Morse Code at Interesting

Learning Morse at Interesting 2009

I’m not sure how many times something has to happen before it becomes an annual institution, but Russell DaviesInteresting conference feels like one. 350 people crammed into Conway Hall to hear interesting people talk about interesting things, ranging from Prozac-flavoured yoghurt to a history of well-beloved ponies to a live demonstration of the colour of Radio 4.

Learning Morse at Interesting 2009

For the first couple of years my contribution were limited to taking pictures, but this year I spoke in a (vague) attempt at teach all 350 people Morse code in 10 minutes. That’s actually not quite as ambitious as it sounds, as there are various memorisation tricks that you can use to learn the patterns – but it wasn’t helped by me running drastically over time and having to cut short what was going to be some audience participation to send Morse code by chocolate (Maltesers for dots, and Quality Street for dashes…)

Contrary to popular belief, Morse wasn’t the first telegraph system – this is actually yet another thing that was invented by the French. There were earlier analogue systems invented in the late 17th century – the first practical demonstration of a French system took place in 1791, and by the 1830s there were whole networks of telegraph systems stretching out over Europe. The discovery that really got things going was “galvanism”, because because electricity largely removed the limitations of distance and visibility – despite introducing problems all of it’s own.

The man who’s become synonymous with the telegraph was born in 1791 in Massachusetts. He wasn’t an engineer or a scientist – for the first part of his life he was a somewhat unsuccessful artist, portrait painter and inveterate tinkerer, mainly known for his somewhat outlandish ideas that didn’t always come to fruition.

The inspiration for the development of the Morse telegraph was a tragic event for Morse personally. He was away in Washington DC trying to break into the lucrative portrait market when his wife, at home in New Haven, Connetticutt, fell ill suddenly and died on 7th February 1825 – probably of cholera. The news didn’t reach Morse until 11th February, and despite travelling back to New Haven as fast as he could, he was four days late for the funeral. The loss of his wife sowed the seeds of an idea, but typically for Morse he didn’t do anything about it until about seven years later. Travelling back from France across the Atlantic, he got into conversation with a scientist who was working in the exciting new field of electricity. By the time his ship reached the US, Morse had decided to build a telegraph system.

The key thing that you need to know about about Morse was that he didn’t really care all that much about things he didn’t understand. To him, anything he didn’t understand was simple. So he largely ignored the fact that getting a signal across any distance of cabling system was still a tremendous challenge for even the best scientists and engineers, and just assumed that this was a problem that would be quickly solved. Instead, he instead concentrated on the process of encoding the message itself, and went through a whole series of combinations of codes until he hit on the bi-varient system of dots and dashes that is still in use today.

Learning Morse is actually pretty simple when you break it down – there’s: memorisation and pattern recognition. Memorisation is a process of getting the code from short-term memory into long-term memory so that you can recall it when you need to. There’s a whole range of techniques available, and it’s simplified by the fact that to be able to be functionally literate in Morse, you only really need to know 36 characters – 26 letters and 10 digits. You could probably slim that down even further by ignoring letters like Z, but things like punctuation and special characters you can pretty much ignore.

Fortunately, you probably know a good chunk of the alphabet already. E and T are really easy – they’re the two most commonly-used letters in the English language, so they get the shortest symbols. A dot for E, and a dash for T. You’ll also hear them called “dits” and “dahs”, which is worth using in place of “dot” and “dash” because thats’s actually how it sounds when Morse is transmitted aurally.

If you’ve got a Nokia phone, you know two more. Text messages get announced by Morse – you’ll have heard the pattern dit-dit-dit, dah-dah, dit-dit-dit. That’s Morse for SMS – so there’s two more letters you can cross off the list.

f you’ve seen the film Titanic and haven’t had therapy to blank it out, you know O as well – the code for SOS features prominently in the climactic scenes as the shop goes down. That’s dit-dit-dit, dah-dah-dah, dit-dit-dit – so there’s O for the list.

And if you know one number, you can figure the rest out very easily because they follow a consistent patterns. One is dit-dah-dah-dah-dah, two is dit-dit-dah-dah-dah and so on up to five. Then six swaps the pattern around to continue with dah-dit-dit-dit-dit, up to zero which is dah-dah-dah-dah-dah. Easy.

The rest you’ve got to memorise. Fortunately, we’re helped by using the English language, because it’s syllable-stressed. We tend to put different weights on the different syllables that make up words – so the word “internet” gets spoken as “IN-ter-net”. Saying “in-TER-net” or “in-ter-NET” just sounds a bit weird.

What we can then do is use alliteration to help us – that’s when sentences select similar starting sounds to sound sameish. A combination of an alliterative starting letter and a syllable-stressed word or phrase and we’ve got ourselves a system to remember the code.

The mnemonics I used yesterday were relatively clean, but the ruder the better because they’re easier to remember. You can also combine these with images to help you retain the memory – to some extent, the more bizarre the image, the easier it is to remember.

Decoding Morse is more difficult, mainly because you have to work at the sender’s pace. Fortunately we can rely on our innate abilities at pattern recognition to help us – which is what we do when reading normal words. On the screen or page, letters are really only abstract symbols – it’s only when we recognise the patterns that they make that we turn them into words with meaning – an entirely psychological process.

Pattern recognition is a survival trait – if you can distinguish between the shapes of things that you can eat and things that will eat you, you’re far more likely to survive long enough to reproduce and pass on your pattern-recognition genes. In fact, we’re so good at pattern recognition that we see patterns where patterns don’t exist. Faces in clouds and optical illusions are all examples of false pattern recognition. We also subconsciously apply this to numbers – if you want to maximise your chances of keeping your Lottery winnings to yourself, pick numbers larger than 31. Numbers that are also dates – so anything between 1 and 30 – tend to be overrepresented as numbers that people use, so by sticking to the larger ones there’s a correspondingly greater chance that noone else will have used them and you won’t need to share your winnings around.

I was planning to finish the slides with a bit of audience participation – getting a few people on stage and having them send a message to the back to the hall with a flashlight and smoke signals (a short puff for a dit and a long puff for a dah). I also had planned a practical experiment in the use of chocolate as a communications medium. Maltesers look a bit like dits, and the long thin chocolates from a box of Quality Street look a bit like dahs. So the plan was that one volunteer would communicate with the front row by throwing edible dits and dahs at each other.

Sadly, 10 minutes isn’t nearly enough to do that, so we had to stick with the audience playing along with the code on party squeakers and kazoos. Even that didn’t quite work as planned – I’d ordered a bulk supply of squeakers online, but Royal Mail failed to deliver these in time so an emergency dash to Toys-R-Us was required. That means there’s a box of 350 of the things arriving at the office on Monday – I’ve no idea what to do with them now, so suggestions are welcome…

Speaking at Interesting is definitely one of more intimidating things I’ve ever done – you’re faced with an audience of 350 intelligent and articulate people who are sufficiently motivated to spend an entire Saturday sitting on hard chairs in a crowded room listening to people talk about completely random topics. There’s a definite pressure to be not only interesting, but also entertaining – particularly when the speakers that precede you are getting huge laughs. Hopefully what I did was entertaining, even if it did rely in parts on what were basically knob jokes – and hopefully someone somewhere will find it Interesting if they ever need to remember that the Morse code for Z sounds a bit like “ZINC ZOO keep-er”…