On April 15, 1912, telegrapher John G. Phillips sent out the following Morse code message: “CQD CQD SOS SOS CQD DE MGY MGY.” CQD stands for “Come Quick Disaster” and SOS stands for “Save Our Ship or Save Our Souls.” And DE MGY stands for “from the RMS Titanic.”
We are all familiar with the fate of the RMS Titanic, but many of us fail to recognize that this Morse code message (and the other messages sent as soon as the ship struck an iceberg) is what led to the rescue of more than 700 passengers.
According to The Atlantic, “When Titanic struck an iceberg in the early morning of April 15, 1912 (this despite many wirelessly transmitted warnings of icebergs from fellow ships), it happened to be within contact range of twelve other vessels. The short transmissions sent among those ships' wireless operators, staccato bursts of information and emotion, tell the story of Titanic's fate that night: the confusion, the chaos, the panic, the fear. The abbreviated transcript […] serves as a reminder not only of the many lives that were lost in the tragedy that would unfold, but also of the many that were spared.”
At the time, Morse code was used in wireless telegraphy for ship-to-ship communications. Over time, more and more people recognized the usefulness of Morse code. It was a required language for the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard until just a few years ago, and it was a common survival skill taught to Boy Scouts.
Unfortunately, with the rise of satellite and mobile communication, many people believe Morse code is a thing of the past. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Read on to see why Morse code is still useful today – in disaster or survival situations and to get your message out there as Big Tech and the government continue to ban free speech online.
The History of Morse Code
Morse code was invented in the 1830s by a gentleman named Samuel F.B. Morse. He worked on an electric telegraph, which was patented in 1837. However, it took him 6 more years to develop an alphabetized code to use for communicating on the telegraph (Morse code).
The first Morse code message was not sent and received until May 24, 1844. On this day, Morse sent his series of dots and dashes from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore. The decoded message read, “What hath God wrought!" (The Bible, Numbers 23: 23). Upon the invention of the telegraph and Morse code, communication was changed forever.
Initially, Morse code was communicated by operators pressing spring-loaded keys representing dots and dashes on telegraph machines. Each letter of the alphabet has its own sequence of dots and dashes. In addition, numbers 0-9 have their own sequences.
In the beginning, there was More than one morse code used for communicating: American Morse Code and Continental Morse Code. Since the purpose of Morse code is for people to communicate with one another across language barriers, International Morse Code was developed in 1912.
Sadly, many of the groups that once relied on Morse code for communication have discontinued it and now rely on more modern forms of communication technology. Nowadays, it is mostly used by ham radio owners and Morse code enthusiasts.
Powerful Examples of How Morse Code Has Saved Lives
Even if Morse code isn’t as popular as it once was, it doesn’t mean it should just be forgotten. All it takes is a look at the ways Morse code has proven to be a lifesaver to see its usefulness and importance.
Passing Military Intelligence against Impossible Odds. Possibly the most famous use of Morse code was by Navy pilot Jeremiah Denton who was a POW in Vietnam. After being imprisoned in North Vietnam, Denton was forced to participate in a video interview to discuss his imprisonment. He used his knowledge of Morse code to bravely blink the Morse code symbols for “torture” so that Americans would understand the gravity of his situation. You can watch the powerful video here.
- Speedy Rescue at Sea. The Baltimore Sun shares, “A dramatic early American rescue was recorded on Jan. 23, 1909, when the Lloyd-Italiano liner Florida rammed the White Star liner Republic 26 miles southeast of Nantucket. Jack Binns, the Republic's radio officer, flashed an urgent Morse message. A Marconi operator on Nantucket relayed the message. Though the Republic sank, rescue boats responded and 1,650 survivors were saved from both ships.”
- Mexico Earthquake Rescue. When Mexico City was struck by an earthquake in 1985 and power was out, an amateur radio operator made calls for help using Morse code.
- Lifesaving Wilderness Vacation Rescue. Just a few years ago, army veteran Tim Robinson broke his leg while vacationing in Dorset with his wife. She was not with him when he was injured, so he used a flashlight and Morse code to send SOS signals to her. Here is part of his story as told to The Daily Mail:
“There was no response to begin with so I crawled for five minutes and covered about 50 metres before making the same signal three times.
I kept on doing that and after the third or fourth time I saw a torch flashing back.
It was my wife and she was shining the torch in a sequence in response to my signal. We got a routine going where I crawled for five minutes, stopped, signalled and she replied.”
Survival Situations When Morse Code Can Be Used
As shown, Morse code is especially helpful in disaster situations. According to How Stuff Works, “A universally recognized distress signal, SOS was first adopted as such by German telegraphers in the year 1905. Why'd they pick this letter combo? Because in International Morse Code, ‘S’ is three dots and ‘O’ is three dashes. See, ‘dot-dot-dot-dash-dash-dash-dot-dot-dot’ (...---...) is an easy sequence to remember — even when you're in grave peril.”
