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An ode to Morse code

This is an Audiograph, a radio project mapping the Bay Area’s sonic signature. Audiograph tells the story of where you live and the people who live there with you. 

For nearly 100 years, Morse code was the official language of international communication for ships in distress. Then, at the end of the 20th century, it officially went silent on the world’s oceans, replaced by more modern technologies.

On July 12, 1999 — the day Morse officially stopped being used on the seas — the Morse operators who had tapped out these signals gathered to say goodbye. Richard Dillman, Chief Operator of the Maritime Radio Historical Society, recalls that “those of us who were there found it to be a very emotional scene. Some very tough looking old buzzards, radio pioneers, had tears in their eyes.”

There’s one lonely spot in the Point Reyes National Seashore where dots and dashes still make the hearts of tough old buzzards go pitter pat. Down an unmarked, tree-lined lane in far West Marin, just beyond a field punctuated with antennas, the sounds of the past bubble up into the present.

“This is KPH San Francisco radio,” says Jack Martini. “It was alive! There was so much going on all of the time! It was a hum of a place; you walk in here it was humming. People were moving around copying code, screaming, all of that stuff which made it more than just a job. It was a way of life is exactly what it was for us. Absolutely loved it."

Martini is 75 years old. He was the last manager of KPH.

“This station was originally founded in San Francisco at the Palace Hotel,” he says. “The initials PH are the Palace Hotel.”

In 1905, the station was set up as a way for merchants and ship owners to communicate with ships out at sea, and as a way for wealthy cruise ship passengers to check on their stocks and investments back home.

But the station was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire. Eventually, in 1946, it relocated to this remote corner of Point Reyes — after stops in San Francisco, Daly City, and Tomales Bay. Except for a few years during WWII, KPH stayed on the air. It was a money-maker: sending messages cost 50 cents per word, which even now isn’t cheap.

Martini started working at KPH in 1961. And he stayed until the very end. He was the one who closed the door and turned out the lights when the station went dark.

“It was like a death in the family when they closed it,” he says. “It's still here though, isn't it?”

Bringing KPH to life

In a room filled with buttons and switches, dials and consoles, people are happily tapping away on gadgets called ‘bugs’ and ‘keys'. A manual typewriter sits at the ready, loaded with a fresh sheet of clean white paper.

A crowd of excited onlookers gathers around. Richard Dillman is getting ready to send a Morse code message out to ships, HAM radio operators, and other normally-defunct marine radio stations like KPH, all of whom have turned on their old sets and tuned in for a special broadcast.

“People around the world will be listening to us,” says Dillman. “Have been waiting for this all year. Tubes warming up, earphones going on, coffee getting hot, ready to hear these transmissions.”

It’s the Night of Nights: an annual celebration of the very last commercial radio message sent in Morse code.  

Only a handful of people are still truly fluent in Morse code. Dave Wolf is one of them. Dillman describes him as an ace commercial operator from KPH’s sister station, WCC, on Cape Cod.

“He was also a shipboard radio operator — the genuine article right here,” Dillman explains.

All eyes are on a big clock. Wolf and Dillman will start their transmission at precisely 5:01pm – the moment back in 1999 when Morse code use officially ended on the world’s oceans.

Finally it begins: a series of beeps. Wolf translates: “To all. Ships. And. Stations. Break. On. This. 14th. Anniversary. Night of Nights. The. Maritime. Radio. Historical. Society. Extends. Warm. Greetings. To. All. Listeners. Ashore. And. Afloat.”

Beep beep beep.

This is only the beginning of what will be a long night. Dillman and his crew send and receive messages until midnight. And some of the time, they’ll just be listening.

“The signal that we were hearing is on the most hallowed, may I say sacred, frequency of all time,” said Dillman. “It's the frequency that the Titanic used to call for distress. It's the frequency on which every SOS was sent forward: 500 kilocycles — just below the AM broadcast band.”

After the Titanic, they wanted people to hear lifeboats, which are always weak — just 10 watts. So they set up these two periods an hour. During those times, nobody says a word. All ships and stations stop talking and just ... listen.

A weird static sound comes over the air.

“That's the sound of whatever crap is on there that isn't being radiated by us, but by God himself in heaven,” says Wolf.

That story originally aired in July 2014.