July 13, 2011
For a Night Each Year, the Airwaves Buzz With Morse Code
By JESSE McKINLEY
POINT REYES NATIONAL SEASHORE, Calif. – It has been a little more than a
decade since the last of the nation’s commercial Morse code radio stations
officially went off the air, as new technology sank a system that had been a
lingua franca of maritime communication since before the Titanic.
But like transmissions that continue to travel through the cosmos long after
their original senders are gone, there are some things that refuse to die.
And on Tuesday, several outposts of Morse code blazed to life again, if only
for a night, with the help of a group of enthusiasts bent on preserving what
they call “the music of Morse,” one key tap at a time.
The occasion was an annual radio reboot known as the Night of Nights, held
every year on the anniversary of the last Morse code broadcast from a
coastal California station in 1999, which included a traditional sign-off
(“We wish you fair winds and following seas”) and more than a few teary-eyed
former radio operators.
On Tuesday, though, some of those old key men were back on the job,
broadcasting from the former headquarters of a marine Morse station in
Northern California, KPH, and joined on air by two other stations outside
Seattle and in Mobile, Ala., all to honor a system that linked the world
long before the Internet, e-mail and Twitter.
“It’s just beeps in the air, but it just meant everything to people,” said
Richard Dillman, a self-described “radio squirrel” who serves as president
of the nonprofit Maritime Radio Historical Society, which sponsors the
event. “And we are the only thing standing.”
Or buzzing, as it were, as more than a dozen volunteers assembled at KPH’s
receiving and transmitting stations, two dusty but rock-solid structures
that are now part of the Point Reyes National Seashore, northwest of San
Closed in 1997, the station’s receiving headquarters is like a living time
capsule, stuffed with communications relics, including Teletype machines,
manual typewriters and rotary phones – and, of course, all manner of
telegraphy keys, ranging from the versions like those used in Samuel Morse’s
time to shiny new models favored by some modern-day ham operators. A dusty
calendar from 1997 still hangs on the wall, as does a copy of the famous
distress call from the Titanic.
Many of the station’s ancient machines were ablaze on Tuesday, spitting out
clicks, whistles, white noise and – of course – dots and dashes. (Or “dits”
and “dahs” as they were often known in the business.)
And at just past midnight Greenwich Mean Time, the first message, tapped out
at breakneck speed by Mr. Dillman, was beamed into the air.
“On this date in 1999 the death of commercial Morse was announced,” it read.
“But Morse still lives.”
The KPH property – an Art Deco cube built between 1929 and 1931 by the Radio
Corporation of America – was acquired by the National Park Service in 1999.
Shortly after that, Mr. Dillman made a remarkable discovery while visiting
the station’s headquarters.
“As I got close to the operators’ room, I started hearing static and hearing
Morse code and ships calling,” Mr. Dillman said. “It was like they had left
20 minutes ago. The voice was gone, but the ears were still on.”
Indeed, KPH had been shuttered, but not completely shut down. Jack Martini,
a former manager at the station, said he had left the receivers on as both a
sign of affection and – he hoped – of possible preservation.
“I loved the place,” said Mr. Martini, 72, who also spent years as a Morse
code operator at KPH. “And it saved the receivers. You turn off the
receivers, you get the moisture in there, and they’re done.”
And so it was that KPH was eventually reborn as KSM and began broadcasting
in Morse a few hours each Saturday, a development that attracted the
attention of other aficionados.
“We’re doing the radio equivalent of Civil War re-enactments,” said Bill
Ruck, one participant on Tuesday.
Another of those drawn in was Dave Wolfe, 62, a longtime enthusiast who had
served as a radio operator in the 1960s and early ’70s, at sea and on land.
“We had eight people in there, almost on roller skates,” Mr. Wolfe recalled.
“You got paid, and reasonably well, for doing what was basically a hobby.”
Not that it was easy work. Operators during Morse’s heyday worked grueling
shifts, staffing stations 24 hours a day as ships sent messages to shore and
vice versa. Experts in the form said the secret was to never count the dots
and dashes, but to listen.
“You had to think of it as a rhythm,” Mr. Martini said. “You had to kind of
be a musician.”
Sure enough, on Tuesday night, the symphony of dits and dahs continued for
hours at the receiving station, as amateur Morse operators from around the
world chimed in to say hello. At the transmitting station, meanwhile,
another crew staffed banks of refurbished and rescued devices, some dating
to World War II and complete with glowing mercury vapor tubes.
“You’re running antiques,” said Steve Hawes, who staffed the control room.
“But we haven’t had anything let off a giant bang or blow up in smoke yet.”
But as the night wore on, the one thing that was not heard was any
commercial traffic, though Mr. Dillman said that occasionally a ship would
still call in during the station’s Saturday hours, wondering how the station
was still alive. But even if the ships did not call, he said, the die-hards
at Point Reyes would continue to listen.
“Even if there were no ships out there, we’d be keeping the faith,” Mr.
Dillman said, before adding, “Of course, it’s thrilling when they call.”