The 160-year-old signaling system of long and short tones called Morse code seems antiquated in this age of the Internet and wireless voice communications. But Morse Code isn't dead yet. In fact, it even made news this past week . The United Nations agency that oversees the worldwide audio-frequency spectrum has approved the first new Morse code signal since World War II, 60 years ago.
There is even a dots-and-dashes version of the @ sign that millions of people use daily in their computer e-mail addresses.
There's a name for the Morse code version of the little a, wrapped in a pigtail, that you find above the number two on English-language keyboards. It's called the commat - short for the 'commercial at' sign. When they were talking in Morse code and wanted to exchange e-mail addresses, hams - as the estimated three million amateur radio aficionados around the world are called - used to have to spell out the word "at": a -- t.
But there was a problem. If you tap out "at" too fast in Morse code, the symbol for "a" and the symbol for "t" run together and form, not "at", but the letter "w". Hence the need for an entirely different Morse signal for the at sign.
The approval of a new Morse code for the @ symbol is a reminder that the Code still plays a role in modern communications, including the well-known S.O.S. Many people have seen vintage or new versions of the movie Titanic, or naval wartime films, in which the radio operator of a stricken ship frantically taps out a distress signal.
S.O.S in Morse code
Old-time mariners like Morris Blum, 94, of Annapolis, Maryland, know the universal call for help well. Mr. Blum learned Morse code in the Boy Scouts in the 1920s and used it often during long careers in the Navy and as a civilian ship's radio operator. He says he never actually sent an S.O.S.
?... thank heaven! But I was out at sea in the mid-30?s when the S.S. Morro Castle, a passenger liner, caught on fire and burned in the Atlantic when she was off the New Jersey coast," Mr. Blum said. ?They lost a lot of lives. I was on a small passenger ship nearby, and I got the s.o.s., sent it up to the bridge. We didn't go because they had plenty of people around their ships. And they beached the thing anyhow in New Jersey, on the sands.?
Another time, Mr. Blum took in an S.O.S from a Dutch freighter, carrying a cargo of wild animals. It seems a lion had escaped and was roaming the decks, and crewmen were cowering in their rooms. He said, ?The radio operator sent out a message, 'Any ship with guns, please answer.'?
Such scenes are a thing of the past. The only person aboard a Navy or Coast Guard ship required to know Morse code today is the quartermaster, who has absorbed some of the duties of the old signalman grade, because Morse code signals are still sometimes sent by blinking lights at sea. Audible shipboard distress signals are sent via modern satellite communications or an onboard key that radio operators monitor at sea. But the message is no longer in Morse code.
It is amateur radio operators who are keeping the code alive.
Dave Patton, an official of the American Radio Relay League, which is the national association of hams, explains that most Morse code traffic is in English, though there is nothing to keep French speakers or Arabic speakers or others from communicating in their languages, using the Roman letters common to English. Mr. Patton says there are, however, what are called cue signals in International Morse code that everyone understands.
?For instance, the letters Q.T.H. mean 'I am located at,' or 'I am transmitting from this location.' So if I wanted to say, 'I am located in Connecticut,' I'd go, 'Q.T.H. C.T.' on code,? he said.
Ham radio equipment can be rigged for the hearing impaired. Flashing lights send the dot-and-dash messages.
?And the same thing goes with touch," Mr. Patton said. "There are people, of course, who can't hear, and they put their hands on a transducer, and they can feel something buzz for a half-second, and that'll be a dash, and a quarter-second buzz could be a dot.?
Amateur radio buffs like Wendell Wilson, 78, of Concordia, Kansas, can tap Morse code in a flash, well over 30 words per minute, and easily understand the flurry of dots and dashes that's zipping around the world.
?The best Morse code operators that I run into are 80 years old - and I'm gettin' there - and women. Everybody younger than that, or a different gender, aren't as good,? Mr. Wilson said.
The primary function of amateur radio, Mr. Wilson says, is to handle traffic in times of emergencies. You'll almost always find a ham operator at the scene of an earthquake or devastating tornado, where Morse code is sometimes the only form of communication. Unlike the human voice, which can be lost in atmospheric static, Mr. Wilson says, Morse code is transmitted in a narrow, continuous wave that can break through clutter and be heard.
?We are acutely aware of what could happen in this crazy world,? he said. ?One electromagnetic pulse from a nuclear blast, high in the atmosphere, could disable all the satellites, ruin all the microwave systems, shut down all the v.h.f., u.h.f. communications, and all the cellphones. And the ham radio operators would be one of the few groups able to continue handling emergency traffic nationwide, worldwide.?
Wendell Wilson, who says he'd love to hear from other hams at his call letters W.0(zero).T.Q., sends a Morse code greeting: "Hello to Voice of America listeners around the world."
Wendell Wilson and others who are facile with Morse code say they welcome the new commat sign. But they wish one more symbol would be created. There are Morse punctuation marks like the period, even a semicolon, a comma and a question mark.
But there's no exclamation point! No way to show excitement, which would certainly be an appropriate emotion, for instance, added to the end of an S.O.S!