Burak Kanber, Engineer

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Why I’m Learning Morse Code

On August 18, 2013

Nearly every piece of information around us has been encoded. Even language–human communication–is encoded information. Language started as an abstract concept; we needed to communicate thoughts, ideas, and information from one person to another.

In the very early days, we grunted. Then we developed the spoken word. Very fortunately for us, we have an organ (the vocal cord) that helps us encode language into audio and transmit it out of our throats, through the air, and into a listener’s ear. So we did that for a while, but eventually (as it always happens), we figured there could be a different way to encode language such that we could store our thoughts for later. We developed drawings.

Drawing evolved into written language, and we started using paper so that our thoughts were mobile. The written word was a significant advancement in the evolution of human society. Scholars were able to share thoughts with future scholars that they would never meet. We could write plans for tools or machines. We could share ideas without ever needing to know who would read them.

We encode information for lots of different reasons. There are some forms of encoding that help us transmit data. Other forms help us store data. Other forms help us operate on data. And we’re always improving the way we encode things.

Take recorded audio, for instance. At one point, someone discovered that you could capture pressure waves on a physical medium so that we could re-play them later. The first record was born. We discovered radio waves, and shortly after that we figured we could encode audio on top of a carrier wave. Thus was born AM radio. AM radio had its limitations in transmission and fidelity, however, so we figured out a better (albeit less intuitive) way to encode audio for radio: FM.

We encoded and recorded audio onto magnetic tape, hard discs, optical discs, and eventually dozens of popular binary formats. We encoded video in much the same fashion: first we used AM, then FM, and eventually landed on digital. Who knows what we’ll have in the future. Maybe we’ll encode things in quantum states, or in DNA.

This brings me to my fascination with Morse code. Granted, learning Morse code today may be a futile exercise. After all, I don’t know a single person who speaks it! But Morse code was the first popular method of electronically encoding human language. What a huge step forward in history that was! What a fundamental breakthrough!

We used Morse code first over telegraph lines and eventually over radio. We used it as civilians and we used it in the military. Morse code was already mature before we could even transmit voice over radio. And even when we started transmitting voice, Morse was more reliable under poor conditions than voice was. The dashes and dots were easier to pick out from the static than spoken words were, so we continued to use Morse for quite some time.

Interestingly, Morse code was originally developed as a sort of written language. The receiving end of the early telegraphs had a roll of paper tape attached, and the dashes and dots would be drawn on the tape, ready for visual human transcription. But after a short while, telegraph operators were able to transcribe Morse simply by ear. In fact, they discovered that listening to Morse code was easier than visually transcribing it.

As you develop proficiency in receiving–or “copying”–Morse, you start hearing the characters rather than the dashes and dots. “Di-dah-dit” just comes across as “R”, as passively and intuitively as the letter “R” itself. Eventually you begin to recognize full words, and if you have lots of experience, even common phrases require no active translation.

That’s amazing to me. With some practice, we can learn to “natively” speak and translate an entire electronic encoding without active effort. It’s even said that Morse operators, particularly during wartime, could identify the actual person they were listening to–because everyone has their own Morse “accent”. You’d come to recognize Steve’s “voice” without him having to identify himself.

That’s why I’m learning Morse code. This simple form of communication, seen my many as antique, encapsulates so much about our world and technology. It shows us how we can use encoding to give information the properties we want it to have (in Morse code’s case, ease of transmission, simple electronic components, and high fidelity even when the signal is weak). It teaches us about human language and adaptability (learning to “speak” Morse code). And, long before the internet and the digital age, Morse code revolutionized the way we communicate with one another.

While it may not be practical to learn Morse in this day and age, I feel I must pay homage to such a wonderful and revolutionary system. And who knows–it might come in handy some day. For some reason.

Do any of you speak Morse?

(If anybody is interested in learning, I’ve been using lcwo.net. There are downloadable programs out there as well, but I like LCWO because it’s a webapp.)

(Update Oct 15 2013: I’m proud to say I can now copy Morse code at about 10WPM with 99% accuracy. I love it!)

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