So, I learnt Morse Code…

I stumbled down a link-hole last week to discover Alex Johansson’s browser-based game “MORSE“; an interesting experiment in user input and detaching the player from the action all wrapped up in a battleship-esque pixilated game. Essentially you enter target co-ordinates in Morse code in order to destroy enemy units… Full Disclosure: I didn’t play the game for very long…

… but it did remind me that at one point I must have set out to learn Morse code; I’m pretty sure it was when I was a child with a set of ‘walkie-talkies’ which had the  baffling ‘morse-key’ feature and the code gloriously embossed onto the plastic handset. I somehow know a couple more letters than the obligatory S.O.S.; three more letters to be precise: H, E, L, allowing me to send “Hello” .. and I guess a few other things like.. ‘Oslo’, ‘Solo’ and ‘Shell’. This repertoire doesn’t make for good conversation, so for the past week during my commute I’ve been trying to achieve that childhood goal of learning Morse code, mainly with the help of Todd Anderson’s Android based “Morse Code Trainer” (Free from Google Play here).

Quick note on the app: It’s basic, but functional; you can practice receiving and transmitting, at various difficulties and there is a handy reference guide.

After a week I’m pleasantly surprised at my progress, they’re not going to employ me at Bletchley any-time soon, but I can receive short sequences of letters quite successfully and transmit words with reasonable accuracy. So here are some things I’ve discovered whilst learning Morse Code:

Don’t Think in ‘Dots and Dashes’

As with any language (not that I speak other languages) it’s much easier to go from sound to meaning rather than through a translation step. By linking the sound directly to a letter rather than counting ‘dots’ and ‘dashes’ then translating that interpretation is much much quicker.

I’m nowhere near doing this with all the letter yet, but there are a few where I recognise the sound without going through that middle translate step and that’s pretty cool!

You have to ‘Tune-In’ to it

For the first minute or so of all my ‘learning’ sessions it’s just a sea of beeps; but in the same way that you can get ‘into the zone’ in a good game, listening to Morse is the same. The beeps give way to specific patterns or rhythms, letter and groups separate themselves out and the fog clears allowing you to at least work out the patterns you are hearing.

It looks daunting on the page, but it’s really not that hard to learn the alphabet

The best way is to build up complexity, learn the letters with one, two, three and four component sounds in that order – this is actually the most useful as Samuel Morse used the easier codes for the more common letters so: 1(E,T); 2(A,I,NM); 3(W,R,U,O,S,D,G,K); 4(The Rest).

My own mind seemed to remember certain letters better than other and then related other letters to those. For example, N(-.) is the inversion of A(.-) or F(..-.) is the reverse of L(.-..); the full list is shown in my “wheel of Morse code relationships” (catchy huh?) below:


… unfortunately I now confuse letters when receiving Morse; particular favourites of mine for this are G/W and Y/Q.

Other relationships can help to, like ‘progressions’ such as:

E(.) – I(..) – S(…) – H(….)

T(-) – M(–) – O(—)

N(-.) – K(-.-) – C(-.-.)

… and for some of those 4 letter ones there are even silly associations you can make to remind yourself, for example Q(–.-) sounds like ‘God save the Queen’ or V(…-) is essentially the first 4 notes of the Marble Zone stage music from Sonic the Hedgehog… thinking about it, I remember lots of things using obscure associations… 

Transmitting is way easier than receiving…

… but this is true of all languages… 

It’s probably not worth it…

Much as I’ve gotten enjoyment (and even fulfilment of a long held goal) from it, I can’t say that it’s worth doing (although I am hoping to use it to great advantage at some point during a game of “Keep Talking or Everyone Explodes” at some point).

I’ll probably have forgotten most of it by next week without anyone to bounce messages back and forth with. A cursory amount will remain lodged somewhere in the back of my mind and, despite chances being stacked against it, I think I’d remember enough to flash out a stuttering message with a torch should I become stranded at sea.

I know that ‘preppers’ would have us believe that Morse is going to be an essential skill when the apocalypse arrives – but I just don’t buy it. If we assume that ‘the end’ will result in some complete failure of all high-tech electronics, what will everyone be sending Morse code on? There still needs to be some infrastructure for it to be useful… or maybe just the “computers” will go down.. leaving us with radios… their main selling point being that you can transit your voice across the radio-waves. Even in the event that everything electrical goes down and you’re left trying to send messages across the valley by pulsing light from your paraffin-lamp, the chances of sending that message to anyone with a working knowledge of Morse code is slim at best…

I have enjoyed it as a curiosity this week, it hasn’t been gaming, but there are elements of gaming about it. As I’ve already mentioned, it has scratched an old itch, but that’s done and finished.

Thanks for bearing with me on this tangent…

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