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This article originally appeared in Issue 3 of our magazine.
Long before the epidemic of tweeting duck-faced selfies with the Prime Minister of Denmark or posting your latest pasta selection at Olive Garden, Sam Morse (with some help from Joe Henry) was posting status updates to his BFFs as early as 1836. This partnership of a struggling artist and nerdy physicist would match letters of the alphabet to the varying durations between switching an electric current on and off. What they created was a binary encrypted alphanumeric code that could be just as easily transmitted visually, sonically, or tactilely. That’s tech talk for a system of “dots” and “dashes” that represent numbers and letters.
Unless you’re a radio operator, Eagle Scout, or grew up in a telegraph office, your exposure to Morse code has probably been limited to RUSH pounding out the call letters for the Toronto Airport (if you’re not familiar, search YouTube for “YYZ”). It’s been a while since Morse code revolutionized long-distance communication and has since fallen to the wayside, replaced by more modern methods of communication, including smartphones, text messages, and email.
Why should anyone even learn, much less take time to master, such an antiquated system? Wouldn’t it be like learning conversational Latin … “fun” to learn, but something you won’t ever have a use for? But it’s precisely the barebones low-tech/no-tech nature of Morse code that makes it an essential skill to hone when preparing for WTSHTF. Morse code adapts to multiple forms of communication easily and can be used visually with a flashlight, a mirror reflecting sunlight, by blinking one’s eyes (see side bar), or even plainly drawn out as a pictograph of dots and dashes. Audibly, Morse code can be utilized by anything that makes noise. Banging on a pipe with a chunk of concrete or using the beeping feature on some two-way radios comes to mind.
At first glance it looks as if ol’ Sammy put a bunch of dots and dashes in a hat and randomly assigned them to letters wherever he felt like it. Believe it or not, there’s a method to his madness. Morse did some studying and discovered that (as any Wheel of Fortune fan knows) T and E are the most frequently used letters in the English language. He assigned those the simplest code: a single dash or “–” for T and a single dot or “•” for E. From there the letters were assigned a code. In theory, the more frequently the letter is used, the more memorable the associated dots and dashes, vocalized as dits for dots and dahs for dashes.
How we represent the dots and dashes in relation to each other is also very specific. The timing of the Morse code sequencing uses the “dot” as its basic unit. The dot is of an arbitrary duration with everything else being relative to that common unit. For example: The dash is three dots long. The spacing between elements of the same letter is one dot. The space between letters is three dots, and the space between words is seven dots.
How do you learn Morse code? The same way you get to Carnegie Hall. PRACTICE. There are various mnemonic devices to help you remember what combinations of dots and dashes go with which letters, but nothing will be a substitute for rolling up your sleeves and repeatedly going over the code. It may help to say the sequence out loud, but instead of saying “dot” and “dash,” say “dit” and “dah” since that more closely represents what you’ll hear over a receiver. For example, the sequence for S when written out is “• • •,” but when said out loud is “dit dit dit.”
If the time ever comes where you find yourself banging on a pipe or cavern wall to get lifesaving communications out to rescuers, you’ll come to appreciate this old-fashioned way of texting.
Above: Here’s an easy learning tree from LearnMorseCode.com. As you move from the start and move down the tree, every move left is a dah (dash) and every move right is a dit (dot). For example, to get the code for O you move from the start position to the T (dah) to the M (dah, dah) and land on O (dah, dah, dah). Now something more complicated, the letter P: right to E ( • ), left to A ( • – ), left to W ( • – – ), and right to P ( • – – • ). Give it a try; figure out the dits and dahs to spell out your favorite four-letter word.
Because spelling out sentences letter by letter in the form of dots and dashes can get ridiculously long, there are a few forms of Morse code shorthand that have been developed over the years. The most well known is the distress signal, SOS (••• ––– •••).
SOS is a form of “prosign.” Prosigns are two- or three-letter designations that indicate Morse code formatting and signal procedure and not actual text. They are sent without a space between the two letters. So a prosign of SN (••• –•) means “understood” and CT (–•–• –) means “commencing transmission.”
Another form of Morse code shorthand is called “Morse code abbreviations” and it replaces longer words with one- to four-letter combinations. 73 (––••• •••––) means “best regards,” B4 (–••• ••••–) represents “before,” TNX (– –• –••–) means “thanks,” and 88 (–––•• –––••) stands for “love and kisses.” Charts covering both forms as well as others can be found on the worldwide interwebs.
There are also many apps for Android and iPhone that make practicing very easy and give you immediate feedback and correction. In our opinion, the free apps are just as good as the ones for which you’ll spend a few bucks. A few of the ones we tested and found to be worth of checking out are:
One of the most compelling stories of Morse code in real-world use is the story of Jeremiah Andrew Denton Jr. Mr. Denton is a retired United States Navy rear admiral, naval aviator, and a former Republican U.S. senator for the state of Alabama. He was held captive in Vietnam for eight years, more than half of which were spent in solitary confinement.
In 1966, North Vietnamese officials aired a television interview with Mr. Denton as an obvious propaganda ploy. When asked how he was being treated, Mr. Denton stated that he was getting “adequate food” and “medical attention when needed,” but his eyes told a different story. During the interview Mr. Denton can be seen blinking the word “TORTURE” in Morse code, confirming to American Intelligence that U.S. military personnel being held as POWs in North Vietnam were indeed being subjected to physical abuse and torture. Learn more about this great American in our previous web-exclusive article on Morse Code.