Coastguards send their last messages in Morse code

Any mariner thinking of learning Morse code to send out that vital SOS message might be better off practising their breast stroke. From midnight tonight no one will be listening. Stephen Goodwin, Heritage Correspondent, reports on the decline of a mechanical language.

Farewell messages will be tapped out in dots and dashes tonight from Land's End, Port Patrick, Cullercoats and Wick as British Telecom ceases its Morse code watchkeeping on the emergency 500kHz wavelength.

Satellite communication has superseded the code devised 160 years ago by the American painter Samuel Morse. And for all the sentimentality surrounding a system where skilled operators claimed to be able to recognise a woman's touch over the airwaves, the new technology is far superior.

Morse, as a language of distress, is following semaphore into maritime history. The Royal Navy ceased training sailors in the use of the code for wireless transmission last summer, although it still preserves the skill for sending signals by flashing lamp. Messages were sent by lamp during the Falklands War - unlike radio signals, they are not vulnerable to electronic surveillance.

As for semaphore, sending signals by holding a flag in each hand at designated positions, RN spokesmen contacted yesterday could not recall when that ended. Signal flags are still used by the Navy to dress ships overall, run up the "England expects" command on HMS Victory and for practical warnings when a vessel is clearing mines or loading munitions.

Amateur sailors are required to learn neither Morse nor semaphore. "Do the Sea Scouts still learn semaphore?" wondered the Royal Yachting Association which trains people in the use of radio telephones and other modern technology such as the emergency beacon which a year ago saved the life of yachtsman Tony Bullimore.

Samuel Morse sent his first message by telegraph line from Baltimore to Washington in 1839. "What hath God wrought," it said. It took Marconi's invention of wireless telegraphy to make the code of any use to shipping, but within only a couple years it was saving lives. The first Morse-initiated rescue was just 100 years ago when the Deutschland ran aground on the Goodwin Sands off Dover.

The code is credited with saving the lives of many who took to the lifeboats when the Titanic struck an iceberg in 1912. The liner first sent out the CQD - come quick, disaster - call sign in use at the time and then switched to SOS: dot dot dot, dash dash dash, dot dot dot. The Carpathia picked up the message.

Morse was used to announce the ceasefires after two world wars, and was instrumental in the arrest of Dr Crippen - the American poisoner was the first criminal caught through the use of radio telegraphy.

Commercial and other uses of Morse will continue, for example through BT's long-range station at Portishead in Somerset. What is ending at midnight is the monitoring carried by BT on behalf of the Coastguard service. Messages picked up by the four coastal stations were routed to Stonehaven, in north- east Scotland, where a team of six kept a 24-hour watch. Fortunately, in recent years they have had other radio duties since the last Morse message relayed to the Coastguard was in June 1996, from a Russian passenger vessel off Aberdeen.

Alastair Taylor, the Stonehaven station manager, admits to a certain nostalgia for Morse. "All of us here are ex-merchant or Royal Navy who used it on board ship. Morse gets through anything, whatever the radio static," he said. But very few ships still have radio officers who are capable of sending Morse. It is too expensive for the owners to train them when there are alternatives that are easier to use.

Under a ruling of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), Morse must be replaced by the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) - using satellites - by February 1999. The United States stopped its Morse watch in 1993 and the French followed suit last February. Under the modern systems, distress messages arrive direct to the Coastguards complete with an exact position and details of the vessel. As Roger Kohn, head of information at the IMO in London put it: "We are replacing a horse and cart with a Ferrari."

Suggested Topics
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
Dawkins: 'There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it's statistically too improbable'
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
Arts and Entertainment
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home