Inside America’s Last Morse Code Station

The Titanic famously (or infamously) used Morse code to call out in distress at the end of its final voyage. Ships at sea and the land-based stations that supported them used Morse code for decades, but with the growing use of satellites, maritime Morse code ended in 1999. With one notable exception. [Saahil Desai] writing in the Atlantic tells the story of  America’s last Morse code station, KPH just north of San Francisco.

In fact, KPH did shut down in 1997 as part of the wind down of Morse code in ocean vessels. But some radio enthusiasts, including [Tom Horsfall] and [Richard Dillman], have brought the venerable station back to life. The radio squirrels, as they call themselves, dutifully send news and weather every Saturday to anyone interested in listening. They also exchange radio traffic, primarily with the SS Jeremiah O’Brien, a World War II-era ship parked nearby. N2FQ visited the station and operated the station on video, which you can see below. Or, check out the tour in the second video, below.

There are still a few niches of Morse code, including, of course, the amateur radio community. Code isn’t that hard to learn, it is dead easy to make a computer send it and only moderately hard to receive it. Making a transmitter to send the code is also easy, or feel free to whistle, thump, or use a flashlight in an emergency.

If you want to listen to the rechristened K6KPH or the official KPH station, you can find their pages at the Maritime Radio Historical Society’s web site. Just the thing for your SDR or even a web-based receiver.

39 thoughts on “Inside America’s Last Morse Code Station

  1. Wonderful initiative, we need to bring back PCH here in the Netherlands. I used the daily weather bulletins at 18/wpm to lean morsecode 40 years ago. It was also a popular station because it was heavily “manned” by women.

    1. Funny you should mention women. I was taught Morse code by the Guinness world record holder in 1986. He may recall this female soldier. I’m the one who slept with the headphones on the desk then would wake up and be able to pass the translation tests. In fact I was one of three other females in class who got gos the first time through earning our A4 MOS expander. So I guess I am getting old when they are putting Morse down.

  2. “The Titanic famously (or infamously) used Morse code to call out in distress at the end of its final voyage. ”

    Yup. But it wasn’t clean CW, as someone may think.
    The transmitter technology used damped waves, rather.

    And the SOS was a German idea, also.
    Just like the Gerke version of morse telegraphy alphabet.

    Marconi Company had used CQD, which ironically hams are still being forced to use in emergency.

    On the other hand, in an actual emergency, nobody cares and everything is fine.

    Titanic’s radio operators were the first ones to use both CQD and SOS together.

    1. I have never heard of any amateur having to use CQD in danger. Got a source for that?
      I’ve been a ham radio operator for quite a while and this is the first time i hear anything about it.

      1. Thank you for asking. I must admit I can’t find an definitive source, but that’s how I had learned it.

        The closest “source” is this one, which lists “SOS” as not being part of ham radio service.

        “The following procedural signals are not used by the Amateur Radio Service:- [..]
        Emergency Distress signal (SOS) didididahdahdahdididit …—…
        This signal replaced the original
        distress signal CQD, which was
        used in the early years of the
        twentieth century.”

        https://www.harc.org.uk/?page=technical&sub=Morse

        So it seems to me that CQD is still the one that’s in use.
        CQD can also be read as CQ-D or “CQ Distress”. A derivative of CQ (Seek You).
        Or as the French “sécurité détresse” (CQD).

        That being said, I would also like to know more about it.
        I’ve never heard that hams can use “mayday”, for example.

        1. Got my license in 1989. I’m also a pilot, and have some experience with ATC and aircraft radio procedure. In an emergency there is no required call or transmission: hams and pilots can use whatever is needed to get help, BUT – Mayday is common for use with both pilots and hams, and the most common code signal in use is SOS for two reasons: it’s easier to send and more readily recognizable. CQD is usable but considered archaic and might delay help arriving because they dont recognize it as fast. The only regulations or requirements specifically pertaining to mayday or SOS restricts when you are allowed to use them: it’s a crime to use either for anything other than an actual emergency. What is more, if a station is using either they have priority on that frequency and interfering with them is also illegal. Hope this helps.

          1. That is correct. I have been a ham since 1972 and still currently involved with emergency communications. In a real emergency we will use whatever is necessary to seek or provide assistance. Although no longer required to obtain an Amateur Radio Operator license, Morse Code is still practiced by many hams. Unlike human laws, the laws of physics cannot be broken. If the radio propagation is bad enough, Morse Code (aka CW – continuous wave) has a higher chance of getting through.
            And I love the reference to the movie Independence Day.

