A Morse Code typo lights city skyline


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An evening view of the city's Downtown skyline offers more than just a beautiful blend of old and new architecture towering over glistening moonlit rivers.

If you look high atop the 33-story Grant Building, you see the red neon lights flashing, in International Morse Code, a one-word message:

"P-I-T-E-T-S-B-K-R-R-H"

Wait, that's not right, said Tom Stepleton, as he decoded the message while waiting to see the city's Fourth of July fireworks show with friends at the Brew House on the South Side.

"I was looking at it, and I saw the letter 'K,' which is [dash-dot-dash]," Mr. Stepleton said. "I remembered 'K' because my sister's name starts with 'K.' And I knew that wasn't supposed to be there."

Mr. Stepleton, 29, of Squirrel Hill, a graduate student pursuing a degree in computer sciences at Carnegie Mellon University, knew from past viewing that the code should spell "Pittsburgh." He learned Morse code as a teenager, when he became a ham radio operator.

Of course, it's not like it's a secret. The flashing beacon atop the Grant Building has been famous for spelling out "Pittsburgh" since they flipped the switch during a dedication in March 1929.

The Grant Building, located on Grant Street between Third and Fourth avenues, was designed by architect Henry Hornbostel and stood as the tallest building between New York and Cleveland when it was built in 1928. Pittsburgh's first skyscraper, it cost $8.5 million to build.

The radio tower erected atop the 500-foot structure served KDKA Radio, which then was housed in the Grant Building.

But skyscrapers weren't the only thing new at the time. Commercial air travel was still a novelty and regular air mail service was just a year-old experiment. Newspapers at the time said it was decided that the tower should have an aerial beacon flashing on it "to comply with the recent request of Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, so that aviators might recognize the city."

Red neon was chosen because it was the color best visible through fog.

It was reported that W.J. Strassburger, president of the Grant Building Inc. and its principal backer, suggested that since the tower beacon had to flash, it might as well flash something worthwhile.

The word "Pittsburgh," transmitted via 3.25 million candlepower, could be seen by pilots from 75 to 125 miles away, depending upon conditions, and was registered with the Bureau of Lighthouses in the Division of Aeronautics.

Through the decades, the tower was replaced by a smaller version, but the word "Pittsburgh" has been flashing pretty steadily from dusk to dawn.

The letters, as any sailor could tell you, are "dot-dash-dash-dot, dot-dot, dash, dash, dot-dot-dot, dash-dot-dot-dot, dot-dot-dash, dot-dash-dot, dash-dash-dot, and dot-dot-dot-dot." Following the four flashing dots for the letter "H," there is a short pause, and then the series repeats.

Until recently, that is.

Representatives of McKnight Property Management, the building's current owners, could not say how long the code has been off or how and when the lights might be reset. But the company is aware of the flawed flashes.

Mr. Stepleton, a recreational pilot, spelled out where the errors are. First, there is a stray flash -- which could be construed as a dot representing the letter "E" -- between the two dashes that represent the two "Ts" in Pittsburgh.

Then there is a dash that should be a dot at the start of the seventh letter, turning what ought to be a "U" into a "K."

Finally, there is a dot that should be a dash at the start of the ninth letter, changing the "G" into another "R."

Mr. Stepleton thought the brilliant typo interesting enough to record and upload onto Youtube.com. Then, believing that someone might want to correct it, he contacted the Post-Gazette.

Apparently, he knows how seriously the newspaper takes misspelled words.


Dan Majors can be reached at dmajors@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1456.


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