Can old technology remind us how to use new tech intentionally?

Micah Schweizer, 2022

This piece on the legacy of the morse code is a contribution by community member, Micah Schweizer. Micah works in communications in the Zurich area. Previously, he was a public radio journalist in the U.S., you can follow him on Twitter here @MicahSchweizer.

Arguably, I reached peak nerd at age 14. This was in the early ’90s, before the chhrrrrr…chiiiink of dial-up modems, when calling the radio station and requesting a song counted as on-demand and taping the broadcast equalled a download. It was at this time I got interested in a form of communications that was already a throwback: Morse code. Thirty years later, I still keep a Morse code key on my desk — not as a reminder of my geeked-out youth but as a touchstone in today’s technology-saturated world.

Morse code keys were part of the old telegraph system. An operator tapped the key to send electrical pulses down the line, and a device on the other end printed dots and dashes on paper tape to be decoded by the receiving operator. It was Morse code’s namesake, Samuel Morse, who developed an alphabet of dots and dashes for this purpose. It didn’t take long for telegraph operators to realize the clacking of the receiving device could be decoded by ear, and eventually, the click-clack of the telegraph evolved into the beep-beeeep of wireless radiotelegraphy.

What does this 19th-century trivia have to do with technology in the 21st? Nearly 200 years ago, the telegraph was the first step on the path leading to our smartphone-dominated era. For the first time, electrons moved communications at the speed of light, curving past the horizon to reach beyond the line of sight. It must have seemed nothing short of a miracle. (Samuel Morse’s first message? WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT.) Today, we take it for granted.

I don’t know when late-night TV last staged a speed test pitting old tech against new, a veteran code operator’s key racing against a texting teen’s thumbs. But that misses the point. It’s not the medium; it’s the message that matters. And not for its own sake, either: the message has to be for someone. Once operators ditched the paper tape, if there wasn’t somebody on the other end to hear the incoming message, it effectively didn’t exist.

This is why I keep a Morse code key on my desk. Amid our umpteen (a word derived from the sound of Morse code, by the way) means of communication, the simple key distils the act into this: one person sends a message, another person receives it. And each time that happens, a miracle is possible.

Originally published at https://www.punkt.ch.

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