Telecommunications Morse Code and Me
The type of Morse Key are learned my trade on.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.'
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.
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!
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