Formally, it's the International Radiotelegraph Code. Technically and traditionally it's CW: "Continuous Wave". Commonly but imprecisely it's Morse. To traditionalist hams — radio amateurs — it's the classical way to cut through noise while using the simplest possible transmitting equipment, minimum power, and maximum skill.

More than a century before text messaging, Morse evolved into a language with its own poetic vocabulary. Dots and dashes — dits and DAHs — coalesced into letters and words with a rhythm and swing all their own. "Thank you" was never the harsh and jarring TKS, but always TNX (DAH DAH-dit DAH-di-di-DAH). An over-the-airwaves laugh wasn't a ponderous-to-send LOL; it was a quick chuckle, HI (di-di-di-dit di-dit). "Excellent" became the rhythmic "Fine Business" = FB (di-di-DAH-dit DAH-di-di-dit). A fellow radio operator regardless of age was a low-pitched Old Man = OM (DAH-DAH-DAH DAH-DAH) or an aurally symmetric Young Lady = YL (DAH-di-DAH-DAH di-DAH-di-dit). One's wife was referred to, with a virtual wink, as the XYL.

A smooth-to-send radio call sign was a much-prized possession of the CW operator. One reason to study hard and learn to copy code faster, in fact, was the chance to upgrade to a better callsign. WX = di-DAH-DAH DAH-di-di-DAH meant "weather", so my brother the meteorology student rose to Amateur Extra class and became K5WX; I followed in his footsteps to snag N6WX.

Morse wasn't sent via computer-controlled keyboard either; the transmitted signal was directly controlled by a simple spring-loaded switch. A "straight key" was the classic telegrapher's tool. To go comfortably faster than a couple of dozen words per minute, however, some hams used the Vibroplex: a clever sideways-mounted pair of contacts with a built-in mechanical pendulum. Push the paddle to the left and you made dashes the usual way, but a thumb-flick to the right released the weight-and-spring to generate a quick-rolling series of dots.

A "Good Fist" — smooth, accurate keying — was always a delight to hear. When a ham passed away s/he stopped transmitting and became a "Silent Key", so accordingly the black-bordered obituary column in amateur journals was headlined "Silent Keys". Earlier this year the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) dropped the code proficiency requirement for all classes of amateur license, as have most countries around the world. An ever-decreasing number of operators know how to use manual Morse. Within this century, virtually all keys will fall silent.

R.I.P. CW: ~1890 - 2090(?)

(cf. MolybdeNumbed (10 Jan 2001), WouffHongAndRettysnitch (19 Jul 2001), HammingItUp (10 Jan 2003), TopBand (20 Dec 2003), ChunkyConceptualization (21 Aug 2004), ...)

TopicPersonalHistory - TopicLanguage - TopicScience - 2007-09-29

(correlates: Comments on RebelliousHair, CharlesRodrigues, ChunkyConceptualization, ...)