Dash it: after 160 years Morse code receives a goodbye message

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It Saved thousands of lives, helped in the capture of Dr Crippen, broadcast the ceasefire after two world wars, and carried mariners' love messages to wives and sweethearts back home.

For almost a century, the dots and dashes of Morse code have criss-crossed the world's airwaves with messages of hope, love and despair. But now its days are numbered.

Next year the listening-post service for emergency Morse messages in the UK is due to close. The main French listening station stopped two weeks ago. Within two years, Portishead, Somerset, the world's most famous maritime radio station, will send its final Morse message and the last operators will be moved to other jobs at the BT centre which has cut back to just three Morse operators a shift compared with 305 in the post-war years.

It was the dominant form of communication for most of this century, but is destined to continue only as the hobby of amateur radio enthusiasts.

"It is a sad day. Morse was very romantic. One minute you could be talking to a vessel in the Bristol Channel and the next to a cargo ship in some hot, exotic place on the other side of the world," said Don Mulholland who was manager of Portishead, in Morse's heyday when operators handled more than 1,000 messages a day and 40 million words a year.

That Morse-code traffic, ranging from the dot-dot-dot, dash-dash-dash, dot-dot-dot of the SOS signal to romantic poems, as well as the occasional obscene call, will in future be handled by satellites.

Morse code, invented in 1837 by Samuel Morse, took off as a maritime communication system in the early part of this century when it put ships in contact with the outside world, although, as Marconi pointed out in a lecture in London in June 1902, there was a drawback.

"The day is rapidly approaching," he said, "when ships will be able to be in touch and communicate with the shore across all oceans, and the quiet and isolation from the outside world which it is still possible to enjoy aboard ship will, I fear, soon be a thing of the past."

It was already used by Wells Fargo for communicating along telegraph lines in the US, and the plots of many films have hinged on telegraph poles being felled or dying operators tapping out the last words of a vital message. Soon all ships were equipped with Morse.

Morse was originally used along land lines as intermittent pulses of electricity sent down the wires and controlled by the operator using a key pad. Gradually that was superseded, first by telex, and then by radio. It has remained in use in a number of areas, however, including ships. Speech radio was unable to perform over large distances and involved much more complex equipment than Morse.

Clive Puttock, an operator at Portishead for 21 years, recalls that it took years to learn to send and receive Morse proficiently: "You can learn the code pretty quickly but you couldn't get your brain and hand working in conjunction so easily. After about six months you could get up to 10 words a minute. At sea the minimum standard was 20 words a minute. Most skilled operators can take 30."

Most of the world's major fleets have already switched to satellite communications using the GMDSS - Global Maritime Distress and Safety System - which sends an SOS immediately and is not subject, as Morse is, to the vagaries of weather or sunspots. But there is concern that some fleets will not be able to afford GMDSS, which must be paid for in dollars.