The thing to remember about Morse code is that you can use it even without a telegraph. The series of dots and dashes can be communicated in a number of ways, such as how Tim Robinson used his flashlight and Jeremiah Denton used his blinking eyes. Boy Scouts used to teach their members how to use mirrors to reflect the sequences of dots and dashes using the sun. People have tapped SOS on bars or rubble when trapped.
Today, you can even use the light of your smartphone screen to signify you require help. As long as you know the basic sequences, you can repeat the sequence until you get someone’s attention.
Recent Examples of Morse Code Has Beat Censorship
Morse code is clearly useful in survival situations. However, it is also helpful for combatting censorship. It’s no secret that Big Tech has a censorship problem. We’ve all seen examples of social media sites blocking articles or quelling information that “they” don’t agree with. Earlier this year, Google, Apple, and Amazon took down the conservative social media site Parler. And you know it’s only going to get worse from here.
Online censorship is not just happening in the United States. In China, where the People’s Commnist Party has tight control over its citizens, people have started using Morse code (or other types of code) to communicate in hopes of being undetected.
Here are some examples of how citizens have gotten their message out:
- Political activism. According to BBC, “A popular mobile game has been taken offline in mainland China for ‘rectification work’, after netizens discovered its musical director had written a song containing Morse code with a hidden Hong Kong pro-democracy message. [...] It contained in Morse code the phrase ‘Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times.’”
- Spreading information about the coronavirus. In March 2020, an article about a new kind of virus in Wuhan was erased from the internet in China. Coda Story reports, “Almost immediately after the Ren Wu piece was blocked, people began to repost versions of it on the social media platforms Weibo and WeChat, using Morse code, QR codes and ancient Chinese symbols. Some translated the article into foreign languages, including Korean, Japanese, English and German, while others peppered it with emojis, making the text harder for censorship programs to track down.”
- Protecting Chinese Christians. Facing persecution in China, Christians found a way to communicate undetected on social media. According to The Times of Israel, “In the face of China’s increasing government crackdown on Christians over the past years, the Chinese Christian movement Back to Jerusalem has created a new social media platform to counter Big Tech censorship in both U.S. and China. com is based on the idea of the Morse Code, a system of dots and dashes [...] although Dingdash is created by a Christian organization to bypass censorship and protect personal privacy, it is not a Christian platform and is open to everyone similar to other platforms such as WeChat, Weibo, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.”
In a phone interview with Coda Story, King-wa Fu, a professor at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre of the University of Hong Kong, explains, “These are very creative ways being used to circumvent the censorship system [...] Even though at the end of the day you will be censored, these posts increase the survival time of the article.”
How to Use Morse Code to Communicate Undetected
As demonstrated by the citizens of China, Morse Code is not only useful for survival, but it is also a strategic way to combat censorship. Once you learn how to use Morse code, you can use it in a variety of ways.
- Instead of writing text messages or emails using the standard alphabet, use Morse code.
- Do the same for social media.
- In China, citizens use Morse code, as well as other codes (emoji, Klingon, etc.) to rewrite articles that were being censored. You can, too.
- Like POW Jeremiah Denton, you can use Morse code when you are recording videos (even on YouTube) to communicate with viewers. He blinked his message using Morse code to the cameras.
A number of musicians have incorporated Morse code into their songs, sometimes to be silly and other times to express an unpopular opinion.
According to the Post Independent, “Rush famously used the Morse Code characters for “YYZ” to create the odd rhythm of that song. (“YYZ” is the Morse Code signal for the Lester B. Pearson International Airport in Toronto, and the inspiration to use the code snippet came to Rush’s guitarist Alex Lifeson, who is a licensed pilot.)”
In a more risque move, the same article claims, “Mike Oldfield [sent] a rude personal message (using the same epithet!) to Richard Branson, the owner of Oldfield’s record label, Virgin Records, on the track, ‘Amarok.’”
While we’ve focused on Morse code, it is important to note that the key is communicating undetected. If Morse code doesn’t work, try a different code to get your message across. For example, POWs in a German camp during WWII tapped on water pipes to communicate with fellow prisoners using a “tap code.”
How to Learn Morse Code
Learning Morse code is easier than you might think. Rather than an entire language with syntax, vocabulary words, etc., Morse code is an alphabet. Here are some tips to help you learn it.
- Familiarize Yourself with International Morse Code. Start by reviewing the different sequences for each letter of the alphabet. Find a chart online that you can download and study.
- Listen to Recordings of Morse Code. Many Morse code enthusiasts believe it is easier to learn the language by listening to it. Spend time listening to the archives of the American Radio Relay League or by tuning into ham radio frequencies.
- Practice Writing in Morse Code. One way to memorize short Morse code messages, such as SOS, is to practice writing the sequences out.
- Use Morse Code Apps. There are several Morse code apps available for mobile devices that allow you to practice Morse code and translate text into Morse code.
- Take a Morse Code Course. If you want to go beyond learning the basics, consider taking a Morse code course from the American Radio Relay League.
- Master SOS. If you don’t have time to commit to fully learning Morse code, at least master SOS and teach it to your loved ones.
Morse Code isn’t a thing of the past, friends. Learn it today for survival tomorrow.
Preparedness Advisor, My Patriot Supply