February 15, 2000
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SOS for amateur radio?

The dits and dahs of Morse code are being heard less and less, kept alive only by a dwindling number of amateur radio operators.

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Audio Hear the Morse code

Charles Fulp, a dentist, sits at his ham-radio station in the basement of his Perkasie, Bucks County, home. (Ron Tarver / Inquirer Staff Photographer)
By Michael Klein

Most days, when Charles Fulp is operating, people call him "Doctor." He's a dentist with a practice in his comfortable stone house in Perkasie, Bucks County.

This weekend, though, Fulp will operate in his cramped basement, and he will be simply "K3WW," his amateur-radio call sign, as he chats with other hams all over the world.

Fulp will be participating in a contest, practicing what even its adherents acknowledge is a dying art:

Communicating by Morse code.

Dits and dahs - the short and long beeps that for 150 years told the world of war, peace, rising stocks, sinking ships, new babies and dead soldiers - are used regularly today by virtually no one other than a select group of amateur radio operators.

And that group appears to be shrinking by the month. Workers at Western Union, who moved 199 million telegrams in 1929 alone, have not tapped out a Morse message for years. Heath, whose radio kits put many Morse operators on the air, stopped making the kits by 1995. Two years ago, the International Maritime Organization gave up Morse in high-seas emergencies in favor of satellite radios. The U.S. military trains only a handful of people in Morse, and only as part of specialized communications courses.

Even Fulp, who has won competitions that put him among the world's best amateur-radio operators, concedes that the slow speed of code - perhaps seven times slower than normal speech - has no practical role in today's Internetted, cell-phoned, wired-to-the-hilt world.

The Federal Communications Commission, which licenses the nation's 740,000 amateur radio operators, has said as much. In April, new FCC rules will make it easier to get a higher-class amateur radio license. Under current rules, the speed for the lowest-class license, which gives an amateur comparatively few frequencies on which to transmit, is five words per minute; for higher-class licenses, which allow the ham to use more frequencies and power, the requirements are 13 and 20 words per minute.

The new rules, part of the FCC's attempts to streamline the licensing system, will set the speed for all licenses at five words per minute, about three times slower than most amateurs use. (Fulp generally sends and receives at 30 to 35 words per minute in contests.) Prospective amateurs still must pass multiple-choice tests in electronics theory and practice.

"We believe that an individual's ability to demonstrate increased Morse code proficiency is not necessarily indicative of that individual's ability to contribute to the advancement of the radio art," the FCC announced in December. Also, the world's licensing authority next year is due to decide whether to keep Morse code proficiency as a condition of amateur radio licenses, a requirement since the 1920s.

From the reaction in the amateur community, you might have thought the FCC was preparing to hand out amateur licenses for the asking, as it does for citizens-band licenses. Since the great CB explosion in the early 1970s ("10-4, good buddy"), hams have generally viewed the 13- and 20-word-per-minute Morse tests as the gate that keeps riffraff off the amateur bands, because the questions on the multiple-choice tests are widely circulated and can be memorized.

But while hams seem to want Morse, most aren't using it, according to the American Radio Relay League, the Connecticut-based organization that represents about 175,000 American hams. From 1995 to 1998, surveys of its members - who are seen as the more-active hams - showed that those using at least some Morse code dropped from 54 percent to 46 percent.

"It's a fun mode," says Dan Henderson, who manages the league's contests. "As far as a practical mode, though . . . " His voice trails off. "There will always be a core constituency of hams who use it, but it's a dying art from a technical standpoint. I still don't think it will ever go away."

The die-hards won't let that happen. "You put on your headphones and enter your own little world," says Nancy Kott, a ham from Metamora, Mich., who runs the North American chapter of Fists CW Club, affiliated with the International Morse Preservation Society, which counts a few thousand members. (If an operator has a good "fist," he or she sends code or CW, for continuous wave, intelligibly.)

