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!

Operating Notes: Twitter encourages CW operation?

I just finished a QSO with John, KR4RO. What is remarkable about this QSO is that it probably would not have occurred if we hadn’t first made contact on Twitter. John, who is @kr4ro on Twitter, and he and I follow one another there. Apparently, he saw my tweet (a tweet is a message posted to Twitter) that I was calling CQ on 7026 kHz and waited for my QSO with Vin, W1IDL to end and then called me.

John mentioned that he hadn’t been on CW for quite some time, and that he was kind of nervous. He did just fine, though, and I was very flattered that he would go out of his way like that to contact me.

I think more hams should use Twitter. It could open up a whole new world for hams. And, as my QSO tonight proves, it can even encourage some to get on CW, and as we all know, we can never have enough CW ops on the air. If  you already use Twitter, please follow me there. I’ll be certain to follow you back.

Speaking of W1IDL, my QSO with Vin was remarkable on several counts. First of all, there must have been some weird short skip going on because he was 599 plus 20 dB here in Ann Arbor, even though he was located barely 50 miles away.

Secondly, it was notable because we had such a great conversation, even though this was our first QSO. Right off the bat, he started asking me questions about Ann Arbor and what I did here. I looked him up on QRZ.Com and found out that he was also a Rotarian and asked him about the club he belonged to. All in all, it was a memorable QSO.

Are contests good or bad for CW?

This afternoon, I got to make a few contacts in the ARRL DX CW contest. I was on 10m, using my new loop antenna, and propagation was pretty good to Central and South America. I worked a bunch of countries including Argentina, Barbados, Costa Rica, Colombia, Brazil, Virgin Islands, Aruba, Belize, and Surinam.

After about an hour, I got bored with that, and decided to QSY to 30m, where I heard a guy I’d worked many times calling CQ. I told that I’d been playing in the DX contest on 10m, and had gotten bored with it, so I was down here looking for a ragchew. He told me that he never works contests, to which I replied that I thought that contests might actually be good for CW in that it might get more hams to work CW on a regular basis.

That comment got him going. He noted that he’d seen an increase in operating practices that we use in contests in normal operation, and he didn’t think that was a good thing. The two examples he gave were responding to CQs only with one’s callsign and not using the K prosign to signal the other operator that it’s his turn to start sending.

To be honest, I have also noted an increase in these behaviors, especially the first. I’d never thought about contests as encouraging these poor operating practices, but I think he has a point.

I don’t know how we encourage operators to not use contest procedures during normal operation, but I think we should talk about how to do so. One idea that he had was to send QRZ? whenever an operator responds to a CQ with only his callsign. I’ve done this in the past, and think this is a good idea, but I’m not sure that it gets the point across as well as we think it does.

What do you think? Do you think these practices are bad for CW? If so, what can we do about it?

Things I found while twittering

Just some things I found while twittering. I found them interesting, so I thought you might, too…….Dan

Tworse Key:  a tweeting Morse key. An open design exercise in interface archaeology, that decodes the input from a classic Morse key to send twitter messages. The source code and hardware schematics are available online http://modin.yuri.at/tworsekey/

Design analog chips. According to the website, this freely downloadable book is “a comprehensive introduction to CMOS and bipolar analog IC design. The book presumes no prior knowledge of linear design, making it comprehensible to engineers with a non-analog background. The emphasis is on practical design, covering the entire field with hundreds of examples to explain the choices. Concepts are presented following the history of their discovery.”

DashToons.Com. Jeff, K1Nss presents the illustrated adventures of Dash!, the dog-faced ham.


Buddy Up to Learn CW


The CW Operators Club has started a program called CW Academy to help people learn Morse Code. Their Web page says,

The program addresses all levels of enthusiasts; from those aspiring to become licensed operators with a desire to learn Morse Code, all the way to veteran operators wanting to increase their CW activity, skills, and code speed…A CWops member/advisor will be assigned to each registrant as a mentor and on-air contact.

I really don’t know all that much about the CW Operators Club. It seems little snobbish to me—to join you have to be sponsored by three current members—but that may be because I’ve not been invited to join.

FISTS, another CW club, without any sponsorship requirements, I might add, has a similar program they call Code Buddies. According to the FISTS website,

K3NEM, The Amateur Radio Club of the National Electronics Museum members are the volunteers handling the Code Buddy Program. Contact them at Box 1693 MS 4015, Baltimore, MD 21203, or Email Nick at K3NY@arrl.net. We need ELMERS and Buddies, please volunteer to be a Code Buddy!! You don’t have to be a speed demon to be a Code Buddy, lots of people just want someone to practice with, just like YOU! To volunteer or to get a Code Buddy, include what you need (teacher, student, practice buddy), what bands you can work, and what areas of the country you can reliably work.

Morse Code Makes Another TV Appearance

Stuart, KD8LWR, wrote me recently:

I just wanted to tell you about this Morse code I heard on this racing show my dad watches called Top Gear. The car was driving towards the finish line and then this 700 Hz 30 WPM Morse code was on (with zero Farnsworth), and I decoded both messages in one try. The first said “ME LIKE CHEESE” and the second said “STRICTLY IS CRAP”. I just thought you guys would like that (especially Dan KB6NU). I don’t get the second one, but the first is pretty funny because it’s off topic.

73, Stuart

Has anyone else heard any Morse Code on TV, radio, or in the movies lately?


American Morse Illegal on the Ham Bands?

As I’ve mentioned here, I’m half-heartedly trying to learn American Morse Code. Why? Well, while ham radio is keeping International Morse Code alive, there is not as big an outlet for American Morse. The Morse Telegraph Club (MTC) is perhaps the only organization keeping American Morse alive, but there are far fewer members of MTC as there are amateur radio operators who use Morse Code.

