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Morse code club preserves old-fashioned way of communicating

Saturday, October 15, 2011 | 4:58 p.m. CDT
In this Oct. 1 photo, Derek Cohn, 49, of Clayton, an amateur telegraph operator, and a member of The Morse Telegraph Club, uses a speed key to send a morse code message in Ferguson during a meeting of The Morse Telegraph Club. The club wants to preserve the old-fashioned form of communicating via telegraph.

FERGUSON — Staccato clicks tapped from an old brass gadget. Derek Cohn, his ear fixed upon the mysterious rhythm, jotted letters onto paper.

From Bloomington, Ill., came the weather report: "Light breeze and perfect."

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It was a speedy response to a routine question, compliments of a 167-year-old form of electronic communication. There are many easier ways to be informed but none as satisfying to the small band who gather to practice the dots and dashes of Samuel Morse's code.

Skyping? Twittering?

"What skills do those take?" asked Lou Axeman, another member of the local Morse Telegraph Club, Ollie Blackburn chapter.

On Saturdays, club members wire up their vintage telegraph equipment in the former Wabash Railroad station in downtown Ferguson, now home to a restaurant called the Whistle Stop. They tap their messages to fellow devotees in other cities. Responses rattle from the receiving device, known as a sounder.

Restaurant customers are curious and perplexed. Cohn and Axeman actually know what the clicking means.

"It's a simple, durable form of communication — texting a century before cellphones," said Cohn, 49, a thoroughly modern IT project manager by workday. "We're trying to preserve the art form."

The local club numbers 10 or so active practitioners, with an additional 1,120 members across North America. A diminishing number were railroad telegraphers long ago. Most of the rest are amateur (Ham) radio operators who learned code for their hobby and were drawn to original land-line telegraphy. (Radio and railroad Morse codes are slightly different.)

Cohn, of Clayton, was trained by the chapter's namesake, Ollie Blackburn, who died in 2007 at age 106. Blackburn once was a telegrapher for the Wabash in the Ferguson station. He was 92 when Cohn became his pupil.

Morse developed his electric telegraph system and a language of dots and dashes two decades before the Civil War. His first message clattered across a wire from Baltimore to Washington on May 24, 1844, with these words: "What hath God wrought?" It electrified America. Literally.

Railroads quickly put Morse's idea to widespread use. A transcontinental wire connected California to the East in 1861. President Abraham Lincoln spent many worried hours in the military telegraph office in Washington. America and England were linked reliably by Atlantic undersea cable in 1866.

The system is simple enough. A sending device, or key, is connected by wire to a sounder. Touching the key completes the circuit and sends an electric pulse to the sounder, consisting of an electromagnet and lever that "click" when activated. Morse code assigns to each letter of the alphabet a different sequence of electric pulses.

A quick pulse is a dot, a slightly longer one is a dash. Thus, an "a'' is dot-dash, an "e'' a dot, a "v'' is dot-dot-dot-dash.

Cohn said he needed about six months to master the code, followed by another half-year to consider himself skilled. Judging from a recent demonstration, he's got it down.

The rigging at Ferguson station is a mix of old and new. The club communicates with far-flung friends over the Internet. A USB cable runs from a laptop to the century-old telegraph equipment. The uninitiated can read the laptop screen as special software translates dots and dashes into text. Club members rarely bother to look.

Recently, they traded messages with telegraphers in Kansas, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and New York.

The cheery Bloomington weather report was from Bill Dunbar, 86, a former railroad telegrapher. Dunbar tapped a postscript about his early career: "Most days we could not wait to get to work."

Club member Truman Gamble of St. Peters learned code in 1952 at the old Railway Communication School, 4509 Delmar Blvd. After three months of concentrated learning, Gamble went to work in Indiana for a railroad, sending and receiving train orders, instructions to conductors and daily reports from superintendents.

It was swan-song time for railroad telegraphy, overtaken by teletype machines, centralized track signaling and other advances. "Automation got me," said Gamble, who moved to the auto business.

Now 78, Gamble meets with the club for the nostalgic joy of it. "Morse code takes me back to the days when I was young and healthy," he said.

At the Ferguson station, club members display some of their collections of old equipment. Cohn's includes a "press set," a portable combination of key and sounder that newspaper reporters used a century ago. They'd connect the sets to special wires at ballparks, courthouses and telegraph offices to file stories.

Charlie Stark, owner of the Whistle Stop restaurant, said the club sessions are good for business. Customers linger to watch, listen and eat.

"Most people don't know much of anything about Morse code," said Stark. "This lets them learn something new and different. New for them, anyway."


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