Spotlight on Los Alamos: Communicating with dits and dahs

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By Gabriel Vasquez

You may have seen him walking around town with a heavy-duty transmitter strapped to his back, antenna pointing to the sky and a concerted look on his face.

He’s not a Ghostbuster, John W. Snell is just a history buff of a different breed, and there’s plenty others like him.

Almost every day, you can catch Snell at Ashley Pond with his headset on, vehemently tapping away at his telegraph key and scrambling to write down the response of whichever radio operator he happens to be talking to at the time.

“It’s a way for me to reach out and be a little closer to history in a personal way,” Snell said. “Most days I make a contact – I just have to be persistent.”

Snell, who’s worked for almost 20 years as a nurse at the Endoscopy Center of Los Alamos, said he’s been interested in Morse code transmission and radio communication since he was young. He’s been using his World War II-era equipment to communicate via Morse code since acquiring his HAM (Amateur Radio Operator) license in 2002.

“I grew up on a farm listening to these old signals because there was no TV in those days,” he said. “The lights on the radio glowed like a Christmas tree.”

More than just a hobby, Snell said communicating with other operators around the country is a way to honor World War II veterans, who make up a large part of today’s telegraph radio community.

“It’s a great privilege to meet and have Morse code contacts with veterans who were radio operators,” he said. “I even talked with one guy who was a radio operator on a ship in Pearl Harbor when it was attacked.”

Snell is able to confirm the identity of the contacts he makes by looking up their call numbers on the Internet.

He said a typical Morse code conversation might go like this:

First, the broadcaster requests contact and identifies himself by his call number (Snell’s is KD5RDD).

Once somebody responds, he or she usually confirms contact and the two thank each other for the call, and Snell and the responder give each other a signal report, which consists of the altitude of their location, the weather and the type of equipment both are using.

This is followed by a bit of small talk – discussing each other’s surroundings, their time in service or how to stay in contact in case the signal fades.

“Courtesy on the air is extremely important because the airwaves are kind of crowded,” Snell said. “Most of the time I don’t know where my signal is going to go.”

Snell uses Vietnam-era radio pack and World War II-era telegraph key, combined with a five watt transmitter, 12 volt battery, folding solar panel, and an adjustable vertical antenna. The equipment totals about 50 pounds, which he said has taken some getting used to, but after years of having it strapped to his back it feels strange when he doesn’t have it on.

He said when he first started wearing the heavy-duty pack, apart from curious looks; he was often stopped by law enforcement that wanted to know what he was doing.

“I’ve been checked out by different security people here in town,” he said. “I’m always pleased with that because it shows they’re doing their job. I let them try on my headset and they’re interested.”

Although most of Snell’s contacts are made in the Pacific Northwest – the signal skips easier there, he said – he has talked with other operators as far as Tokyo, South America, and Canada. He has a big map on his wall covered with hundreds of pins pointing to the locations of the contacts he’s made.

Although the HAM community is vast and encompasses a wide range of radio operators, from users like Snell who tinker with low-powered transmitters from various locations to those who have high-powered transmitters built into their home and use computer-aided Morse code translators, Snell said he prefers to talk with operators that use similar equipment as his own.

“A lot of these guys are hot dogging around,” he said. “A lot of them have Morse code interpreters running into a computer. I had a Morse code translator but I gave it away because I wanted to do it the old fashioned way.”

Officially, the short and long pulses of Morse code are called “dits” and “dahs.” When Snell acquired his HAM license in 2002, it was required the operator transmit a minimum of five words per minute using a combination of these dits and dahs, and even at that pace it seems pretty fast. Snell has gotten much better since then.

“My goal was to meet the requirement that a pilot was required to meet in World War II, which is 20-25 words a minute. I’m up in that range.”

When he went to test for his license, he commented that the only other test-takers where of Native American descent, and it gave him a sense of nostalgia to what he has doing.

“These guys were probably the sons of code-talkers,” he said. “I’ve always admired Navajo code-talkers. I have a very high regard for what they achieved, that inspired me. That has been a great inspiration to me – they were just kids.”