Telecommunications Morse Code and Me

The type of Morse Key are learned my trade on.

This was the simplest of Morse keys.  There were many more: sophisticated 'speed keys' which could send automatic dots, and some even automatic dots and dashes.
This was the simplest of Morse keys. There were many more: sophisticated 'speed keys' which could send automatic dots, and some even automatic dots and dashes.

Dit Dit Dit-dah Are you reading me?

Welcome to Telecommunications, Morse Code and Me.

On this first day of 2011 I look back over my life in amazement. How things have changed in the nearly seventy-five years I’ve lived upon Planet Earth – particularly in regards to the line of work I spent the first half of my own working life in: Telecommunications

Samuel Morse and an early Morse Key.

Samuel Morse really started something.   Although morse code has been superseded in most areas, it is still used, and maybe always will.
Samuel Morse really started something. Although morse code has been superseded in most areas, it is still used, and maybe always will.

In 1951 I was a telegram messenger boy.

It is said that very simple events can move us in a particular direction. Mine was to learn Morse Code. It was more or less a natural corollary to the environment in which I found myself in 1951. I was a telegram messenger boy employed by the now defunct Post Master General’s Department in a Sydney suburban post office. I was one of half-a-dozen. Most larger post offices across Australia fell into the same category: there were postmen who delivered mail. There were telegram boys who delivered telegrams. You see, only about one person in every couple of hundred had a private telephone. Doctors, police stations, hospitals. It was the age of the public telephone box on the street, and one dropped in a couple of pennies to make a local call. If making a trunk line call, if your money ran out the call dropped out! It was all pretty unforgiving.

The famous Teletype of the Teletype Company of the USA

This was a transmit model.  Note the keyboard and the document holder at the front.  I wore my fingers to the knucklebones on these things some days.
This was a transmit model. Note the keyboard and the document holder at the front. I wore my fingers to the knucklebones on these things some days.

Communcations, Morse and me.

But to get back to Morse Code. Samuel Morse of the United States of America had invented it more than a hundred years earlier. In those days it was mostly used to send messages along wires strung alongside railway lines. Of course, Morse Code over radio – or wireless, as it was originally called – came in later, the first ever radio call across the Atlantic taking place in 1901. Yet still, as late as 1951 and right through until the 1960s, it was Morse signals over wires, with telegram messengers pedaling out on bicycles to deliver their contents

Teleprinter Tape Relay Centre. Generally the noise was almost overpowering. No, I never worked in this one.

At Sydney Airport we had links with Manilla, Singapore, Auckland, Darwin, Perth, Melbourne, Brisbane,  Lord Howe, Norfolk Islands and a dozen other locations,  and they, of course, to others still.
At Sydney Airport we had links with Manilla, Singapore, Auckland, Darwin, Perth, Melbourne, Brisbane, Lord Howe, Norfolk Islands and a dozen other locations, and they, of course, to others still.

I learned in the evenings from a PMG Telegraph Operator.

I learned Morse from a friend, a postal clerk and telegraph operator with whom I happened to work. We lived fairly close to one another, and often cycled home together after work. Few people had cars in those days, though motor cycles were becoming increasingly popular. I asked my friend, Ray, if he’d teach me and he said yes – at a price. The price ten shilling a week. A dollar. He needed the money. In present day terms, about $50 a week, I’d say. It was a fair price. I had to buy my own practice key. As I recall, it cost me Four Pounds Ten Shillings.

Telephone Switchboard first half 20th Century.

These were busy places where the wrong cord plugged into the wrong hole could get you in all sorts of strife.
These were busy places where the wrong cord plugged into the wrong hole could get you in all sorts of strife.

I joined the Royal Australian Navy at eighteen.

Ray was a good teacher. He taught me how to sit, how to keep the forearm parallel with the table upon which the Morse key sat. How to use wrist not fingers. I became quite proficient. This would have been in 1953. So when I joined the Royal Australian Navy at eighteen and they asked me which branch I’d like to go into I said, “Communications. I’d like to be a radio operator.” A decision which was to keep in in the Telecommunications area, for the most part, until I was well over forty.

Samuel Morse's code was certainly used to communicate with and from my old ship, HMAS Barcoo.

The interminable chirping of Morse was an integral part of radio operating right through until the early 1990s.
The interminable chirping of Morse was an integral part of radio operating right through until the early 1990s.

