- Newspaper, Sydney Morning Herald and Newspaper, Sun Herald
- History - general, Naval technology
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 1998 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Extracts from The Sydney Morning Herald (Kendall Hill) and The Sun-Herald (Peter Robinson)
It revolutionised the way humans communicated long before the likes of the telephone, the radio and e-mail. When the TITANIC sent out distress signals, when prisoners of war needed to talk, and when ceasefires of both world wars were broadcast, it was done via that familiar sequence of dots and dashes. But 165 years after it was devised, Morse code has all but done its dash.
From midnight on 30th December, 1997 HM Coastguard in Britain stopped receiving messages in Morse. France and the United States have already stopped listening, and Australia and the rest of the world will follow suit in the near future.
There was something both primitive and endearing about Morse code in comparison with this age of seamless satellite voice and fax communications. In principle it was simplicity itself – a system of communication in which letters of the alphabet and numbers represented by short and long patterns could be conveyed by sounds, flashes of light or even the waving of flags.
After Marconi invented radio telegraphy, it was the standard means of communication for shipping, and expert Morse operators could tell from the keying of a message who the operator at the other end was.
Invented in 1832 and given its first practical test in 1844 (when American inventor Samuel Morse tapped the message “What God hath wrought!” down the line from Washington DC to Baltimore), Morse code became the precursor of modern telecommunications. Since the end of World War II, however, it has been phased out in favour of radio and modern satellite communications, and the last Australian telegram was sent by Morse from Sydney GPO to Bombala in 1962. Ship-to-shore communications has been one of the last bastions of Morse code.
But the International Maritime Organisation, the United Nations body on shipping safety, agreed in 1988 that the more reliable Global Marine Distress and Safety Systems (GMDSS) would replace Morse from February 1, 1999. The GMDSS allows distress signals to be sent directly from ship to shore authorities and is not subject to vagaries of weather and sunspots.
Telstra will continue to operate the listening watch on radio telegraphy channels (Morse Code) until the phase-out in 1999. Market operations manager Mr Phillip McKenzie said Telstra still transmitted maritime information and weather warnings in the code, and used it for seagrams (telegrams to or from sea).
In Australia, amateur radio operators are among the keenest continuous users. “I can see that, to some people, it is really an anachronism”, said Mr Ian Hunt, South Australian president of the Wireless Institute of Australia. “But there are some (amateur radio enthusiasts) who see it as an art and operate exclusively these days using Morse code. It’s used fairly prolifically. It’s great to have all the automatic stuff, satellites and things like that, but if you’re in a sinking ship at sea and everything’s broken, you can still tap two pieces of wire together and send a signal from a transmitter”.
Mr Gordon Hill, the president of the 900-member Sydney Morsecodians Fraternity, said: “While we live, it don’t die”.
The influence of the new technologies on RAN communications has been profound. No longer will radio operators and signalmen form separate categories – all will come under one banner in the newly created Communications and Information Systems Branch (CIS) with the first intake expected to graduate in March, 1999. However, flashing messages using Morse Code will continue to be a primary skill, together with Semaphore for visual signalling.
Samuel Morse lives on!
THE LAY OF THE LAST SIGNALMAN
On a thickly wooded sponson where the last projector stands,
The museum pair of hand flags hanging idly in my hands,
With my jargon half-forgotten, of my stock-in-trade bereft
I wonder what’s ahead of me – the only bunting left.
The relics of my ancient craft have vanished one by one,
The cruiser arc, the flags and manoeuvring lights have gone
And I hear they’d be as useless in the final global war
As the hello, the foghorn and masthead semaphore.
The mast is sprouting gadgets like a Christmas tree,
There are whips and stubs and wave guides where my halyards used to be
And I couldn’t hoist a tack-line through that lunatic array
For at every height and angle there’s a dipole in the way.
The alert and hawk-eyed signalman is rendered obsolete
By electrically-operated optics of the Fleet.