21 Things to Do: Learn Morse Code

21 Things to Do After Getting Your Amateur Radio LicenseBefore you even start reading this chapter, I’ll warn you that I’m a big fan of Morse Code (often referred to as CW, or “continuous wave”). So big, in fact, that it’s safe to say that I use Morse Code to make 95% of my contacts.

I am not, however, one of those guys that thinks you’re not a “real ham” if you didn’t pass some kind of code test. In fact, I think that eliminating the code test was a good thing for ham radio. The code test kept a lot of good people out of the hobby.

Having said that, I think there are lots of good reasons you should learn Morse Code. Please keep an open mind as I list them:

  1. Tradition. Operating CW is an amateur radio tradition. When amateur radio began, CW was the only mode. When you learn and operate CW, you’re following a very long line of hams who have operated CW.
  2. Effectiveness. Talk to a CW operator, and it’s likely that he’ll chew your ear off about how  CW is a more effective mode than voice. While the difference is probably not as much as the CW operator would like you to believe, the difference is real. When conditions are poor, you’ll be able to make CW contacts and not voice contacts.
  3. DXing. That being the case, CW operators have an advantage when it comes to contacting DX stations because their signals will get through when voice signals are unreadable. Also, if you consider that there are more voice operators than CW operators, you’ll have a better chance of contacting a much-wanted DX station because there will be fewer operators trying to contact him using CW than there will be using voice.
  4. Contesting. In most contests, you get more points for a CW contact than you do for a voice contact. Sometimes the bonus is 100%, sometimes only 50%. In either case, doesn’t it make sense to know CW if you want to be a contester? You’ll score more points for the same number of contacts.
  5. Simplicity/Efficiency. The equipment you need to operate CW is a lot simpler than the equipment needed to operate voice modes. And, because CW is more efficient, you can, in general, use a lot less power to make contacts with CW  than you need to make contacts using voice modes. This has spawned a whole sub-group of hams called QRPers, who delight in using very minimal equipment to make contacts.
    Using CW also saves bandwidth. The bandwidth of a CW signal is approximately 200 Hz, while the bandwidth of a single-sideband (SSB) voice signal is about 3 kHz. That is to say that the voice signal is 15 times wider than the CW signal. Another way to say this is that for a given amount of bandwidth, you can fit 15 times more CW signals than you can SSB signals.
  6. It’s just plain fun. Once you learn CW and start using it, it can be a lot of fun. Like any activity that requires some skill, mastering that skill can be a source of pride. Not to sound too vain about it, but I enjoy the praise I get from my fellow hams when I can display my CW operating skills.

How to Learn Morse Code
In the old days if you wanted to learn Morse Code, you went out and bought a vinyl record or maybe a cassette tape that had precrecorded lessons on them. Another approach—the approach I used—was to tune in a Morse Code signal and start to associate the patterns of dits and dahs to characters of the alphabet. Both methods had drawbacks.

Today, things are a lot easier. Not only are there free resources available, I think they are much more effective in teaching people code than the old LPs or cassette tapes. Here are the three resources that I recommend:

  1. G4FON Koch CW Trainer. Ray Goff, G4FON, has perhaps written the most popular CW training program. It runs on the PC, and is completely free! The program uses the Koch method.  The idea is that you learn to receive at the speed you would like to eventually achieve, but you learn only one character at a time. This method works very well for lots of people.
  2. K7QO Code Course. The K7QO Code Course takes a different approach. This set of .mp3 files comes on a CD-ROM and teaches you the code letter by letter. It starts out sending the letters slowly, then ramps up. The nice thing about this course is that you can use it on any device  that is capable of playing .mp3 files. To obtain a copy of the CD-ROM, send $1 per copy and a self-addressed envelope to FISTS, PO Box 47, Hadley MI 48440.
  3. Learn CW Online. LCWO uses the Koch method to teach Morse Code. Because it runs in your browser, you can use this website no matter what computer you happen to be using.

Whatever method you choose, I hope you’ll consider learning the code. See you on the CW bands!

Comments

  1. Pete Henderson says:

    Agree 100%, well put Dan! I’d add that going ahead and operating some CW will help too – just find a clear spot and put out your CQ, as slow as you want to go. Don’t worry about making mistakes – everyone does – just get in there and get going! I never really learned CW as well as when I got on the air and used it every day! 73 de WB0LCW

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