Morse Coder: Marconi Wireless with a Modern Twist

Digital technology originates well before its incorporation into the art world. This project concept was originally developed in response to the 100th Anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic.  Back then the Marconi Wireless was a fairly new development. While it was far from being included in every ship, it had played a key role in saving almost all of the passengers, almost sixteen thousand, of a ship a few years before Titanic sank. This led people to believe that Titanic would not require enough lifeboats for everyone because the ship would be able to call for aid and stay afloat long enough for help to arrive. This project is meant to embody the concept of uniting the past with the modern day[1]. The objectives of the work were to unite technology of 100 years ago with technology today.  The work is designed to show how technologies used in the past still resonate through our technological experiences today.  The work failed to perform as anticipated due to difficulties with the programing.

This project was designed to allow communication in Morse Code between a Processing[2] program and an Arduino[3] microcontroller via a Bluetooth link.  The project was built from the ground up buy the artist with components purchases from Radioshack and SparkFun[4], The Microcontroller used is Arduino Pro 328 -5V/16MHz. The completed board was made of the microcontroller, two Arduino Stackable Header – six pin, two Arduino Stackable Header – eight pin, and a DC Barrel Power Jack/Connector. The Bluetooth component is constructed with Bluetooth Mate Silver and a six pin Right Angle Female Header to allow it to connect to the Microcontroller. A FTDI Cable is used to upload programs to the Arduino. Other Components used in the construction of the device are a super bright green LED, a Basic Red 5mm LED, a 100 ohm resistor, a 12V DC Piezo Buzzer and a Lever switch.

The original version of the project allowed one-way communication from the processing program to the Arduino Microcontroller. The Processing program converted input into a series of signals that the Arduino outputs as light and sound.  Later versions tried to incorporate two-way communication between the Arduino and Processing. Updates in the software later made communication between the two programs difficult. The help of Derick Ostrenko failed to restore function, revealing yet more issues within the coude. At the suggestion of Kevin Dupuy, the artist tried to revert back to the stable version of the Processing (1.5.1), but the issue persisted. Attempts were made to try and resolve this issue, but the error message “Error inside Serial.<init>()” persists. Artist tried to revert back to an earlier version of the programs. While the processing code worked, efforts to upload programs to the Arduino returned the error that the Serial port was in use, despite the ports not being in use. Conversation with Engineering Student Justin Northrop led the artist to the issue of a partially fried circuit board. This also explains the erratic behavior of the circuit board. Time constraints prevented repair efforts.  Artist created a website (found at http://morseeternal.wordpress.com) to show the code that was used in the event that anyone can provide suggestions or insight into possible solutions.  The set up, complete with laptop (an older model) and the Arduino set up will be donated to the Baton Rouge Amateur Radio Club in the event that issues are resolved. This will allow them to create work, if issues are able to be resolved, will be donated to the Baton Rouge Amateur Radio Club so it can be used as a training tool for future Ham Radio operators. If the setup can be improved upon and refined, the artist will post the design and code up on the internet so that others might build upon it, or make their own in the spirit of the programs that were used to create the piece.

The issues faced by the artist shows the potential problem with open source software. While the software is free, there is the possibility of drastic threats that render previous codes unusable. Possible solutions for this would be using multiple Arduinos to simplify it. However, it is possible due to changes in the coding programs that this would complicate matters even further. The simplest and most straightforward answer would be to build both codes from the ground up and start from the beginning with the Arduino Pro. This would include ordering new parts and building a new board. The flexibility of open source programming is its greatest strength, though it has the ability to cripple a work at the same time through misunderstanding.

This piece represents 2012 by focusing on a piece of technology that proved pivotal a hundred years ago and giving it a modern twist. It also makes a point by throwing into stark clarity, the similarities and differences between this piece and Kit Calloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz’s A Hole In Space. Both enable communication between two different locations. The differences are that A Hole In Space allows visual communication between participants across the country whereas this project does not.  Another key factor is the difference in range. A Hole In Space uses satellite technology to communicate across the coast while this piece is limited in range because it uses Bluetooth. The Titanic had a wide range, so it is only fitting that this piece is similarly capable.

The piece further represents 2012 due to the fuss raised by the Mayan calendar by popular culture. In 1859, a solar storm knocked out telegraph lines across the entire US. It took years for the entire system to be repaired. At the time Morse Code was invented, it was the most efficient way to communicate messages. Now, no one uses it unless they are a Ham Radio operator. The Sun is approaching its maximum point of activity[5]. When power grids fail and communication stops, HAM Radios become the primary form of communication again.

There is an annual test hosted by the Amateur Radio Relay League in which operators try to communicate with as many other operators as possible. This is to evaluate the effectiveness of their communications network. On the Amateur Radio Relay League Field Day in June (the local event is at the Highland Road Park Observatory and is open to the public), operators set up their radios by powering them with car batteries. Communications made in Morse Code travel further and cost less power than voice communications.

The major improvement that could’ve been made in this project would have been to allow more time for troubleshooting.  Ideally, the set up of the Arduino would’ve included a lever switch designed to look like an old Morse key. Distancing the Arduino from the modern day would’ve better to show the contrast between the modern day technology and the technology of a hundred years ago in a visual way. Also, a way should be found to increase the range of the components so they could be located across the room from one another. The piece needs to be rebuilt and redesigned so that the same problems aren’t faced again in the future. Another good idea would be to simplify the project so that it may be used easily by everyone.


[1] The White Star Line Ship Republic sank in 1909. Sixteen hundred people

[2] Software downloadable from: http://www.processing.org

[3] Software downloadable from: http://arduino.cc/en/

[5] Learned at the Highland Road Park Observatory.

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