100 Years of Morse Code:
A Century of Service

Until 1999, International Morse Code, tapped out on a telegraph key, remained the international standard for long-range maritime communication. Whether transmitted by spark, vacuum tube or a silicon chip, the code remained the same. Not until the last year of the 20th century has Morse code been formally abandoned for emergency distress signals.

We can still hear Morse code from amateur "ham" operators, from directional beacons and from foreign countries - sharing the radio spectrum with voice transmissions and streams of digital noise. To tune in to these dots and dashes on a sophisticated, integrated silicon chip receiver, is to span the history of radio communication.

From the first shipboard wireless in 1899 to the satellite-based systems of 1999, radio remains our only system of long-distance marine communication.

Above: The last message from station KFS in Half Moon Bay was sent on July 12, 1999. KFS was the last American ship-to-shore station to transmit in Morse, or "CW" as it was commonly called. Replaced by satellite technology, the era of the marine radio-telegrapher ended. Paul Zell, a professional radio operator for 37 years sent out one of the last signals. Manager Tim Gorman signed off for the station after 89 years with the words of Samuel Morse's first transmission - "WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT." Photo courtesy Rick McCusker.

QSL cards, sent out by Ham radio operators, acknowledge receipt of calls from other Ham stations all over the world. Image courtesy Rick McCusker.
At left, an early telegraph key with the standard up and down movement. The "bug" (at right) was a later design with a side to side movement which allowed for faster transmission.