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It's easy to think of Morse code as an outdated system of communication. After all, when was the last time the postman came to your door and handed you a telegram? Considering this messaging system had already begun its descent into obsolescence by the late 1800s, we'd be willing to bet it has never happened.
However, we'd argue that the underlying ability to communicate via Morse code remains an extremely important skill to this day. Although it may seem archaic, this simple alphabet of dots and dashes can be used to communicate beyond language barriers and convey essential information covertly—taking the time to learn Morse code might even save your life someday.
Morse code can save lives. That's a bold claim, so we'll share some incredible examples of it doing just that.
Back in July 1965, U.S. Naval Aviator Jeremiah Denton was taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese after the A-6A Intruder jet he was piloting was shot down over the city of Thanh Hoa. Denton and his navigator were held as POWs for almost eight years in the now-infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison camp.
Denton would later recount tales of being beaten with fists and fan belts, and how his captors used ropes to cut off blood circulation to his limbs. He wrote, “I prayed that I could keep my sanity until they released me. I couldn't even give in to their demands, because there were none.”
Denton was also forced by his North Vietnamese captors to participate in a televised propaganda press conference in 1966. While he spoke in front of the camera, claiming that he was being fairly treated, he simultaneously blinked in Morse code to spell out “T-O-R-T-U-R-E”. This ingenious and defiant act secretly sent a message to the U.S. Military about the real conditions he had endured.
Denton's coded message was one of the first clear confirmations of prisoner torture by the North Vietnamese forces, and may have changed the course of the Vietnam War. He was eventually released from captivity, went on to become a U.S. Senator, and lived to the age of 89 back home in Virginia Beach.
“Ok,” you might be thinking, “but that was 50 years ago.” Here's a more contemporary example of Morse code saving lives in 2010.
In Colombia, a Communist guerrilla movement known as FARC had been active in assassination, kidnapping, ransom, and other terrorist activities since 1964. Their goal was to destabilize the Colombian government and establish a new regime.
By 2010, a number of soldiers had been kidnapped by FARC and held in a brutal hostage camp deep in the jungle. Knowing this, Colombian army Colonel Jose Espejo set out to communicate with his stranded men and inform them rescue was nearby—but without tipping off the FARC guerrillas of their intentions.
Since guerrillas often had radios playing music in their jungle camps, a plan was formed to broadcast a secret message to the hostage soldiers over the radio. Most of the FARC guerrillas were farmers with no military communications training, so Colonel Espejo figured they wouldn't know Morse code. On the other hand, many of the captured Colombian soldiers did know Morse code.
Espejo coordinated with a composer, musicians, and various radio stations to produce and broadcast a song called “Better Days” that included a secret Morse code message to the hostages: “19 people rescued, you're next. Don't lose hope.” The code was hidden in the form of a synthesizer interlude that played 3 times throughout the song, and the song's lyrics even hinted at the code's presence.
Click here to play “Better Days” on Soundcloud. The coded message is first audible after the chorus at the 1:30 mark.
The song was broadcast to over 3 million people, and eventually reached the hostages. Amazingly, the plan worked, and many soldiers were able to escape the camp and reach Colombian military forces nearby. Espejo later said, “We know of hostages who heard the message and were able to escape and provide information that led to the release of more hostages.” FARC eventually announced a unilateral ceasefire on July 8th, 2015.
To read more about “Better Days” and the Morse code message sent to hostages, check out this article from The Verge.
Now that you know the practical uses of Morse code, it's helpful to understand how it originated.
The history of Morse code is forever intertwined with that of another invention: the electrical telegraph. This is unsurprising, given the fact that the most widely adopted telegraph system was invented in 1837 by Samuel Morse. In essence, Morse's telegraph used simple on-off electrical pulses sent over a long-distance wire to another telegraph machine on the other end.
In order to communicate over the newly-invented telegraph system, Morse and his assistant, Alfred Vail, developed the alphabet now known as Morse code. Short pulses, sometimes called dots, and longer pulses, called dashes, were combined to form letters. Pauses were also added to indicate spaces between words.
This system went on to become the most popular long-range communication technology until the widespread adoption of the telephone in the beginning of the 20th century. However, even after the end of the telegraph, Morse code has continued to see use in various fields today.
Clearly, learning Morse code is a valuable skill for any survivalist, but it's not exactly an easy skill to pick up. The traditional way to learn this language is by spending hours studying and memorizing a chart like the one seen above. Needless to say, this is time-consuming, and provides no correction or feedback if you make mistakes. Fortunately, there's an easier way to learn, and you don't even have to leave your couch.
Morsecode.io is a free interactive online tool, and it provides practical (and dare we say, fun) lessons on Morse code. By tapping your mouse or spacebar, you can sound out each letter or word, and the program gives instant audio and visual feedback. Be warned—this tool can eat up a lot of time, but we'd say it's well worth it.
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