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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Morse Code vs. texting: Guess who’s faster?

Martha McKay The Record (Bergen County, N.J.)

It doesn’t always work out this way, but sometimes older is faster.

Two Morse code men recently bested a fast-fingered teen “texting” a message via cell phone in a high-profile digital duel that aired on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.”

Another such contest, held by an Australian museum, pitted a 93-year-old Morse code aficionado against a 13-year-old girl, and the oldster smoked his youthful rival.

There is something satisfying about a venerable 170-year-old technology beating out an upstart.

In the Leno showdown, ham radio operator Chip Margelli used Morse code keys to dit and dah the sentence “I just saved a bunch of money on my car insurance” to Ken Miller, who received and translated. And like all Morse code experts, Miller didn’t read the dots and dashes, he listened to the sound of the code the way you would listen to a foreign language.

Seated next to Margelli, Ben Cook, a Utah teen who recently won a contest “texting” a 160-character sentence in 57 seconds, tapped the same message into a cell phone while a friend sat opposite ready to receive on another phone.

In the take that aired as well as two others, the Morse code duo handily beat the teens.

Teens who have grown up using instant messaging on their PCs are more inclined to use text messaging, and carriers are undoubtedly pleased with the 10 cents they typically collect for a maximum length 160-character message.

Text messaging, which is wildly popular in other parts of the world, is finally gaining a critical mass in the United States. Several years ago, wireless companies began to allow inter-message exchange, letting Cingular customers, for example, send and receive messages from Verizon Wireless customers and vice versa.

Cingular boasted 4.4 billion text messages delivered over its network in the first three months of 2005, a figure that included plain text as well as ring-tone downloads and other forms of data.

Wireless carriers recently began a system that lets users receive Amber Alerts — issued when a child is kidnapped — over their cell phones in the form of text messages.

So far, though, the most popular uses for text messaging seem to border on the frivolous. More than 40 million text messages and data downloads were sent by people voting for their favorite “American Idol” during the show’s recent 12-week season, according to Cingular.

Those figures dwarf the world’s estimated 2.5 million amateur radio operators, most of whom have basic proficiency in Morse code, which can take several months to learn.

The two code experts who appeared on TV wore white shirts and green visors — a la telegraph operators of yesterday — and brought publicity to a technology that evokes a passion in its adherents.

“There’s magic to it,” said Allen Pitts, spokesman for the National Association for Amateur Radio. “That’s something that cell phones are never going to match.”

Maybe so. There could come a day when old-timers will look back on text messaging with similar fondness. But it’s hard to imagine text messaging, which owes much to the shorthand made popular by vanity license plates, rivaling the gravitas of Morse code.

Consider this: When the French Navy stopped using Morse code in 1997 (replacing it with a more advanced digital communications technology), they tapped out a final message: “Calling all. This is our last cry before our eternal silence.”