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John Larsen demonstrates Morse code at the Cumberland Heritage Village Museum in Ontario.
John Larsen demonstrates Morse code at the Cumberland Heritage Village Museum in Ontario.

Morse code in the age of IM

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There's a certain allure to being fluent in languages or codes. John Larsen is a retired health administrator with fond memories of working as a telegrapher with Canadian Pacific Railway.These days he spends a lot of time demonstrating that increasingly rare skill with the Cumberland Telegraph Operator's Club. Most of the 58 members from Canada and the U.S. have some connection with real - or model - railroads. Morse code is still used by uncounted enthusiasts, such as HAM radio operators. But requirements for proficiency in Morse code are falling by the wayside. Larsen spoke with Lucy Martin about the significance Morse code once held - before the advent of telephones, radio or the Internet.

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John Larsen: "I left the railway 41 years ago, but I can still telegraph. It's another language and it's something that I have not forgotten, although you're likely not as quick and distinct as you were when you worked with it everyday. But we try to keep it alive the best we can."

John Larsen: "There were two Morse codes, the original Morse code as developed by Samuel Morse about 1840. That's the code that the railways, the North American railways, maintained. And that's the language that I speak. The other code, which is called the international Morse code, was developed six or eight years later. It's a somewhat easier code to learn, and if you'r a HAM operator, of if you worked in the military service, or on ships, you would use the international Morse code."

John Larsen: "If I could just demonstrate very quickly, for instance, in my language the letter 's' has three dots. And it sounds like this: (telegraphy key sound: DOT-DOT-DOT). Letter 'c' has also three dots. But now it has a slight space between the second and the third dot, so it sounds like this: (telegraphy key sound: DOT- DOT pause DOT). Letter 'r' is also three dots. But now there is a space between the first and the second. So it sounds like this: (telegraphy key sound: DOT pause DOT-DOT). Can you hear that slight pause? You don't get into anything like that in the international Morse code. And because of that the international Morse code is easier to learn than the original code that we used on the railway."

Reporter: "As a receiver, how do you keep it all from just smearing together?"

John Larsen:"Experience, and lots of it. Lots of practice! I went to night school, five nights a week, for six months to work up to a speed of being able to send and or receive, approximately twenty words a minute. And it takes that long! Rest assured! It does take that long. It's not something you decide to learn on a Sunday afternoon!"

Reporter: "What replaced Morse code for the railroads today?"

John Larsen: "I worked in British Columbia. In the late sixties, we were being replaced by telex machines, and a telex is like an over-sized typewriter. It has a keyboard, obviously. And if you can use a keyboard, you could send a telegram. Eventually, Morse telegraph operators – as we were – we were, we were all out of work."

John Larsen: "This is called a sounder. That's the original. And every railway station would at least have that equipment. And it sounds like this: (burst of DOTs and DASHes.) And this instrument over here is another version of the key, it's called a bug. Instead of sending up and down, by hand, as we say, sounding like this, I'll say the word 'Vernon' for instance (burst of DOTs and DASHes.) Now I'll say it on this key here: (burst of DOTs and DASHes, faster and in a less-heavy tone) As you can tell it's a lot quicker. And instead of the up and down movement, I'm obviously going in the opposite direction. There are my dashes (DASH) and (DASH) I can hold down as long as I want and the dots come by themselves (burst of continuous DOTS)"

John Larsen: "I think it means more to an older person: 'Oh yes, when I was a little girl, I used to go down to the local station, and I remember this clicking away, constantly, you know? By the Morse code.' "

Reporter: "You know, when Morse code came out, it was the first instant communication!"

John Larsen: "Yes, it was. About early 1840's. We go back that far."

Reporter: "Nothing could compare."

John Larsen: "No. No. It was very successful, and it's been played with very little, and changed, other than – in hope of making the code easier to learn – and that turned out to be the international Morse code."

Reporter: "Will it have any function that keeps it alive, do you think?"

John Larsen: "It is being taught, but on a very, very limited basis. It is a thing of the past. I've heard many former telegraphers say that when we are no longer, it will likely die with us, you know? As you obviously know, it's all computers now days."

Reporter: "I think it used to be a boy scout badge, or part of it."

John Larsen: "It was. I grew up in the country of Denmark and joined the boy scout service, for several years. And we had certain outings where we used the Morse code. We had to translate a message being sent by flashlight, across a field, obviously at night."

John Larsen: "What we do in Cumberland, for the busy events at least, we try to have more than one telegrapher hooked up from the station to a building. And we can speak to each other and we send live telegrams, from point-to-point. Especially for Father's Day or Mother's Day, the children can send a telegram to Mom, or to Dad, and we have a permanent souvenir. So it's quite a popular event."

John Larsen: "A lot of visitors come and say 'Can you say S-O-S?' And I say I can say anything you want! But we did not use S-O-S on the railway, naturally!"

John Larsen helps keep Morse code alive as a member of the Cumberland Telegraph Operator's Club. He spoke with Lucy Martin earlier this summer.

Two Morse code clubs will be demonstrating telegraphy (this weekend/ Oct 16 & 17) at RailFair 33.

That model train show takes place at Algonquin College in Ottawa with operating layouts, vendors and demonstrations for all popular scales.

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