SOUTH RIVER – An early communication tool springs to life in South River this Saturday, Aug. 11.
FINGER TAPPING FUN.
To the untrained ear what a group of men at the old South River train station were doing on the weekend just sounds like a lot of tapping.
Wade Brown, Keith Austin, George Brownrigg and Russ Nichols have the ability to decipher that tapping into dots and dashes creating letters and numbers.
They plan on showcasing their skills of Morse code to the public this Saturday at the Ottawa Avenue train station. They’ll set up two keys, one in each room of the museum. Children will be able to write a note for the sender to tap out. In the next room, the receiver will be able to tell them exactly what that note said.
The four men worked together for a while in Huntsville where every Wednesday was telegraph day. And, it was Russ who called out to the other telegraphers for help.
Brownrigg says the prospect of doing it again after 40 years was a little intimidating.
“It’s sort of like riding a bike,” said Nichols.
“It’s sort of like learning another language,” said Brownrigg. “But if you told a joke you’d have to write h-a-h-a-h-a.”
According to Nichols, the children were in awe and often, so were the parents – a treat for the entire family.
The men are no strangers to the train line and are all trained telegraphers. All worked for CN in their careers with the exception of Nichols who worked for New York Central. In fact, Austin started working at the station in South River as an assistant agent in 1947 and remained there until it closed in 1988.
On Monday morning the four men tapped out messages, translated, laughed and shared stories of their days on the line.
Nichols says it all started with Samuel Morse who rigged up a telegram system using wire and a battery.
“He learned that current would travel across quite a distance,” said Nichols.
He developed a language using a key and a sounder. A little tap was a dot and a little longer to make a dash. This was the advent of Morse code.
The men agree their training and apprenticeship in Morse code was not easy.
“It takes about six months of pretty hard grueling practice,” said Nichols. “Receiving is the key. No two people send the same way.”
After a while they were able to identify the sender of a message based on the sounds of the dots and dashes.
Brownrigg says that in 1955 he was working as a system agent earning $200 a month. However, fears of layoffs prompted him to take the telegrapher’s apprenticeship.
“As an apprentice I took in $75 a month and paid out $60 in bed and board,” he said.
He managed to complete his apprenticeship in five months instead of the usual six but still had to wait another five months because he wasn’t allowed to start working in the field until he was 18 years old.
The demonstration will run throughout the late morning and afternoon.