TO MORSE CODE
The Associated Press, 02/17/04
Morse code is entering the 21st century -- or at least the late
The 160-year-old communication system now has a new character
to denote the "@" symbol used in e-mail addresses.
In December, the International Telecommunications Union, which
oversees the entire frequency spectrum, from amateur radio to
satellites, voted to add the new character.
The new sign, which will be known as a "commat," consists
of the signals for "A" (dot-dash) and "C"
(dash-dot-dash-dot), with no space between them.
The new sign is the first in at least several decades, and possibly
much longer. Among ITU officials and Morse code aficionados,
no one could remember any other addition.
"It's a pretty big deal," said Paul Rinaldo, chief
technical officer for the American Radio Relay League, the national
association for amateur radio operators. "There certainly
hasn't been any change since before World War II."
The change will allow ham radio operators to exchange e-mails
more easily. That is because -- in an irony of the digital age
-- they often use Morse to initiate conversations over the Internet.
"People trade their e-mail addresses a lot," said
Nick Yocanovich, a Morse code enthusiast who lives in Arnold,
Morse code uses two audible electrical signals -- short "dots"
and slightly longer "dashes" -- to form letters, numbers
and punctuation marks. Created in the 1830s by Samuel F.B. Morse
, who invented the telegraph, the electronic signaling system
spread across the world, and until the past few decades, it
was used widely by the public, industry and government.
"It was the beginning of the Information Age," said
Gary Fowlie, Chief of Media Relations and Public Information
for the ITU, which has its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.
When Morse died in 1872, more than 650,000 miles of telegraph
wire circled the globe. By the early 20th century, Morse messages
were being sent wirelessly, via radio.
Perhaps the most famous Morse communication is the international
distress signal S-O-S. It consists of three dots, three dashes,
and three more dots.
But with the proliferation of digital communications technologies
such as cell phones, satellites and the Internet, Morse code
has lost its pre-eminent place in global communications. "There's
really no reason to use it anymore," said Robert Colburn,
research coordinator for the History Center of the Institute
of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
Today it's largely the province of ham radio operators, including
700,000 in the United States. While not all of them communicate
regularly in Morse, almost all are familiar with it.
Some ham operators wouldn't mind more changes to spice up the
language. While Morse code has a period, a question mark, and
even a semicolon, it offers no simple way to articulate excitement.
"I was hoping they'd add a character for the exclamation
point," said Yocanovich, who is active in the International
Morse Preservation Society. "It expresses an emotion that's
difficult to get across any other way."