Sunday, September 22, 2013

Knowing the Score

Lying in bed reading while the local high school football game was going on, I realized that there were several different announcers broadcasting the action. In addition to the amplified voice of the announcer on the field which required proximity to receive, and the local radio broadcast which required equipment and electricity and the act of turning it on to listen, after every successful play for the home team there was an another audible message that most people in town can hear, most ignore, and few these days can decipher. It came to me out of my subconscious: I was hearing Morse code.

Comparison of historical versions of Morse code with the current standard. 1. American Morse code as originally defined. 2. The modified and rationalised version used by Gerke on German railways. 3. The current ITU standard. 

Morse code? With cell phones, satellite communications, radio towers, fiber optic cable—who uses Morse code today? Think Morse code, and the telegraph instantly comes to mind. Developed in the 1830s, use of the telegraph exploded with the transcontinental railroad. 

Morse-Vail telegraph key
National Museum of American History, 
Kenneth E. Behring Center

The military and transoceanic shipping used Morse code. At one time, it was common to see the telegraph poles with their glass insulators along every railroad track.

Paul Strand, 1915
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Erie Railroad
Smithsonian American Art Museum

There is still a Western Union® company and it’s still possible to “wire” money at your bank. But the telegraph poles following the track have mostly disappeared, and the insulators on the remaining abandoned poles have been used for target practice and left in shards alongside the tracks. According to Wikipedia, The United States Coast Guard no longer uses Morse code and no longer monitors radio frequencies for the code. So who is left? Ham radio operators use Morse code, its continuous wave transmission bandwidth footprint is small compared to other uses of the radio bands. Radios to communicate with others worldwide can be constructed on the cheap. According to Code Quick, pilots still use navigation beacons, lost hunters and stranded motorists use flashlight Morse code to transmit the SOS signal, people who can’t otherwise communicate can blink messages, and modern code enthusiasts use cell phones and an iambic keyer. Who knew? 

SOS, the standard emergency signal, is a Morse code prosign.
Image from Wikipedia

I’ve lived in railroad towns all my life, and train horns are just everyday background sounds that long-time residents ignore and people new to town complain about. Train engineers blow their horns for safety at crossings, and in towns built alongside the tracks with a lot of crossings that’s a lot of horn blowing.

Railroaders will snicker, but until the connection came home to me during the football game, the facts that the railroad still uses Morse code and that the blasts of the train horn were conveying messages were buried under more immediate sensory input. Who in these modern times except newcomers pays attention to train horns?

Who, you may ask, except those who want to know the score.