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"Shorts, Outtakes and Rants"

Most weeks I write a column for my paper; occasionally my daughter writes one. Usually they're focused at local issues, but every now and then I come up with one that I think Spearfish Lake Tales readers would find interesting, so I post them on the Spearfish Lake Tales Message Board. Since I've been neglecting "Shorts, Outtakes and Rants" recently, I decided to repost a few of them here, like this one. I hope you enjoy it! -- Wes

What Hath God Wrought?

June 13, 2013

I happened to notice the other day that the world's last telegraph system will be decommissioned in the next few days. It's in India.


To be honest, I thought the telegraph was dead of old age already, in this world of worldwide communication, satellites, cell phones, the internet, and many other things I could name. Rest in peace, Samuel F. B. Morse. Your invention served us well, and was the first true conqueror of time and distance.

With a few minor exceptions, until Morse invented the telegraph in the 1840s, the fastest way a message could get from one place to another was a courier on horseback. The telegraph changed all that. At first, it only connected Washington and Baltimore, but the advantages of faster communication soon had telegraph wires strung all over the country, then all over the world. The first unsuccessful trans-Atlantic cable was in the early 1860s; by the 1880s there was a world wide web (and yes, I'm using that term intentionally) of telegraph cables that brought the four corners of the earth within near-instantaneous communication with each other.

For the most part, they old telegraph system used dot-dash Morse code (yes, he invented it too.) Radio came along after the turn of the century, and it used dot-dash too. For about a hundred years or a little more, if an important message to be sent, it had to be sent by Morse code, in all caps: ATLANTA IS OURS AND FAIRLY WON, comes to mind, as does AIR RAID PEARL HARBOR THIS IS NO DRILL, and perhaps the most famous of all, SOS CQD TITANIC WE ARE SINKING FAST, the dots and dashes that sent the Carpathia racing through the night to the stricken ship.

But the dots and dashes were the backbone of communication in many other ways. Being something of a train buff, I have mental picture of an operator sitting in a train station somewhere working the key and listening to the clicks of dots and dashes, like a young Thomas A. Edison did not far from here a hundred and fifty years ago. When I was quite young, I remember being in a railroad station seeing the stationmaster working a telegraph to control train movements, just exactly the same thing, little changed from the days of the young Edison.

There used to be commercial radio companies that transmitted messages in Morse code, usually over oceans or long distances, much like telegraph companies did on land.

All gone now, and mostly forgotten, at that.

Back when I was younger, amateur radio operators needed to know how to use Morse code, and be fairly proficient with it to be able to operate with the higher level of licenses. I don't know when that changed, but as far as I know Morse code is no longer required and rarely used even there, although a Morse code signal can get through in conditions when more complex signals may be too garbled. Aviation radio beacon identifiers are still in Morse code, the only place it is used today, except for amateur enthusiasts.

The US Coast Guard no longer monitors the emergency frequencies for Morse code transmissions. In the United States the final commercial CW transmission was on July 12, 1999, signing off with Samuel Morse's original 1844 message, "What hath God wrought."

What God -- and the telegraph, and Samuel Morse wrought was a much smaller world. It was the first step toward the internet, to being able to pull your cell phone out of your pocket and call anywhere in the world with it. The original system may be gone, but it deserves to be honored.

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