Group adds a dash of freshness to Morse code

Sign: The International Telecommunications Union OKs the "commat" to denote the @ used in e-mail addresses.

Medicine & Science

February 16, 2004|By David Kohn | David Kohn,SUN STAFF

Morse code is entering the 21st century - or at least the late 20th.

The 160-year-old communication system has a new character to denote the "@" symbol used in e-mail addresses.

In December, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), 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 another 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," Rinaldo said.

The change will allow ham radio operators to exchange e-mails more easily.

That's because - in an irony of the digital age - they often use Morse to initiate further 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.

What Morse wrought

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.

Baltimore plays a small role in the Morse story. The first practical demonstration took place in 1844 when the inventor sent the first telegraph message, from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. It said, "What hath God wrought!"

"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, or Save our Ship.

It consists of three dots, which signify "S," then three dashes for an "O," and then three more dots.

But with the proliferation of digital communication technologies such as cell phones, satellites and the Internet, Morse code has lost its preeminent 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, Morse code is largely the province of ham radio operators, including 700,000 in the U.S.

While not all of them communicate regularly in Morse, almost all are familiar with it.

Spice for the ham

Some ham operators wouldn't mind more changes to spice up the language. Morse code has a period, a question mark and even a semicolon, but 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."

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