 There were other forms of telecommunication though, even in those days.   Some of those of you reading this who were around in the 1960s 70s, even 80s – and certainly earlier – will recall the Teleprinter or Teletype.   There were vast networks of Teleprinters all over the world.   The military had them, as did the mercantile marine and civil aviation.   Most big business had their networks airlines, oil companies.   A bit like modern day digitals the system worked on a series of Yes and Nos, holes and blanks, punched into seemingly endless long rolls of paper tape.   There were tape-relay rooms, where people stood at machines that punch the tapes out, seemingly coming from nowhere to arrive as a long, drooping strip of hole-punch paper into the light of day.    It was huge industry.   I once read the Telecommunications Industry employed either directly or indirectly one person in six in the entire workforce.

Radio Teletype was faster than Morse, but nowhere near as fast as even the slowest of computers.

The radio equivalent was the radio-teletype or RATTY as it was sometimes referred to. RATTY networks covered the entire globe. And there were many of them. Compared with today’s instant communications, where you can telephone someone’s mobile as they sit in a open boat in the Mediterranean Sea from a veranda in a Sydney backyard, the networks were slow. Sometimes a signal would criss-cross the world a number of times to get to its destination. Let me give you an example of how things worked in those days.

This could well be 'Clipper 812.'

Pan Amercian Airways B707.   The top-rate aircraft in the 1960s.
Pan Amercian Airways B707. The top-rate aircraft in the 1960s.

Aeradio and air-traffic control use 'voice' but I have used Morse to work aircraft.

I’m sitting at my aeradio control consol in Sydney headphones on, teletype in front of me when the pilot of an aircraft calls. It’s an American Pan American Boeing 707 enroute Fiji to Sydney.

“Sydney, this is Clipper 812.”

“812 go ahead.”

812, we’re 35south 163.25 east at this time, flight level 330, on top scattered cumuliform base 3,000 estimating 34 south 155 degrees east....et cetera.”

I press my microphone button acknowledging the message and send it off. I’d been typing straight onto the teletype’s keyboard as the pilot was talking to me.

 

We were trained to take message straight onto the teleprinter.

My teletype creates a tape in a machine in another room. It’s pre-addressed, because I typed in everyone it had to go to even as the pilot was calling me up. We Aeradio operators were a very well trained lot, most of us being ex military men. A teleprinter in another room spews out a long tape with all the data I’ve taken from Clipper 812 on it. This is torn off by another operator who reads the addresses on it, and promptly sticks it into a slot in front of a ‘multi address console’ were it is sent off to perhaps a half-dozen addressees: Sydney air traffic control’s Area, Operations, Met Office, Pan American Airways, et cetera. And at those destinations in comes romping in on one of their chattering teletypes or teleprinters.

The Queen Mary would have sent and received messages both by the Morse key and RATTY.

A particular message might pass through a dozen hands.

So you can see, there is an awful lot of intermediary steps. A message coming from a ship at sea, for example, might be picked up by a shore station in Hong Kong. From there it’s send to Singapore, who relays it to Sydney. Sydney then pass it on to Darwin. In Darwin they send it on Katherine to whoever its addressed to there

My radio operating station at MacQuarie Island. No, that's not me.

Global Positioning Systems - Like magic!

All of this began to come to an end with spread of ‘satellite’ communication. I can recall coming back from MacQuarie Island in late October 1977. Our ship, the M.V Nella Dan, was carrying one of the first GPS’s. It was about the size of a small grand piano, and it picked up a signal from an overflying satellite every six hours. The position was instantly converted to a latitude and longitude – but only as close as one minute, that is one nautical mile. Not bad. Today, of course, you can get down to a few yards away, maybe even closer. I’m told that some of the military satellites are so accurate they can read over the print on a newspaper you might be reading in your own back yard!

To get back

 

Danish Laurentsen Line's Nella Dan. My first encounter with GPS.

The GPS was outside, starboard just abaft starboard wing of bridge.
The GPS was outside, starboard just abaft starboard wing of bridge.

I hope you enjoyed Telecommunications, Morse Code and Me.

