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Emeritus professor's textbook used for 'Hello Morse' experiment

| Erica Jones

Morse code, which was developed in the 1830s and ‘40s with the creation of the telegraph, had fallen out of widespread use after World War II. That is, until Google resuscitated it by going live with an experiment called “Hello Morse” this month.

The experiment uses images from a textbook written by Dr. Thomas King, UW-Eau Claire professor emeritus of communication sciences and disorders, to teach people Morse code. By encouraging picture-to-letter associations, it turns the learning process into a game. The experiment also includes the addition of Morse code as a language on Google’s downloadable keyboard, GBoard. Once selected, Morse replaces the English QWERTY keyboard with a simple dot button and dash button, and it changes the dits and dahs to letters as a user types.

Beyond being an entertaining way to spend an afternoon, learning Morse has practical applications, too, King said. For decades, King has studied, taught and presented on the uses for Morse code in day-to-day life.

“It’s just another way to communicate,” he said. “It’s another language.”

And the language does wonders for people who are nonverbal and require alternative or augmentative communication systems. If a person has enough motor function to operate a set of switches or a sip-and-puff device — a system operated by intake and output of air through a tube — they can use Morse to author original thoughts and feelings.

King said this is a major improvement from existing forms of AAC that require outside interpretations. It provides those with disabilities more autonomy and ownership over their words.

Although Morse has been used in AAC for around 50 years, King said he hopes its reintroduction to the world through GBoard will be profound.

“Maybe this technological leap is going to open it up to the whole world again and people will realize that it’s fun to do and it also has these unique advantages for people with special needs,” King said.

His personal fascination with Morse code began when he was around 6 years old, King said. When he came to work at UW-Eau Claire in 1988, he said he was lucky enough to be somewhere that fascination was readily encouraged. Then, after his wife, Debbi King, joined UW-Eau Claire’s Continuing Education office in 1990, the two got a chance to collaborate on a major outreach program at the university: Morse 2000.

Morse 2000 was a yearslong program that started in 1993. It included a composite of information, presentations and symposiums and two world conferences. The couple sent materials in their database out to anyone who requested them, no matter how far away they were.

Debbi King attributed the prolonged success of Morse 2000 to those at UW-Eau Claire who supported the program from the start. When the Kings first came forward with this idea, she admitted, there was no money to make it happen.

“Had we not had had the support of visionary leaders, we could never have done this,” she said.

These leaders, former faculty and staff at UW-Eau Claire, had the foresight to understand the implications of a project like this. Because of this, Debbi King said, they put their faith in the program, and she began writing grant applications and contacting potential financial backers, and eventually Morse 2000 took off. Over the years, its membership grew to greater than 600 participants in 30 countries around the globe.

On top of the support on campus, Debbi King said she and her husband make an excellent working team. The dedication to this project extended even beyond the walls of UW-Eau Claire. They allotted much of their time and energy to this project for one simple reason: They knew how important it was.

Fast forward to this year, and the work continues. 

In September, Tom King presented at the Adaptive Design Association NYC. Part of this, the Adaptive Design Game Jam, included ADA staff, people with disabilities and their families, students from New York universities and Google development professionals. Tom King was easy to pick out of the crowd of professionals as he was proud to wear a UW-Eau Claire pullover as he interacted at the conference. Over four days, participants worked with Google developer teams to create games centered around GBoard. These games are now available online, thanks to Hello Morse. 

During this event, lessons from Tom King’s books were used. He said that was encouraging to see as a writer because it made him realize his work has survived and is still valued. In addition, he got a chance to give the developers advice on different teaching approaches and learn about clients and their needs. 

These needs, Debbi King said, are what it comes down to. 

“Ultimately it’s what it will do in the lives of the end user. With the availability of GBoard, no longer will someone who needs augmentative communication have to spend thousands of dollars on a device. Now they can use something that is free and accessible to anyone to do their keyboard emulation,” Debbi King said. “I think it will change lives.” 

Photo caption: Dr. Thomas King presents at the Adaptive Design Association NYC in September.