Friday, November 4, 2016

Update: Morse-code mystery on vintage postcard


Tagged to the bottom of my final Vintage Hallowe'en Postcard post earlier this week was the revelation that the century-old postcard had a message that appeared to be in Morse code, which is certainly a little unusual.

I took a half-hearted stab at decoding it, made little progress and gave up.

For Step 2, Sarah and I combined our super-sleuth resources to begin decoding this very old message to George Pritchard of South Whitley, Indiana.

Sarah set herself up with the Morse code chart, I carefully read her the dots and dashes, and we came up with ... this:
HETTIHIWHIUWASMIRHIMIRGEMINGHASMEDHIUHANDITIREITSAIISEENTHEITHESSISEHIWISETIMZEMSISA
Hmmmm.

There are words in there, but are they significant or coincidence?
HETTIHIWHIU WAS MIR HIM IRGEMING HAS MEDHIUH AND IT IREITSAI I SEEN THE ITHESSISEHI WISE TIMZEMSISA
We figured there were several possibilities for this result. Among them:
  • It was just gibberish to begin with.
  • The writer was not skilled in Morse code and/or English.
  • Sarah and I did a poor job decoding old pencil marks.
  • The message is not in English.
  • There's a double code. Perhaps the Morse code reveals a cryptogram.

We let it sit for a day. One thing that gnawed at me were those first five letters: HETTI. It struck me that those dots and dashes, as the first "word" on a postcard message, should be HELLO. So why was it off? Did the writer mess up? Did we translate incorrectly? Or ... what if we were using the wrong key?

As it turns out, there were different versions of Morse code 100 years ago.

Sarah and I had used International Morse Code (below, left) for our translation. It's been in existence since 1848 and has been the most-used code, especially since it was officially made the international standard for wireless operators in 1912. But there was also American Morse code (below, right), which was the version that was first created by Samuel Morse and Alfred Vail in the 1840s. And this code didn't just go away after the wireless standard became International Morse Code. According to Wikipedia: "American Morse remained the standard for U.S. landline telegraph companies, including the dominant company, Western Union, in part because the original code, with fewer dashes, could be sent about 5% faster than International Morse. American Morse also was commonly used for domestic radio transmissions on the Great Lakes, and along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts."


Excited about this discovery, Sarah and I once again set about decoding the postcard, this time using American Morse Code as the key.

Success!

Well ... partial success.

Here's the first half of the translation:
HELLO.
HOW YOU WAS?
IF YOU ARE AFRAID OF GETTING HARMED
But then things get weird again in the second half of the message:
YOU SANDO LIKE ILCAYC ON LHE OLHER CIDE
HOW ICE TOM 7 E?
RICA
It's not a huge mystery, of course. We think the writer is telling George to read the front of the postcard if he wants to learn how to avoid harm. (The Halloween postcard explains that a ring of pumpkin seeds will keep the witches and goblins away.) It's pretty clear the writer (Rica?) is saying something along the lines of "You should look on the other side."

Sarah and I learned that translating the written form of American Morse, which has additional intentional spaces and two different forms of a long dash, is more difficult than translating the International version. So it's likely that our troubles with the translation stem from a combination of translator error and, most likely, an original writer who was not 100 percent skilled in spelling, grammar and/or his or her own use of American Morse.

But I think we have the gist of the message now. And we will go back and fine-tune our guesses as to what Rica (?) intended for this secret Halloween message from a century ago.

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