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Article Eighty-Seven
Announced 02 February 1999
End of Morse Code

New satellite System Replaces SOS Signals
by Nicholaas van Run, Staff Reporter
The Toronto Star, Page A16, Tuesday, February 2, 1999
with files from Reuters

Three dots. Three dashes. Three dots.

For nearly a century, that was the way ships in distress alerted the world, using a series of Morse code dots and dashes to send an SOS call for help.

But, beginning yesterday [Monday, 01 February 1999], the familiar dots and dashes invented in 1832 by Massachusetts painter Samuel Morse have given way to "datapacs," packages of data transmitted automatically via satellite to a network of rescue co-ordination centres around the world.

The change, said George Olmstead of the Canadian Coast Guard, not only recogizes the inevitable march of technology but makes for "a much louder cry.

"In the old system, if you were in the middle of the Atlantic and started yelling 'Mayday,' there could be a possibilitity that no one would hear you," he said.

But, in the new satellite-based "Mayday" system introduced by the International Maritime Organization, "each vessel has to have two separate and independent means of sending a distress alert," Olmstead said.

The new distress signals, sent by pressing a "hot key" on a shipboard satellite terminal, automatically sends the vessel's nine-digit maritime mobile indentity number - think of it as a licence plate that's valid worldwide. Other information transmitted in the data burst can include the time, ship's postion and the type of distress - unspecified, or one of 12 categories that range from fire through flooding and listing to piracy.

Morse, an international standby since 1912 - when it was used to signal the Titanic's call for help - was doomed by a 1988 international treaty on safety and rescue at sea, in which the world's sea-going nations agreed to replace the system with the satellite setup, the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System.

U.S. civilian ships dropped Morse for distress calls in 1995. Two years later, on Jan. 31, 1997, France's coast guard tapped out its final, poetic mesage: "Calling all. This is our last cry before our eternal silence."

The change, which has now taken effect world-wide, applies to all commercial ships over 300 tonnes, and those carrying passengers for hire.

But, in Canada at least, there's still a place for the old technology, Olmstead said.

"The old system" of monitoring and emergency distress frequency for calls from ships at sea that haven't yet changed over to the new system, like the vessel that astounded Scottish coast guard listeners last month [January 1999] by sending a Morse code distress signal.

They were so surprised, they confessed, that they thought the distress call was a joke.

For much of this century, Morse code distress signals were far from a joke.

"Morse is a system that has played an incalculable part in the development of trade and history itself," said Roger Cohn of the maritime organization, the United Nations agency that regulates world shipping. "But, it has now died of old age."

The familiar sequence of three dots, three dashes [three dots] - picked because they were easily recognizable, and not becasue they had anything to do with saving souls - became a worldwide standard three months after the Titanic signalled in 1912: "SOS. Come at once. We have struck berg."

and, as the London Times reflected yesterday in an editorial, Morse was used to give the world some of the best news in history: It was used to broadcast the ceasefires of both World Wars.

"It was used by generals and spies, speculators, journalists and prisoners, communicating with the next cell," The Times said.

And then it concluded, with just a touch of regret, "Over and out."

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