    2. Also “The Titanic famously (or infamously) used Morse code to call out in distress at the end of its final voyage.” The Titanic was on it’s MAIDEN (“first”) voyage when it sank, thus also making it its final voyage art the same time.

      1. That point of view is understandable, especially because things look so dated in our “modern” times of the internet.

        In fact, people from 25 years ago might have said or though exactly same already. 😅

        But to be honest, I think it doesn’t happen every day to see that Americans show such affection to traditional things or culture (like Australia, their nation is still comparable young). That’s what makes this article stand out from the norm, I think.

        And last but not least, we over here in former western Europe (or more specifically Germany) still sometimes miss our Norddeich Radio, too.

        The station watched the classic 500 KHz emergency frequency, among other things.

        We’d be glad if our former radio operators still were on the air, as well.
        So I’d dare to say that most Americans can be proud of those oldtimers.
        They’re still “there”, despite all the odds.

        After all, knowing that there are real human beings watching over the men on sea would be somewhat reassuring.

        That’s something that the advanced, but also soulless GMDSS can’t provide.

        Even if they’d just be there on a small scale, as retired people, as volunteers, without all those original services such as phone patch.

        Being able to hear their weather predictions or being able ask them for aid in certain things would be neat.

        Here’s a bit more about Norddeich Radio.
        It’s in German language, but most the pictures talk for themselves.

        Farewell Norddeich Radio, parts 1+2

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=15TxywjtDns

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Nw294TfeRY

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/500_kHz

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norddeich_radio_station

        1. Check out the Sacramento Museum you tube channel. They (like many others) are keeping cold metal, old fashioned printing alive. I am Scottish and was taught typesetting and printing by my Father.

    1. Once you know how to key it is as fast as doing it by PC (ofc assuming a reasonable rate, a computer could probably send to another computer at 500wpm, but then using Morse code is moot)

    2. I’ve used a straight key since I was a teenager. I sent CW with a key before I learned to touch type in high school. I don’t mind either method, keyboard or key. Using a key eliminates the need for something electronic to encode key presses into Morse pulse trains. If you have to, you can send CW by simply shorting together whatever wires are needed to generate a carrier from a transmitter.

      There are general advantages to CW communication. Only a few Hz of bandwidth are required to convey the information content. This makes it possible to use very sharp IF and audio filters on the receiver. The elimination of background noise makes long communication sessions less fatiguing, believe me, that is a large benefit. In the old days we got sharp receiver performance with auxiliary feedback boxes called Q multiplies. New radios have DSP on both the IF and audio stages to make listening easier. Because signal to noise ratio is better with CW, less signal is required to get the same intelligibility as other modes. You might need a 100 Watt transmitter for SSB voice to get the same distance coverage as 5 Watts for CW.

      CW isn’t just some nerdy old school thing for dudes who want to show off, there are obvious pragmatic reasons for emergency situations where power and other resources are limited. As with any skill, practice makes you better at it.

      1. The amount of traffic and the speed you had to send during a Maritime Radio Operator career made straight keys impractical for more than just occasional use.
        FW – ex NMC / KPH / WCC op.

      2. The amount of message traffic you had to send during a Maritime Radio Operator career made sending by a straight key very impractical for more than just occasional use due to the strain on your hand and finger joints. – FW ex NMC / KPH / WCC telegraph op 1978-1997.

  3. Not as many morse ops on Ham Radio today. The WW2 guys have passes on. Still got a few operating CW. I had the T2 commercial Telegraph license years ago, but use SSB most often. Still fun to communicate with the WW2 battle ships when they are operating on Ham Radio. Sending to the USS Missouri in Hawaii made ice water flow thru my sole.

    1. >>>Not as many morse ops on Ham Radio today.
      Really? Do you have any qualitative data supporting that?
      I absolutely can’t buy that, given the fact I can put out a single CW CQ, get a reply, all with <20watts into a dipole. And get different contacts every night. The CW bands are so far from dead!

  4. Well, as happens, I’m a ham radio operator (callsigns KY8D and VA7KYD) holding also (just for fun) commercial radiotelegraph license T000000139. My last voice communication was 1989, in Esperanto. All my contacts since have been Morse.

