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

Operating CW is More than Just Communicating with Code

In response to my post on American Morse, a ham e-mailed me:

Interesting. With all you’ve written on ham radio, with all you seem to be involved in, and with all the help you’ve given me over the last several months, I expected you were a CW pro.

Now that I’ve passed Tech, and will be taking (and passing) my General exam in a little over a week, I, too, have decided to learn code. In fact, I bought a couple of keyer kits to “build my own” and resurrect the fun I had as a kid who built all sorts of Heathkits.

Nonetheless, I’m not sure whether I want to learn Morse, or just be able to “use it.” By the latter I mean there is, as you know, a bunch of hardware and software that will translate received Morse into text, and convert keyboard-entered text into sendable CW. So far my main stumbling block is that most of the devices and programs require a PC with a serial port, and I’m a die-hard Mac user.

Operating CW is about more than just communicating with Morse Code, though. Here’s  how I replied:

Take it from me, you really want to learn code and not just be able to use it with computer decoders.  There are several reasons for this.

The first is that even the best CW decoders aren’t very good when the signal being received is weak or when the operator on the other end isn’t sending perfect code. And even when the signal is strong, the character spacing has to be just so, or the decoding program will insert spaces between letters.

The second reason that you want to learn it rather than just use it is that it’s just more fun. If you’re going to use a computer to send and receive code, you might as well skip CW and operate PSK31 or one of the other digital modes. Seriously. For me, one of the real joys of working CW is using and developing the skill.




American Morse Code Chart

For some strange reason, I’ve decided to learn American Morse. One problem with doing this is that  there seems to be only one chart on the Web that shows the dots and dashes for Amercian Morse. This low-resolution scan is small and hard to read.

Yesterday, I decided to start practicing again, but I couldn’t find the printout I’d made of that chart. Since it was hard to read, I decided to make my own chart instead of just printing another copy of the old one.

At right is my chart. Click on the image and you’ll get the full-sized chart. If you want a PDF version, click here.  If you want to make changes to it, e-mail me, and I’ll send you a Mac Pages or Microsoft Word version of the chart.

Happy Morsing!


I’m Going Buggy

Last year at Dayton, I bought a used Vibroplex Original bug for $50. The stainless steel plating wasn’t in the greatest shape, and the silver contacts needed cleaning, but I thought I’d gotten a pretty good deal.

Well, I never could get it to work quite right. I thought it was just that I didn’t know how to adjust it properly. Whatever the reason, it just didn’t work quite right, so while I played around with it from time to time, it mostly just sat on the bench.

About a month and a half ago, I decided to once and for all to figure out what was going on. I played with the adjustments, but again didn’t get good results. I did notice, though, that the contacts were in really bad condition. It looked as though someone had taken a file to them. That’s a real no-no for key contacts.

Fortunately, Vibroplex has a relatively low-cost service for contact replacement. For $40, they’ll send you a complete set of new contacts. There are a couple of caveats, though:

  1. You have to send in two contact posts so that they can replace the contact point on them.
  2. The order form on their website has the wrong address on it.

Both of these issues caused a delay. I first sent the order to the wrong address, and it took a week for the Post Office to return the letter to me. Then, I didn’t understand that I had to send in the posts, so that delayed my order.  The second issue was my fault, but the first is Vibroplex’s fault.

I finally got that all straightened out, and the parts arrived on Wednesday. I put the bug back together yesterday, and now it works like a charm.

The only problem is that the dits are very fast. I’m going to have to experiment with ways to slow that down. Vibroplex makes a thing called the Vari-Speed that does this, but it costs another $35, and I’m not sure I want to spend that much more. In any case, I’ll be practicing with the bug and hope to “get buggy” on the air soon.

Last Saturday on the Radio at KB6NU

I had a busy ham radio Saturday here at KB6NU. It started early Saturday morning as I headed out to the Ann Arbor Mini-Maker Faire. It’s a small, locally-organized version of Make: magazine’s Maker Faires that take place in San Francisco, CA and Austin, TX.

