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Primer: How to Translate and Use Morse Code

We’ve all seen it in action before, whether in an old western, as some form of antiquated communication technique in a post-apocalyptic movie, or even in a nautical film in the form of an SOS distress call when things on the water got a little too hairy. Morse code, a form of communication that predates the telephone, is a method of relaying information through a series of tones, lights, or clicks – a practice that’s now over 160 years old.

Named for Samuel F.B. Morse, who invented the telegraph, the system encodes the basic Latin alphabet, Arabic numerals, some extra Latin letters, and a small set of punctuation marks via sequences of short and long signals. Today, the code is primarily used during search and rescue missions, distress calls, or for fun between individuals who wish to keep their conversations private. Morse Code is still taught these days in the Boy Scouts and among other esoteric clubs but for the most part, it’s a method of communication that’s been swept under the rug in favor of more modern/tech savvy forms of communication. There are, however, certain situations where morse code would become quite handy, plus we feel knowing how to translate and use Morse code is a survival skill worth having. All it takes is a little introduction, know-how, and a lot of practice. Here’s how to get started.


New Tech, New Demands

The early beginnings of Morse code fell in line with the development of the electrical telegraph by Samuel F.B. Morse, American physicist Joseph Henry, and Alfred Vail. The system worked through transmitting electric current along wires that controlled an electromagnet on the other end. Naturally, since it wasn’t yet possible to transmit voices across this network, a code was needed to convert natural language into pulses that could then be received and translated on the other end.

From here, this system was designed to the make indentations on a paper tape once each electrical current was received. When this happened, an electromagnet engaged an armature that would then push a stylus onto the moving paper, resulting in an indentation on the tape. When the current was interrupted the stylus retracted leaving a series of markings and voids on the tape. Morse code delineates these series of markings into two categories: dots and dashes.

In short, Morse code delineates these series of markings into two categories: dots and dashes. The dots obviously referring to shorter currents and dashes to longer ones. It’s then through an accepted series of dot and dashes (also known as “dits” and “dahs”) that individuals on the receiving end of this electric current could then transmit these series of dots and dashes into text messages. This all initially took place around 1844, later refined in 1848, adopted by the German-Austrian Telegraph Society in 1851, and then finally became known as the International Morse Code we recognize today in 1865.

Throughout the following years, Morse code was used across various aviation industries (both civilian and military), radiotelegraphy during the First and Second World Wars – carrying messages between warships and naval bases – and was also the intentional standard for maritime distress up until 1999. Today, the US still trains a handful of people per year in Morse, but the skill-set is much less prominent than it was just half a century ago. Needless to say, if/when the time comes when Morse would come in handy, it’s certainly a beneficial skill to possess.


Ensuring You Don't Get Lost

The key to learning Morse code is treating it like a language which, for all intents and purposes, it is. Therefore, it’s imperative to practice it regularly in order to get a firm grasp on how the system is used, and how to directly translate the “dits” and the “dahs” into readable text. Fortunately, much like the standard alphabet, International Morse Code features an accepted format for letters, numerals, and punctuation. There are no silent letters here or accents. Instead what you see (or hear) is what you get. This straightforward trait allows for less of a learning curve and more universal usage and acceptance across the board.

Key Tips for Memorization

Here’s a little way to help you narrow down the possibilities when receiving a coded message.

T, E: one character each
A, I, M, N: two characters each
D, G, K, O, R, S, U, W: three characters each
B, C, F, H, J, L, P, Q, V, X, Y, Z: four characters each

Here’s how to translate it. Obviously, the best way to learn it by listening to various Morse code recordings, working them out of a piece of paper as you listen. However, instead of counting the dits and the dahs while listening, try to decipher the sounds of various letters. Also, if you’re looking to take things slow at first, don’t adjust the letter speed. Instead, adjust the letter spacing so you’ll immediately become familiar with the standard letter speed (a key to translating morse code).

There are also various software programs and charts that can help you quickly translate Morse code on the fly. One such chart, the Dichotomic tree is a very helpful tool to help improve translation speed. Using the chart, you can work your way down the tree diagram based on the number of dits and dahs you hear. This is a highly effective way to decipher different letters in a coded message.

Using Morse Code

It's All About Spacing

When using Morse code, transmitting a message is all about timing. Since different letters host a different series of dits and dahs (determined by the length of transmission) nailing down the sequence here is key to transmitting a message clearly across the network. Whether it’s via radio signals or visually with a flashlight, the timing is always the same. We’ve included some shorthand highlights below to get you started.

International Morse Code Made Easy

As you can see, each dot is equal the audible “dit” while a dash is equal to a “dah.” It’s from here that spacing comes into play when both transmitting and decoding a message whether visually or audibly. For reference:

1: The length of a dot is one unit.
2: A dash is three units.
3: The space between parts of the same letter is one unit.
4: The space between letters is three units.
5: The space between words is seven units.

In addition to your timing, it’s also important to pay close attention to spacing as well. Meaning, each letter needs to be separated by a space equal to the same duration as a dah. Also, each word needs to be separated by a space that lasts about seven times the duration of a dit. Such spacing will enable clear and concise interpretation of your message for others looking to translate it. Memorizing how many characters are featured in each letter is also a great way to quickly translate and use the code at a moment’s notice.

To make things a bit easier to recall, there’s also the use of Q-Codes to consider. In short, these are coded messages that represent commonly used questions and phrases between communicators. These include, for instance, “My location is,” “ I am ready to copy,” or “Do you acknowledge,” originally instituted back in 1909 by the British government to ease communication between British ships and local coast stations.

Naturally, practice ( and lots of it) will eventually make you a Morse code expert. The key is just due diligence and persistence in learning the craft. It’s also beneficial to practice this communicative art with someone already well-versed in Morse code. That way, you’ll be able to practice first-hand your timing, spacing, and overall message quality with someone in real time. In the end, we know this appears antiquated and labor intensive, but it’s when times get truly life-threatening, and standard forms of communication are off the table, that Morse code shines through as a viable option for getting your message across in a timely and universally accepted manner.

Basic Survival Skills Everyman Should Know

In addition to learning Morse code, there are a handful of survival skills every man should know in order to make it in the wilderness when things go awry.