    At my home station I have several types of Morse code keys (straight, iambic, and cootie), and no micrphone at all.

    Presently I’m on vacation in South Africa, operating as ZS1/KY8D with a wire antenna strung out from the balcony of the house we are renting. My log book is here…

    https://ky8d.net/sql/ZS1_KY8D_world.xml

    Thus I’m in a position to state categorically, that Morse is far, far from dead. Many a latter day voice-only ham takes up Morse just to make it more fun.

    I offer free audiobook practice files to one and all here…

    https://starling.us/free/morse

    In closing, let me also say that once while on vacation I sat the transmitter aboard the museum ship SS American Victory at the Port of Tampa exchanging traffic with KPH.

    1. The Major Agrees to Agree!

      Immediately after posting my above comment, I called CQ on the upper (less busy!) end of 30 Meters and had a random QSO. Again, 20 Watts to a dipole. If one finds it difficult to make CW QSO’s:
      1) Is the equipment in running condition ? Check RF power, antenna VSWR, the usual parameters. Is your Tx signal stable? Won’t get replies if you drift across the band.
      2) Are you receiving close enough to your transmit frequency? Sounds obvious, but maybe the RIT is at fault?
      3) Is your sending good enough for someone else to copy? Can a cell phone app (like Morse Expert,etc) copy what you send? Send a CQ, then check https://reversebeacon.net/. Click “main page”, enter your callsign in “Spotted (dx)”, and give it minute.

      There are just a few boxes to check, but once done you may come to the conclusion that CW is alive and kicking.

  5. Visited KPH several times. Those folks have done an outstanding job restoring and maintaining all that equipment. If you have a Radiotelegraph ticket they’ll let you take a turn at the KPH key and endorse it for you. Got mine endorsed there and was really lucky enough to get it endorsed at WLO not long before it ceased operation. Rene Steigler was a great guy and really enjoyed visiting with him.

    1. Aircraft radio navigation stations identify with Morse code continuously still today. They are called VORs. They are hardly dead and many commercial pilots know recieve this Morse. And in fact must confirm the station before relying on its signal to fly in the fog.

  6. Say what ever, Morse will be completely gone in 10 years. It is a dying technology, way to tedious, slow, boring and a devil to learn when today’s communication is easy and fast. Say all day that it isn’t dead but no one now wants to learn or has the time to listen for hours to it to learn it.
    IT IS THE WALKING DEAD OF RADIO !

    1. I doubt that it will die that soon; the FCC did away with its Morse requirement in 2000, and it’s still alive snd well; as long as there are people who WANT to use it, and many do, it will be with us. True, there are less people using it now, and many hams have never learned it, it us far from dead, as it is being kept alive and healthy by people who want to use it as opposed to having to use it.

  7. I received a Confirmation of Reception letter from KPH for reception of their station in February of 2023 on the frequency of 12808.5 kHz. It’s really nice. Has their official seal on it and signed by Richard Dillman, the chief operator.

  8. I’ve heard of CQD being used prior to SOS. I would answer either of I heard it today. Fortunately, I’ve never heard either, or Mayday. I started my Ham Radio life in 1964, just after my German Grandfather passed away. He listened to music via shortwave from Germany as well as news updates. He was in the German Navy prior to WWII, and had made his way to America before it started. I remember him telling me about the use of distress signals onboard ships.
    Today, with all of our technology, there is absolutely no need for CW/Morse, or even Amateur Radio. Well, that is if the Internet and cellphones don’t go down. Like a couple of weeks ago. When a lot of folks panicked. And the various forums were loaded with folks looking at SIMPLE two way radios in case it happened again. But, it never will. Right? Right??? It may be OLD technology, but now and again, we might be able to help, still.
    73.

  9. I was a Coast Guard Radioman 2nd class in the 1960s. We had to send and receive coded groups (random 5 letter groups that were encrypted) at 25 wpm to graduate from radio school. I worked CW for years in the high Arctic aboard an icebreaker, the Edisto. I had to send and receive 35 wpm to get my speed key (Vibroplex “bug”) ticket. We copied on a manual typewriter (“mill”). If you’re interested, I wrote a novel about such goings-on, and survival in the Arctic, available on Amazon etc. “Bear: Dead Reckoning,” by J.A. Greenleaf. 73s

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