The Impromptu Toolkit: Morse Code

If you have any magic friends that you spend time with at all, I think you should make an effort to learn Morse code. Now, this is probably a clunky way to code information between people. I'm sure there are super clever magician ways that I don't know about, but the reason I recommend Morse code is first because it's fairly universal. It's not a clever magic code, it's a dull regular person code, but it's something you can learn pretty easily without having to have access to secret magic stuff. And it's a very all-purpose code because you can easily transfer the information visually, audibly, or via touch.

Why to Learn Morse Code

Well, in case you get trapped under earthquake rubble and you need to bang on a pipe so people know you're still alive, for one. 

Or you can use it in magic tricks.

I don't think it works well for a legitimate coding act where you're supposed to be transmitting information to someone. But it does work very well when you or your friend are acting as a secret confederate. 

Your friend says. "I'm going to leave the room. I want you all to settle on a thought to send me when I come back."

"What a load of horseshit," you say, dismissively.

A minute later he comes back and joins you at the table. Everyone concentrates. It's dead silent. No one moves. After a few seconds he says "Lobster." Everyone flips out.

Of course it's just you tapping it out in morse code on his foot from across the table.

The most powerful response I've received from a trick that used Morse code as part of the method was as part of a seance effect. One friend had written down the name of someone she wanted to contact on business card. I peeked the information. I coded it to my friend who was also at the table via tapping his foot. Then everyone except me put their hands on the Ouija planchette and it spelled out the person's name; a name that had never been revealed and without the "magician" even touching anything.

The nice thing about Morse code is you only need two elements: a dot and a dash. So anything that gives you two "signals" can work. You could hang black and white socks on a clothesline to spell out sexy things to your hot neighbor. You could have face-up and face-down cards code a word to someone.

One time my friend made the absurd and mathematically impossible claim that at any time, every song every recorded is being played on the radio somewhere in the world and he could find it on the radio dial. "It may be very very faint, but it's possible to pick it up if you have good ears."

"Well, I've got great ears," I said.

My friend asked another person to whisper a song in his ear which he claimed he would find on the radio. He tuned the radio along the AM dial. Songs faded in and out. He eventually got to one point on the dial and said, "I'm close. It's going to be hard to pinpoint the exact frequency."

After a minute or so I—at a point where it still just sounded like fuzz—I scrunched my eyes and said, "I think I hear something." I put the radio close to my ear and listened intently.

Then I started singing.

Hold me closer tiny dancer
bum bum BUM!
Count the headlights on the highwayyyyyyyyy

The method? There was a point on the dial that was neutral. Once he settled on that number the coding started. To the left of the number would be a dot and to the right of the number would be a dash. He would pause for a longer time on the number to indicate a break between letters. So what looked like him trying to get an exact tuning was actually him coding the song to me.

Once he got out T-I-N-Y-D, I knew where it was going and stepped in to say I was hearing something.

I've tried to come up with more interesting ways to transmit the information than directly tapping it to someone else, but I haven't really come up with anything great to use in most situations.

One that was fun to play around with was this. I would have eight pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters in rows on the table and a large glass. My morse code friend was either out of the room or hadn't arrived yet. I'd ask another friend to think of a simple one syllable word. Once they had named a word I would start tapping the coins on the glass one by one, evaluating the sound they made. Some I would toss into the glass and some I wouldn't. At the end I'd have a glass with a number of coins in it. When my confederate arrived I'd ask my friend to take the glass and swirl the coins around next to my confederate's ear. 

"Do you hear any word in the sound of the coins whirling around?" I'd ask my partner.

"Kind of... it sounds like... sock maybe?"

So you have your coins on the table like this.

You look at things in sequences of two coins. If two coins are together, that's consider a dash. If only one coin is in a two-coin area, that's considered a dot. No coins in a two coin area means the letter is made up of less than four elements so you removed the rest of the coins in that row.

This sounds more complicated than it is. Each row is a letter. Letters are made up of at most four elements (dots and dashes). A dash is two coins. A dot is one coin. I just remove all the coins to make what's left on the table indicate the letter.

So if the spectator is thinking of SOCK, the coins you would leave on the table are like so:

S   ...
O  ---
C  -.-.
K  -.-

You might think people will realize you're coding the word somehow through the layout of the coins on the table. And yeah, you're probably right. I didn't say it was a good idea. I said I had fun playing around with it. I don't think it's as transparent as it might seem. Having the coins in a grid at the beginning is a feasible way you might have things set up if you wanted to search through the coins for ones with the right "tone" to transmit this words when swirled around. That would keep things organized. And the process of tapping the coins against the glass and really listening seems somewhat meaningful. Your attention is on the coins you put in the glass, not what's left on the table. And your confederate can read those coins on the table very quickly from far away once they're used to the system. So you can scoop them up and put them away soon after he enters the room. But again, I wouldn't argue that it's a great trick.

It doesn't matter if your spectator chooses a word longer than four letters. You just do the first four and your confederate will either figure out what the rest is or just end up saying something close, so you're all set.

How to Learn Morse Code

The combination of these two tools makes it really pretty easy and quick. 

First is a letter chart with symbols the letter consists of built into the shape of the letter. "Dit" is a dot, and "Dah" is a dash (don't ask me why).

Take 15 minutes and learn a row each day and you'll have it down in four days.

After you have it down, you can use this Boy's Life page to practice

The truth is, you just need to know the letters you don't have to be really good. You're not going to be coding whole sentences, just a word or two.

Modern Morse

Two last things.

The Apple watch has a feature where you can tap on the face of the watch and your friend/loved one will feel those taps on their wrist. (I mean, assuming they too have an Apple watch.) You can't do "dashes" so to do Morse code you have to do fast double-taps for the equivalent of dashes. It doesn't take long to figure out the timing. Or, if you're a masochist, you can learn the tap code too. The tap code is used by prisoners to communicate by tapping on walls or cells and just uses one knocking sound, not short and long sounds.

I haven't used the Apple watch to tap Morse code, but I have used it to transmit numbers and playing cards.

And finally, if you have an iPhone you can do what I did and go into your contacts list and assign a custom vibration for each of your contacts that is their name (or a word that describes them) in Morse code. It's very easy, you just go to edit their info and there's a choice that allows you to choose the vibration for when they call and you just choose "Create New Vibration." Then when someone calls you, even if your phone is on silent and in your pocket, you'll know who it is without looking. It's not a magic trick, but it kind of feels like one inside my head when I know who's on the phone without seeing or hearing anything. And it makes me feel smug and superior when I judge people who have to take their phones out and actually look to see who's calling. You poor suckers.

You might not really spend much time with other magicians, so you might think it's not worth the effort to learn this. Well, how about this idea. All of us who learn Morse code for magic purposes will get identical face tattoos. Then, when you're out in public, if you spot someone with the same tattoo, you'll know they're ready to be your secret helper for a magic trick.

Also, this will be a good way for us to let others know how "misunderstood" we are.