So in sixty years we’ve gone from a few privately owned telephones, manual switch boards, extremely expensive international calls, teleprinters and Morse keys to tiny, handheld phones which can not only take telephone calls but can do all manner of other wondrous things: taking photographs, linking with computers, the list goes on. And now we have Skype!

How wonderful it all is – provided we keep up with it all.

Happy New Year!

More by this Author


7 comments

Dee aka Nonna profile image

Dee aka Nonna 5 years ago

Keeping up is the key. Very often, when something new come out, I've just learned the old. What a wonderful look at something we have come to take for granted..how we communicate. I am also very impressed that you know morse code. Great hub, Tom. Thanks for sharing.


Ted Thompson 5 years ago

Great page. This brings back a lot of memories for me. I was in the RAF in the early nineties, I was a Telecommunications Operator. Working in Commcen's, I operated teleprinters, RACE crypto machines, Radio Telegraphy. I fondly remember busy night shifts with paper tape chattering off the teleprinters, we used to have to fold the tape around our hand a certain way and then we would hold it in place with a paper clip. I got trained in Morse in 1997, I was the second to the last class to be trained in Morse in the RAF, aircrew stopped being trained in it a year later. My older instructors told great stories of the 60's and 70's working in Morse relay stations at places like RAF Gan in the Indian Ocean. I never used Morse after the course which was a shame, took 13 weeks to get to the required speed, we started to go a bitty nutty towards the end listening to Morse all the time. I can still remember Morse off by heart now and I still have my Morse Key I was trained on. My job was a dying breed. The world of teleprinters, paper tape and Morse was coming to an end. I left the RAF in 2000, the final few weeks I was there people were being trained up on secure email systems - goodbye dear teleprinters I knew you so well! Here's an excellent page about the RAF Signals Museum at Henlow, UK. Some good pictures of teleprinters if you're into that sort of thing! http://www.samhallas.co.uk/museums/henlow.htm Excellent page anyway. Ted Thompson, Huddersfield, UK.


Tusitala Tom profile image

Tusitala Tom 5 years ago from Sydney, Australia Author

Can identify with all of that, Ted- even the curling of the chad or chadless tape around the hand. Hard to believe that all those around the world relay stations have gone now. Now we just pluck out a mobile phone and call just about anywhere in the world in an instant. Wonder what it'll be like in another fifty years...


Ted Thompson 5 years ago

It will be an instant world but with far less character! Like most people I wouldn't have been able to believe the communications of today 20 years ago, things were just the norm back then - progress! Making me all nostalgic now. I remember Routing Indicating books giving the routing addresses of all the stations around the world. The first few letters indicated the relay station the station was connected to. Us at RAF Waddington were RBDOXR as we were connected to RAF Lindholme RBDO. We used to have send channel checks every hour half to make sure the circuit was working, on quiet nights and weekends we used to set our alarm clocks every 30 minutes so we could get our heads down! If you slept past the 30 minutes you'd wake up to find a teleprinter full of test messages from the relay station! At the end of a busy shift (and no supervisors around!) sometimes if you were a bit jack you'd send a QRT Paper Change to the relay station so they'd stop sending. We weren't really doing a paper change it just give us time to get the commcen in order before the next shift arrived! Five minutes before they arrived we would send a QRV Start Sending to the relay station and the signals started coming back in! Paper changes while signals were still coming in was an act young trainees looked on in awe. Happy Days. There must be thousands of ex-communications operators out there both civilian and military. Anyway I must get back to work, otherwise I'll end up writing a novel. Nice talking to you.


Tusitala Tom profile image

Tusitala Tom 5 years ago from Sydney, Australia Author

TED De TOM - QRK5 QSA5 QRU and tks. AR


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 19 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

I learned Morse Code as an amateur radio operator, or ham. Actually, I enjoyed it more than voice communication. I can identify with your friend teaching you the correct way to handle a key. I'm always irritated when I see supposed Morse operators in movies kind of thumping the key with their fingers.


Tusitala Tom profile image

Tusitala Tom 19 months ago from Sydney, Australia Author

Thanks, Ron. I was watching an English drama of TV the other night: 'Foyle's War,' in which reference was made to the individually distinctive 'Morse Hand' which could be distinguished by experts to determine who the transmitting operator was. It's true, after some practice it was possible to distinguish a radio operator's identify by the way they sent Morse Code.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.


    Click to Rate This Article
    working