REVIEW: “Good Night Old Man”, George Campbell

BKGNOM.RVW   20111128

“Good Night Old Man”, George Campbell, 2011, 978-9878319-0-3, C$19.95
%A   George Campbell
%C   PO Box 57083 RPO Eastgate, Sherwood Park, AB Canada T8A 5L7
%D   2011
%G   978-9878319-0-3
%I   Dream Write Publishing
%O   C$19.95  780-445-0991
%O   Audience i+ Tech 2 Writing 3 (see revfaq.htm for explanation)
%P   342 p.
%T   “Good Night Old Man”

On page 114 the author asserts that even learning to use Morse code “bestowed on us instant acceptance into a society whose members regularly performed tasks too difficult for most others to even attempt.”  This statement will be instantly recognizable by anyone in any technical field.  This is because in the beginning was the telegraph.  And the telegraph begat teletype (and baudot code) and the telephone.  And telephone company research labs (in large measure) begat computers.  And teletype begat the Internet.  And wireless telegraphy begat radio.  And radio and the telephone and the Internet and computers begat 4G.  (Or, at least, it will begat it once they get it right.)  But it all started with the telegraph.

As the author states, any communications textbook will mention the telegraph.  Most will tell you Morse code began on May 24th, 1844.  Some might mention that it isn’t in use anymore.  A few crypto books might let you know that commercial nomenklators were used not just for confidentiality, but to reduce word counts (and thus costs) when sending telegrams.  (The odd data representation text might relay the trivium that Morse code is not a binary code of dots and dashes, but a trinary code of dots, dashes, and silence.)

But they won’t tell you anything about what it was like to be a telegrapher, to actually communicate, and help other people communicate with Morse code.  How you got started, what the work was, and what your career might be like.  This book does.

I am not going to pretend to be objective with this review.  George Campbell is my wife’s (favourite) uncle.  He’s always liked telling stories, has a fund of stories to tell, and tells them well.  For example, he was the first person in North America to know about the German surrender in Europe, since he was the (Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve) telegrapher who received the message from Europe and passed it on.  Of course, the message was in code.  But everyone knew it was coming, and he knew who the message was from, and who it was going to.  You can learn a lot with simple traffic analysis.

There are lots of good stories in the book.  There are lots of funny stories in the book.  If you know technology, it is intriguing to see the beginnings of all kinds of things we use today.  Standard protocols, flow control, error correction, and data compression.  Oh, and script kiddies, too.  (Well, I don’t know what else you would call people who don’t understand what they are working with, but do know that if you follow *this* script, then *that* will happen.)  It is fascinating to see all of this being developed in an informal fashion by people who are just trying to get on with their jobs.

The title, “Good Night Old Man,” comes from a code the telegraphers themselves used.  “GN” (and a “call sign”) was sent when the telegrapher signed off his station for the night.  Morse code is no longer used commercially.  Within a few years, the last of the “native” speakers will have died off.  Morse will become a dead language, possibly studied by some hobbyists and academics, who can tease legibility out of a sample, or laboriously create a message in that form, but without anything like the facility achieved by those who had to use it day in and day out.

This is a last chance to learn a part of history.

copyright, Robert M. Slade   2011     BKGNOM.RVW   20111128

  • http://n/a Marion Williams

    I have just received a copy of Good Night Old Man by George Campbell from my son. I was a telegraph operator for both CP and CN Telegraphs and worked in the D office in Edmonton with Al Addison, Sid Reith and Brian Fisk, Brian Robinson and Roger Gaudet, an 18-year-old young lady working with 21 men.
    . In 1995, the five of us had a “family” renunion at my place in Salmon Arm at a cottage on Shuwsap Lake. We spent a wonderful weekend together as two people had brought their bugs so we had a great time playing around sending messages as none of us, as George noted, had lost the skill. This book is a delight for me as well as my sister Nelda (Edwards) who worked in the Calgary and Winnipeg offices. My brother Neil Ibbitson, (now deceased) also started out as a telegrapher and ended up being Western Supervisor for CN/CP Telecommunications until his retirement.
    My heartfelt thanks to George for contributing to this not to be forgotten time in history.
    Kindest regards,
    Marion Williams (Ibbitson)

  • MandyB

    George Campbell not only relates the mechanics of Morse code and its transmission but engages his readers into his life’s work.
    I would recommend this book to anyone who loves a good story and historial facts.