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Communication over long distances can be difficult, even with modern technology.
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Smartphones lose signal and radio batteries die, right when disaster strikes.
Then what do you do to contact rescuers?
Fall back on older technology, and use a flashlight, signal mirror, or another source of light to send a message in Morse code!
If you don’t know about Morse code, there’s a crash course right below (check the bottom of this article for more resources).
Then I cover how to use it and teach a few words in Morse code that, one day, may help you get out of trouble.
What is Morse Code?
Morse code is a character encoding scheme, which means that it uses a system to represent letters and numbers.
It was invented by Samuel Morse and Alfred Vail after the telegraph so people could use that device to send text messages to each other.
To that end, it uses dots, dashes, and empty spaces to signify each character and word.
Though invented over 160 years ago, Morse code is still used today!
Pilots use it. Radio operators use it. Sea ships talk to each other in Morse code when radios are dead.
During the Vietnam war, Commander Jeremiah Denton was taken captive by the North Vietnamese.
They used him as propaganda by broadcasting a press conference to show that American POWs were being treated properly, but he signaled T-O-R-T-U-R-E to the Americans by blinking in Morse code.
Perhaps most relevant to our interests is the distress signal SOS.
You can use a flashlight or reflective surface to catch the attention of far-off rescuers and communicate to them in Morse code!
Let’s look at how.
How Does Morse Code Work?
Morse code uses dots, dashes, and spaces at a certain rate of speed to make letters and numbers into words and sentences.
Each dot or dash is called a mark, and characters are made of one or more of these marks:
- A dot, also called a dit, is a short mark, one unit of time long.
- A dash, also called dah, is longer. Each dash is three units of time long.
- Spaces, also called gaps, are included in between each character and word. There are also gaps in between each dot or dash in a letter.
Most characters are longer than one mark. The gap between marks in a character is one time unit long.
The gap between characters is three time units long and the gap between words is seven time units long.
Make sure to keep a consistent speed when using Morse code, else your characters will blend together and people won’t be able to understand what you’re sending!
How to Use Morse Code
You can use Morse code in more situations than you would expect.
The classic example is a flashlight. Turn it on then turn it off after a count of one for a dot, then turn it on for a count of three then turn it off for a dash.
Or, if you have no flashlight but have a signal mirror (or even a watch!), angle it onto your target to start the mark and angle it away to end the mark.
I remember watching Lost in Space, when a character communicated to the robot, “Danger, Will Robinson, danger,” by tapping out Morse code.
You can do that too!
Tap for the dot and drag your finger for the dash.
You can even wave flags, cover a lantern, or do anything else you can think of to send dots and dashes!
However you send the Morse code, you need to send it at a consistent speed.
It doesn’t need to be fast, just consistent.
How to Understand Morse Code
Understanding Morse code is more difficult than sending it.
There are people who can listen to Morse code and understand rapid-fire dots and dashes as complete sentences, but that takes a lifetime of mastery!
Even understanding 5 words per minute can be difficult.
So, in order to understand Morse code, it’s recommended to write it down.
Get your pencil and waterproof notebook and put down each dot and dash, and leave spaces according to how long each silence lasts.
Then you can look over the written Morse code and translate each character, one at a time.
Important Words to Know
Even if you don’t want to learn how to use Morse code fluently, there are still some phrases in Morse code that are important or helpful to learn.
Some of these are prosigns, which in Morse code is a series of characters that don’t make a word but everyone who knows Morse code should know what they mean.
They exist because, well, Morse code can be slow. Why send an entire word when a letter or two will do?
SOS: … — …
No, SOS doesn’t stand for “save our souls.” It was chosen to be quick, unambiguous, easy to transmit, and able to be repeated easily for long periods of time.
SOS was originally intended for ships at sea but it became the de facto distress call all over the world.
If you adventure into the wild, some way to broadcast SOS can save your life.
I recently fell in love with a flashlight that can automatically broadcast SOS for you for over a day! Read more here.
Hello: —… …—
Hello in Morse code is the number 73, often used as a greeting. It came from the Western Union code for “Best Regards.”
Stop: .- .- .
You’ve likely heard this in movies or on TV a thousand times. It signals the end of the message.
Wait: .- . . .
Saying “wait” is like saying “stop” except you have more to say in a little bit.
Literally K, this is an invitation for the receiver that you’re finished and they can transmit now.
Understood: . . .- .
You didn’t just receive their message, you understand what they were saying.
This is a reply, letting the other person know you received their message. It’s just the letter R to keep things short and sweet.
But it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll comply!
If this was the radio, you’d say, “say again?” because you didn’t understand the message.
Speak slower: –.- .-. …
The Morse code stands for QRS but it basically means, “I’m new at this so slow down dangit!”
Yes: – .- .
Those dots and dashes stand for the letter C. You pronounce it like the Spanish word for “yes,” “sí.” Get it?
It’s just N for “no.”
Closing: -.-. .-..
This means that you’re going to stop transmitting for now.
Morse code may seem outdated, but it’s still in use all over the world.
I have no doubt that at some point in the future, some dudes in space will lose telecommunications and have to tell rescuers where they are by flashing lights across space in Morse code.
Or maybe you’ll get caught up in your own propaganda press conference and tell a secret to the world by blinking a message in Morse code.
- http://www.hamwhisperer.com/p/morse-code-course.html – Free Morse code course
- http://www.arrl.org/learning-morse-code – List of resources
- https://voicenation.com/resources/morse-code-resources – List of resources
- http://www.morseresource.com/morselinks.php – Links for learning and information
- http://www.blackcatsystems.com/software/morsemania.html – Mac software to learn Morse code
- http://www.stormy.ca/morse/ – PC software to learn Morse code