Originally Published: January 18, 2008 8:21 p.m.
Morse code is a dying art.
The romantic notion of a brave wireless radio operator resolutely tap-tapping out distress signals while rising sea water laps at his feet (think Titanic) has gone the way of the old-fashioned ice box and the wringer washing machine.
"It takes too long to learn," admits Chuck Adams, a 65-year-old retired astrophysicist living in the high desert hills on the edge of Prescott.
Don't get him wrong - Adams loves Morse code. He is one of the fastest code transcribers in the United States. Since 1985 - just for fun - Adams has been translating books into Morse code. He has done about 25 so far.
About four years ago, he started putting the translated Morse code tones on CDs and selling them for a token amount on the Internet. He gets about three or four requests for the CDs a month.
Transcribing the books is not as complicated as it sounds because Adams wrote a software program that does the translation for him on a computer.
It takes about an hour and 15 minutes to do one book. He has sold about 100.
Why does he like using Morse code to reach out to the world? It's simple.
"I don't like my voice," Adams said. "I hate my voice."
Adams grew up in Wink, Texas (population 700), and graduated high school with nine other students, including singer Roy Orbison.
"We were so poor, the cockroaches went next door to eat," he joked.
He learned Morse code when he was 15. He wanted to become a ham radio operator like his dad. At that time, being able to transcribe code at four words a minute was a requirement to get the license. After just a few days of practicing, he could do 12.
"I think it was just a gift," he says.
In those days he did not have television or video games to distract him, just a family radio to listen to at night and a vast expanse of glittering stars to gaze on. He had plenty of patience and a good imagination to fuel his boyhood fun. He built his first transmitter in 1957, "talked" to the world on his ham radio, and peered at the universe through a telescope his uncle gave him.
It was not uncommon for him to handle 600 to 1,000 volts of electricity with his bare hands.
"You could do some damage," he said ruefully. During his senior year in high school, he inadvertently shot 15,000 volts between his pinky finger and his elbow.
"It just flattened my ass out," he recalled laughing.
Adams went on to earn five university degrees, which he says does not matter: "All it means is that I spent more money and went to school longer than you did."
He never missed a day of school or work in his life.
Adams still gets excited when he talks about what he is doing with Morse code.
"If you don't get excited about something," he says, "just give up."
Now, he explains, only a few occupations require knowing Morse code. Pilots need to know code - at least at a slow speed - because of the directional beacons that send out tones to tell them where they are, especially when it is cloudy or foggy.
The CIA and the FBI and some segments of the military still may train in Morse code, too, Adams guesses.
However, with cell phone and satellite communications, people hardly need to spend the two hours a day for 16 weeks that it typically takes to learn Morse code's "dots" and "dashes" - which professionals call "dits" and "dahs" for its more accurate reflection of the sounds the pulses of electricity or the more modern audio tones make.
Morse code operators originally transmitted the code as electrical pulses along a telegraph wire. They also can send it as an audio tone, a radio signal or as a mechanical or visual signal.
Morse code is still a useful communication tool, Adams says, because it's easy and inexpensive to send in an emergency and because it needs only low power and simple equipment to send messages long distances. In a disaster, it may save lives.
"Those things still happen," Adams says, citing the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, which wiped out communications in New Orleans.
Still, he has no illusions.
"I don't know that I have contributed anything to the (ultimate) preservation of Morse code," he says philosophically.
"I am just keeping it alive a little bit longer."
To order one of Chuck Adams' Morse code books, visit his website at www.k7qo.net/.