why is the Russian army still using morse code more than a century after its invention

Modern warfare is steeped in cutting-edge technology—from AI to drones to hypersonic missiles—but one technology that’s more than a century old is still proving its worth: morse code.

The staccato streams of tones that would be instantly recognizable to a railwayman from more than 150 years ago are still used by the Russian military in the Ukrainian war.

Even today, many people would be able to recognize the characteristic feature of Morse code, in particular, the pattern widely known as three short, three long, three short (… – – – …), which forms the emergency signal SOS.

Today morse code messages are being sent from Russian bombers to their control centers, or from Baltic Fleet ships to their shore headquarters.

The shortwave bands used by radio amateurs are similarly filled with beeps known as “dits” (.) and “dahs” (-), or as pokes and dashes by the general public. There are even spies listening to the shortwave bands to listen to clandestine stations broadcasting morse code.

Invented in the 1800s

Why, then, is technology created in the first half of the 1800s still in use today?

Originally, Morse code was not invented by an engineer or a technological wizard, but by a man who painted portraits for a living. Samuel Morse first designed what we would call today a teleprinter, a device that receives and prints text on paper.

Morse enlisted the help of the more mechanically inclined Alfred Vail, a machinist, to work out the details. It was the latter who created the dots and dashes to represent the code, and who came up with the idea of ​​using sound to convey information.

At first, it was just about using the sound to test a connection. Before long, Morse and Vail realized that the concept of printing was impractical. By adding sound, however, they had come up with a concept that was brighter and more useful than they could have imagined.

The great characteristic of morse code is that it forms a rhythm in the form of sound. Therefore, it shares common ground with music. In fact, it has been observed that people with musical talent are able to start learning morse faster.

By stimulating the innate human sense of rhythm, Morse code also activates our pattern recognition. This is a skill that is deeply embedded in our brains, and a skill that has great potential to understand messages even if they are not complete.

An experienced morse code operator can fill in the gaps caused by interference, poor reception, noise or equipment malfunction. In the neurological sense, Morse lives in a very strange niche, similar to “reading with the ears” but when it seems to be transmitted and received with the act of speaking more than writing.

Another remarkable feature of Morse code is its technological simplicity. Anyone with basic tech skills can build their own transmitter using standard components.

The signal generated by a morse transmitter is similarly minimalistic, using a very narrow bandwidth of only 100-150 hertz (standard voice communication uses 2,500-3,000 hertz). This also means that receivers can use very narrow filters thus removing much of the ambient noise that generates various types of interference.

Because it is so efficient, morse only needs a minimum amount of power to travel significant distances. Amateur radio enthusiasts demonstrated in 1956 that as little as 78 milliwatts can transmit enough power from Massachusetts to Denmark. This is less than a tenth of what a single LED light bulb uses. A standard coffee maker that prepares people’s favorite morning brew uses more than a thousand times more power.

This combination of technological simplicity and efficiency emerged during the second world war, when members of the resistance and Allied commanders used their portable Morse transmitters to keep in touch with London from inside German territory. where she lived.

This was a very risky venture, as the Germans were constantly listening in on the airwaves. Although Morse code is unintelligible to the untrained ear, there is no security in itself.

Today, even the untrained can use software to decipher the contents of a message sent in Morse code. However, any message can be made secure by encrypting it before sending it, as suggested by Vail in 1845.

In fact, one of the most secure forms of encryption, the one-time pad, requires nothing more than pen and paper. A one-time key is basically a random string of characters, at least as long as the message to be encrypted.

The sender uses his or her pad to encrypt, and the recipient uses a copy of the same pad to decode the message (there should only be two copies, each of which should be destroyed immediately after use). As long as a keypad is never reused, it is theoretically unbreakable even with the most modern technology (although producing truly random sequences of characters is difficult).

Although digital means of communication are more efficient today, nothing can match the unrivaled combination of simplicity and efficiency that allowed Morse code to survive for more than 150 years.

This article from The Conversation is republished under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Tony Ingesson does not work for, consult with, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article this, and has not disclosed any relevant connections beyond their academic appointment.

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