Ham operators who use Morse speak romantically of the dits and dahs skipping musically along the synapses of their brains.

It is that passion that will keep Fulp poised in front of the glowing radio transceiver in his basement for 48 consecutive hours this weekend, exchanging call signs and signal reports with thousands of stations all over the world.

In this weekend's contest, the idea is to get as many contacts, in as many different parts of the world, as possible. He works alone; many other hams - including those in the local Frankford Radio Club, one of the top contesting clubs in the world - create multiple-operator stations so one operator can sleep while the other plays with the radio.

To get a rough idea what a contestant hears in his or her headphones, put four or five friends together in a moderately noisy room, close your eyes (so you can't see their lips) and ask them to say their names in roughly the same volume. Then, one by one, pick out their names and have a brief conversation. Now, do that hour after hour for two days, and then remember that a contestant is communicating in Morse code. "Once you get used to [using Morse as opposed to voice], you'll find it's easier on the ears," Fulp says.

Because time away from the radio could cost him contacts, he eats little and drinks virtually nothing except coffee and cold water. "One time, conditions were so good I only got up twice the whole weekend," he says, jabbing a thumb toward a bathroom eight steps away. During the major contests, other dentists cover his practice. No abscess or impacted wisdom tooth shall interrupt Dr. Fulp.

Fulp's great skill is not so much his ability to pick out call signs through the interference, or his hearing, or the size of his antennas, or the power of his transmitter. It is a combination of all those, plus his knack for being on the right band at the right time.

Amateurs have six shortwave bands - portions of the radio dial in between the AM and FM broadcast bands - from which to choose during a contest. Fulp knows just when to switch bands and when to swing his antennas to where the action is - south for South America and the Caribbean, north-northwest for Japan, northeast for Europe, and east-southeast for Africa. When conditions are right, a signal from 7,000 miles away can be louder than one from 40 miles away.

The beauty of Morse code in contesting is its simplicity. Call letters and signal reports are the same in any language.

Morse code is a digital form of communication, a crude binary forebear of today's lightning-fast digital transmissions. It was developed in the 1840s by Samuel Morse, who sent a message over 35 miles of steel wires - "What hath God wrought?" - and electrified the world with the ability to communicate over distance.

"Information will be literally winged with the rapidity of lightning," a Baltimore newspaper reported.

With the telegraph came a new industry that also gave millions of women the chance for a career outside the home: pounding brass, as the act of pumping a telegraph key became known, and typing out incoming messages. By 1871, five years after a transatlantic cable linked the United States and Britain, much of the world was crisscrossed by telegraph lines. By the end of the 19th century, as Guglielmo Marconi spanned the Atlantic with his wireless, hams began setting up their own stations. (The origin of the word ham is lost; one idea is that it comes from the call letters HAM of an early wireless station, and another is that it reflects the Cockney pronunciation of amateur.)

The "American Morse" that Morse wrought became the so-called international Morse that operators such as Fulp and Kott use today.

Morse code carried the disaster of the Titanic's sinking on the night of April 14, 1912. The ship's radio officers, Jack Phillips and Harold Bride, sent "SOS" messages, which were picked up nearly 60 miles away by the Carpathia, which steamed out to rescue 700 survivors, including Bride. Phillips went down with the ship.

Though the use of Morse has sunk in more recent times, it still pops up here and there in popular culture. The film Independence Day had earthlings using Morse to confuse the aliens. On the WB show Jack & Jill last month, the character Jill was tapping on a pipe to attract attention. He made four short taps, followed by three long taps and four more short taps. He thought he was sending "SOS," but Jack corrected him. Four short taps is an H, three short taps is S.

Most observers believe that the new, slower Morse speed requirements will attract more hams. They also believe that the newcomers, by and large, will never pick up a telegraph key.

"It's not going to make any difference [on the bands]," says Fulp. "There've always been less of us."

Michael Klein's e-mail address is

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