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Monday, February 1, 1999 Published at 16:05 GMT


Morse code signs off

Sailors in distress will now call "Mayday" via satellite

The dot-and-dash code which has saved countless sailors' lives has been replaced worldwide from Monday, ending a century of use at sea.

BBC reporter Craig Swan investigates the sinking of Morse Code
In its place is the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System, which uses satellite and terrestrial radio communication to make sure that a ship in distress can call for help from anywhere on the seven seas.

Roger Cohen of the International Maritime Association told the BBC: "We should welcome a system that is going to save even more lives than Morse Code has in the past.

"One of the problems of Morse was that the range was limited - if you were in the middle of the Pacific you were dependent on another ship being around to pick up your signal."

Other advantages of the new satellite system are that it needs only one touch to send a distress signal and requires fewer people to run.

[ image: Tony Bullimore was rescued in the Pacific in 1997 thanks to the new satellite system]
Tony Bullimore was rescued in the Pacific in 1997 thanks to the new satellite system
British use of Morse ended on 31 December 1997, but now no-one in the world will be officially listening out for the pitter-patter messages.

Yet the survival of Morse may not just be as small groups of radio enthusiasts chatting. At Cambridge Adaptive Communications, near Cambridge, England, David Mason is using Morse to let the severely disabled interact with the world.

This use is rare in the UK but more common in the USA, from where researchers told the BBC it was "the manual language for the next millennium."

Mr Mason explains: "You can use any reliable movement, a wink for example, to drive a wheelchair, use an electronic voice or open doors and switch on lights.

"Morse can be used as the interface. The clever thing about it is that you only need a short push or a long push, a short or long wink - that's all.

"With Morse you can produce an enormously complex range of commands with very limited physical movement."

First radio communication

Morse code was invented in America 165 years ago. It became the first form of radio communication and a global language which could be transmitted by flashes of light as well as sound.

The first and most famous use in the UK of the classic "dot-dot-dot dash-dash-dash dot-dot-dot" SOS emergency signal was from the Titanic on its doomed maiden voyage in 1912.

It also famously led to the arrest of British murderer Dr Crippen in 1910. He fled the UK by boat to Canada but thanks to a Morse Code radio message sent across the Atlantic he was arrested on arrival.

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01 Jan 98 | UK
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