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Satellite communication has superseded the code devised 160 years ago by the American painter Samuel Morse.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
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
tv
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Sport
Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
News
i100
Travel
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Arts and Entertainment
Jennifer Saunders stars as Miss Windsor, Dennis's hysterical French teacher
filmJennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress
Life and Style
tech
Sport
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Voices
Jimmy Mubenga died after being restrained on an aircraft by G4S escorts
voicesJonathan Cox: Tragedy of Jimmy Mubenga highlights lack of dignity shown to migrants
Life and Style
Sebastian Siemiatkowski is the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Klarna, which provides a simple way for people to buy things online
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum