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Paul Bird
Posted on Saturday, October 27, 2001 - 04:46 pm:   

Dash it all - no more dots and dashes

By Richard Thomas
Guardian Unlimited

Sunday January 31, 1999


It has turned the course of battles, real and fictional. It has saved countless lives at sea, inspired music and literature and starred in Hollywood movies across the decades.

Tomorrow, Morse Code finally bows off the world stage. More than 150 years after their invention by Samuel Morse, the famous dots and dashes are being ditched by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) as a communication system for the sea. In place of the romantic rhythm comes the prosaic, satellite-driven, Global Maritime Distress and Safety System, with inevitable initialisation, GMDSS. Over the past few years, most countries have been preparing themselves for the day. Two years ago, the French stopped using Morse as a distress code in national waters, with a typically Gallic sign-off: 'Calling all. This is our last cry before our eternal silence.'

Of course, the new system is easier to operate - no one has to pore over pages of dots and dashes - and it is able to give a precise fix on the location of a ship in trouble. On the downside, it is entirely dependent on electronic systems. One of the reasons the Royal Navy will keep Morse alive is because, using lights, it is the only way ships in convoy can communicate with each other without any electronic eavesdropping.

Like all global institutions, there is no romance in the soul of the IMO. It should think of the fantastic scene in Doomed Voyage of the St Louis, when Morse messages from France, Belgium and the UK are used to offer sanctuary to the Jews aboard the ship, who are refused entry to the United States. Rock band Rush kick off their track 'YYZ' with a drumbeat spelling out the letters in Morse. And, of course, Barrington Pheloung's haunting theme tune to the TV series Morse spells out the name of the lead character Morse, in Morse.

The history of the code prefigures some of the current debates about e-mail and the Internet. When the telegraphy system was put in place, fears were expressed that 'the telegraph', dubbed an 'instantaneous highway of thought', would make it impossible to escape the pressures of work.

The Morse revolution was also a spur towards the feminisation of the workplace, as women showed themselves to be at least as good as men at operating a Morse key. By 1870, a third of the operators in the New York Western Union office - the largest in the country - were female. Romances blossomed over the wires , precursors of today's 'cyber-love', a few of which resulted in few 'Morse' weddings.

Morse code is an old friend, and not one to be dumped without some ceremony. One of the sadnesses of modern life - not least in Blair's Britain - is that the obsession with looking to the future, to the new millennium, leads to an over-readiness to disregard and dismiss the past. This is in stark contrast to ancient civilisations, especially the Greeks, where the focus was always on learning from the past and leaving the future to take care of itself. We need to remind ourselves, occasionally, that all that is new is not necessarily good.

Even Hollywood understands the magic of Morse. The film Independence Day has a number of lessons on the potential over-reliance on electronic satellite systems. Because the aliens have taken over our satellite system, the global communications network collapses. So the final attack on the alien enemy is co-ordinated using Morse code and old-fashioned keypads: Morse saves the world. Let us hope the Morse language survives. For now, though, it's ..-. .- .-. . .-- . .-.. .-..

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