Wireless, at 20 words per minute, from Anver Anderson
Morse code, a wireless technology, has been empowering our world for decades
Anver Anderson gives us a peek into the days of working with Morse code, at twenty words per minute.
With not so much as a blink of an eye, we can send, receive, edit or forward just about any message be it text, graphical, audio or video in today’s fully integrated and hyper- connected world. But it really is not that long ago when this just was not the case, especially for the maritime and offshore customer. When I began my career in telecommunications back in 1978 with the GPO ( now BT), I served as a radio officer at the UK’s long range ( High Frequency – HF) station, Portishead Radio ( GKA). The long range station was complemented by a number of coastal radio stations operating on VHF and MF frequencies. This gave the UK full coverage of local and international shipping and offshore operations. For the most part, communications with ships at sea was done by radio telegraphy ( Morse code) or radio telephony – although at that time there was a burgeoning market in the “new fangled” Radio Telex – which was able to carry messages at a massive speed of 50baud! But let’s not let the technology of the moment run away with us… The frequency bands we used for this elegant communications form were from 4MHz through to 22MHz ( up to 25MHz when the sun cycle was enjoying extra activities). So, depending on the time of day, and the position of the vessel, and appropriate frequency would be chosen. It’s important to know that to use this particular wireless system, you had to understand a little about the state of the ionosphere at any particular time of day to ensure the right bounce to hit your target. A radio officer in some far flung vessel would have to listen in to specific frequencies and pre- set times to hear a Morse transmission, which might – or might not - contain his particular callsign. This was “The Traffic List.” If your callsign was on it there was a message waiting for you. So you would tune to Portishead’s listening frequencies ( GKB) and send your callsign. The response would be to tell you to go and listen to one of two other frequencies ( GKC or GKD). Your transmission frequency would be noted before passing all these details on to the operator who would be “working” with you. These details were written on a specifically colour card ( denoting frequency band) via a moving belt in the middle of the long desk. The radio officer would make a call to you on GKC, you respond on your transmit frequency, and then ( if there was traffic for you) he would ask to you listen to one of his own send frequencies ( GKG perhaps) and the message would be sent. If you had your own message – for your office or family – you would be returned to GKC and you could send your messages, usually at 20 words a minute. Once received, the green telegram form was sent on another moving belt journey to the telex room where it was “re- typed” to its final destination. Today you tell the kids that was how it was done and they won’t believe you. In my career, we’ve gone from Morse code at 20 words a minute, and a lot of palaver, to half a Gig over a single transponder and WiFi on every corner… what will the next generation see, I wonder.