back to the United States, Morse began his work on electromagnets. After partnering up with Alfred Vail and Prof. Leonard Gail, they worked together on building the telegraph. In 1854 they received a United States patent from the Supreme Court for their Morse code.

Morse Code

Morse code uses the letters of the alphabet and ten numbers, all represented with long and short pulses. Each character, letters, numbers and punctuation alike, are represented by a code pattern. One operator would sent a message using these pulses of varying length as another trained operator used a telegraph key to translate the message at the receiving end. In this way, electronic messages were sent using the Morse code system and the telegraph, with the first being sent and received on May 24, 1844,

At first, Morse code used paper where the dots and dashes were recorded, but later evolved to use sound. With Morse code being so easy to understand, it was easy to communicate even across low-quality wiring. This made it very popular across the United States and in European countries. The only drawback was that occasionally errors occurred when characters were used instead of dot spaces. This was commonly a problem when communications were sent over wires that were underseas.

International Morse Code

In 1851 a new code was created called the international or continental code. Modified from Morse code, it eliminated the characters needed for spaced dots. Every telegraph system replaced and upgraded their systems to accept this new code except for North America which kept Morse code. International Morse code utilized a single wire for each letter, unlike Morse code that used one wire to transmit each letter.

Uses in Aviation

Morse code was an integral part of international aviation both or military and commercial pilots. Pilots were required to know the code as it was used to identify navigational beacons that transmit three letters of code on a constant loop. Aeronautical charts still used three-letter Morse codes to identify airports up into the 1990s.

Amateur Radio Uses

Morse code is still popular with those involved in amateur or "ham" radios. Radio lingo for Morse code is "CW" referring to the process of switching a continuous wave on and off making short and long elements to create the Morse code characters.

Enabling Technology Uses

Morse code can be useful to individuals with disabilities. When conventional communication is difficult, some disabled people find Morse code helpful. For example, Norman Woodland modified Morse code by extending the dashes and dots downward and altered the line widths. Even individuals with limited motor control are able to send messages through code. In the past the code had to be translated by a trained caregiver, however today there are computers that help aid in speech. Morse code can be communicated in a number of ways, such as using a tube to exhale or inhale air to create the code, or using a buzzer.

Learning Morse Code

Learning Morse code can be as fun as it is useful. Begin by carefully listening to recordings, being sure to pay special attention to the combination of dashes and dots. A short beep is represented by a dot whereas a longer beep is represented by a dash that is three-times the length of a dot. Between each letter is a short pause with a longer pause indicating a space between words.

There are a few different methods available to learn Morse code. The Farnsworth method is the most widely-used. It has uses listen to the characters in rapid succession but with long pauses in between, with the pauses shortening as the listener improves. The Koch method, named for German psychologist Ludwig Koch, begins with two characters but is repeating at full speed. When the listener can copy the first two characters with 90% accuracy another character is added and so on until all the characters are learned.

For more information on Morse code, continue on to the following resources:

Inventor of the Week: Samuel F. B. Morse

Morse Code History

Cryptomuseum's Guide to Morse Code

"The Radiotelegraph Morse Code(for Kids of All Ages)" (PDF)

"Using Morse Code as an Enabling Techology"

Morse Resource: Resources Related to Morse Code and Amateur Radio

Learn Morse Code (CW) Online!

Just Learn Morse Code

International Morse Code Basics

Morse Code Translator: Translates your text into Morse code!


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