Tuesday July 13, 1999 6:54 PM ET False
By Andrew Quinn
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - It's finally taps for U.S. ship-to-shore telegraph, drowned out by the high-speed chattering of satellite communications, high frequency radios and e-mail.
Globe Wireless, an 89-year-old California communications company, Monday sent out what it billed as the last commercial maritime Morse Code message from North America, a terse sign-off that repeated the first words transmitted by the telegraph's inventor, Samuel F.B. Morse, 155 years ago: ``What hath God wrought?''
The message, sent from Globe Wireless' KFS Marine station at Half Moon Bay south of San Francisco, marked a muffled end to the U.S. tradition of commercial radio telegraphy, famous for the dots and dashes of Morse Code, company official Tim Gorman said Tuesday.
``The satellite started coming in the early 1980s, and there were great advances in voice radio and radio telex,'' Gorman told Reuters. ``But there was nothing over all those years that could replace Morse Code for its simplicity and reliability.''
Globe Wireless gathered several old-time telegraph operators for a small ceremony marking the event, the gleaming telegraph key now surrounded by banks of computers and video screens used for more modern forms of communications.
``It's a sad event for me, but I know it's for the best,'' said Dalton Bergstedt, 92, a one-time manager of the Half Moon Bay facility. ``It will improve maritime communications (to be) much better than they ever were.''
After Morse invented the telegraph, he devised Morse code for use with his new invention. In 1844, testing the new system, he telegraphed the words ``What hath God wrought?'' from Washington D.C. to an assistant in Baltimore.
The telegraph and Morse Code quickly became the backbone of long-distance communications around the globe.
Perhaps the most famous single Morse Code message was the distress call sent by the foundering Titanic in 1912 -- ``Come at once. We have struck an iceberg''.
As maritime traffic rose and through two World Wars, the simple telegraph, known as ``continuous wave'' or ``CW'' transmission to the experts, remained a spare, cheap and effective means of communicating across vast distances.
``If there's static and you get only half the letters in a Morse Code message you can still make it out, but if you only hear half a conversation, that's no good,'' said Gorman, who began working at KFS Marine in the late 1970s.
Nevertheless, the last three decades have seen a major shift in maritime communication, and the radio telegraph's fate was sealed when the International Marine Organization, a U.N. agency, ordered commercial ships to replace the telegraph with new technology dubbed the Global Marine Distress and Safety System by February 1, 2000.
Instead of typing out the dots and dashes of the famous ''SOS'' signal, communications officers on modern ships can simply push a button indicating a specific problem: sinking, capsizing, dead in the water.
Morse Code and the radio telegraph are currently used only by smaller ships from developing countries, as well as certain Russian and Chinese vessels, Gorman said.
The Globe Wireless station at Half Moon Bay, as well as other former commercial radio telegraph facilities already taken off line, will now be used for the company's new communications product -- GlobeEmail, company officials said.
Gorman said that before the final sign-off, KFS Marine did relay one last telegram from the National Liberty Ship Memorial, the SS Jeremiah O'Brien, in San Francisco Bay to President Clinton in the White House.
``The message was 95 words, and it took me six or eight minutes to copy it,'' said Gorman, who took down the Morse Code message from the ship. ``Then I just transmitted it to the White House via e-mail.''