Now, I had heard of some amateurs using Americian Morse on the air, but not only are they few and far between, the American Morse that you would hear on the air is not the same as clicks and clacks of a telegraph sounder. And, now, on top of that, it is apparently illegal for amateur radio operators to use American Morse Code on the air.

This was recently brought to my attention on MTC mailing list, slowspeedwire. Chip, N3IW, noted:

Also, for US amateur radio operators we cannot legally use American Morse on the air. That’s because the FCC has defined the CW mode as using International Code only. There is no legal mode that can use American Morse on the air because of that definition.

Being curious about this, I tried to find out where this was so defined, but was unable to and asked for a clarification. In response, Jim, WB8SIW, MTC president, said:

The issue of the legality of American Morse on the ham bands is a fairly recent development. As I understand it, the issue arose when someone at the NCVEC conference asked a representative of the FCC if the use of American Morse Code on Amateur Service frequencies was legal. The FCC representatives present considered the question and stated that, in their opinions, the use of American Morse was illegal because Part 97 defines telegraphy as the standard International Morse Code.

This statement was reiterated and supported by Gary Johnston, W3BE, who writes a FCC rules column for the QCWA and perhaps other publications. Mr. Johnston has gone on record as being unequivicolly opposed to the use of the Amercan Morse Code on the ham bands. While he is retired from the FCC and his opinion has no official weight, the fact that he has pronounced it illegal influenes many radio amateurs.

I had some correspondence with Mr. Johnston in which I outlined the history of the use of American Morse on the ham bands and argued a contrary opinion. The result was essentially a terse note in response, which, in my opinion, I can only describe as being intended to “put me in my place.”

A couple of points are probably in order, however:

First, no one has ever tested the opinion that American Morse is illegal through a test case under the Administrative Law process. However, I suspect few of us have the time or money to do so if we received a Notice of Apparent Violation.

Second, the old rule of government regulation stands. When one asks a government agency to rule on a hypothetical issue, one will nearly always obtain the most restrictive opinion. Someone made the mistake of asking if it was legal, and, as a result, we have now been told that it likely is.

Still, I was not satisified, and because some of Johnston’s proclamations on the rules irk me so much that I can’t bear to read his column anymore, I searched again through the rules. This time, I found references to International Morse Code in 97.307(f)(9) and 97.307(f)(10), and those parts referred to the use of International Morse Code by Novices and Technicians. I also found part 97.305(a), which says, “An amateur station may transmit a CW emission on any frequency authorized to the control operator.” It does not, however, specify that the CW emission be in International Morse Code.

After posting this, to the mailing list, N3IW did point me at the correct parts. He wrote:

The definition of CW and MCW are found in Part 97.3(c)(1) and 97.3(c)(4):

Part 97.3(c) The following terms are used in this part to indicate emission types. Refer to Sec. 2.201 of the FCC Rules, Emission, modulation and transmission characteristics, for information on emission type designators.
(1) CW. International Morse code telegraphy emissions having designators with A, C, H, J or R as the first symbol; 1 as the second symbol; A or B as the third symbol; and emissions J2A and J2B.
(4) MCW. Tone-modulated international Morse code telegraphy emissions having designators with A, C, D, F, G, H or R as the first symbol; 2 as the second symbol; A or B as the third symbol.

So, there you have it. These two parts conclusively define CW and MCW as being International Morse Code. It seems kind of silly to me that American Morse is not allowed, given that it’s such a well-defined code and that the rules allow the transmission of far more exotic codes using the digital modes. Anyone want to draft a petition to change the rules?

Another Method for Teaching and Learning Morse Code

On the SolidCpyCW mailing list, Martin, OK1RR, mentioned W0UCE’s method for teaching CW. This is an interesting method for learning the code. Unfortunately, it requires a teacher. That is to say, someone can’t use this method on their own, as there’s no computer program to step the student through the program. A couple of notable points:

  1. Learning takes place at 28 wpm. This is the philosophy behind the G4FON program.
  2. Sending is an integral part of learning. I advocate sending as well as receiving when learning the code.
  3. No more than 30 minutes per day is devoted to learning the code. Too often, those learning the code spend too much time on it in the beginning and then “burn out.” Once they do this, they often abandon the code.

When asked, I normally point prospective CW operators to the G4FON program or hand them a copy of the K7QO Code Course on CD-ROM or both. One of these days, though, I’ll give a face-to-face class a go and use this teaching method. Maybe the more personal approach will help them get over the hump faster.

ZLW a “Communication Lifeline” for Ships Serving New Zealand

On the 100th anniversary of the establishment of ZLW, the Wellington maritime radio station, Radio New Zealand broadcast this documentary. It features an interview with Clyde Drummond, One of the first operators. Drummond reminisced about ZLW’s role in World War I.

It also includes interviews with Peter Baird, Graham Turner, and Alan Burgess, operators who worked at ZLW from the 1960s through the 1990s. They discussed the HF setup that ZLW had during that time period. One interesting segment had to do with how telegram traffic to and from ships at sea was handled.

WWII Training Film Shows How to Use a Straight Key

If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you’ll know that I’m not a big fan of sending with a straight key. I find it very tiring, and my fist isn’t as good as I’d like it to be. Well, having said that, Ovide, K8EV, recently e-mailed a link to “Techniques of Hand Sending,” a United States Navy training film from 1944 on how to send good code by hand with a straight key.

It’s a very well-done film, and after watching it a couple of times, I can see where I’ve been doing some things incorrectly. For example, I think my arm and wrist are too tense when using a straight key. That undoubtedly is why my arm and wrist get tired so easily.

So, am I going to practice more often with my J-37 and join the Straight Key Century Club? Well, no, but who knows? Maybe someday in the future.

Techniques of Hand Sending