This year’s exhibits included:

  • Learn to Solder
  • DIY Satellites
  • See neural electrical activity
  • Silkscreen what you’re wearing
  • Electric Allis-Chalmers Tractor
  • Marshall Stack Touchscreen Jukebox
  • Hands-on activities from the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum
  • Amateur Radio
  • Sustainable Technology
  • Pedal Power Pavilion
  • Return of the Giant Vortex Cannon
  • Electric Scooters
  • Robots
  • Paper folding and pop-up books

Basically, it’s a bunch of geeks showing off the geeky things they’re working on and demonstrating the geeky things that they like to do.

I organized the amateur radio exhibit, which, like last year, consisted of me getting people to send their names in Morse Code, and Dave, N8SBE, demonstrating the capabilities of his Elecraft K3. Dave’s K3 was really the hit of the show, with its panadapter and digital modes display.


KB6NU trying to get yet another person to send their name in Morse Code at the 2011 Ann Arbor Mini Maker Faire. It was pretty hot in the shed we were in, and right about this time, I was ready for a nap.Photo: Roger Rayle

This being a geeky kind of event, I was quite successful at getting people to send their names in Morse Code. After showing them how to use the touch keyer that I’d brought, a lot of them really got into it. I even managed to amaze a few of them, when after they’d sent their name, I was able to say, “Well, nice to meet you Sally or Joe or whatever name it was they’d sent.”

All in all, there was quite a bit of interest in our display, amongst both kids and adults. We had one girl, for example, who I’m guessing was about 11 or 12, come by several times, looking at everything we had with intense interest. One time, she even dragged her parents along with her.

After all was said and done, I ended up passing out quite a few brochures and handing out quite a few business cards. As far as PR goes, it was a very successful event.

You can see more of Roger Rayle’s photos of the event here.

More Stations Whose Callsigns Spell Words
After the Faire, I went out to dinner with my wife and in-laws, but later that evening, I got back on the radio. I tuned around for the AL QSO Party, and only made about a dozen contacts, but two of them—W4HOD and W4CUE—are stations whose callsigns spell words. Both are club stations, too. My cards are in the mail, and I’m hoping to get their replies soon.


Found this on YouTube today:

This Saturday and Sunday (4/9-4/10) listen for W0S from the steps of the Titanic Museum in Branson, MO. I worked them last year from WA2HOM.

More Ham Videos

Here are a couple of videos whose links were sent to me via the many ham-radio mailing lists that I’m on:

A Ham’s Night Before Christmas. KN4AQ’s version of the Christmas class “Night Before Christmas.” Thanks to John, W8AUV, for sending me this link.

Six year old ham on Letterman

Sorry about the quality of this image, but the video itself isn't all that good.

Six-Year-Old Ham on Letterman. Gary, KN4AQ, who posted this to the PR List says, “I was putting my “Ham’s Night Before Christmas” video up on Ham Radio Tube (www.hamradiotube.com) and I came across this video from the Dave Letterman show back in 1993.” Veronica, KC6TQR, (now 26) responded on YouTube. She says she’s not very active – just talks to her family.”

International Morse Code, Hand Sending. This is a Morse Code training film produced by the Army in 1966. The lessons are still applicable today, even when using a paddle and keyer to send Morse Code. It has a sense of humor, too. Thanks to Don KA9QJG, for posting this to the HamRadioHelpGroup mailing list.

Zen and the Art of Radiotelegraphy

One thing that’s so amusing about Morse Code is that the more people claim that it’s dead, the more people there are that rise up to defend and promote it. Note that I said “defend and promote it,” not actually use it.

Having said that, let me point out my discovery of a new tome on our ancient art, Zen and the Art of Radiotelegraphy by Carlo Consoli, IK0YGJ. This book is available in the original Italian and in an English translation.

Consoli takes a different tack than other authors. Instead of concentrating on the mechanics of learning and using Morse Code, he spends a good deal of time talking about the psychology of learning this skill. To succeed in learning Morse Code, Consoli advises that we need to change our approach to learning:

When learning CW, therefore, we must establish a new component in our self-image and, when doing so, we need to be relaxed. Always practice during the same time of day and in a place where you can experience positive feelings of comfort and pleasure. When we make a mistake we are always ready to blame ourselves. This is the way we learnt from our environment during childhood, often accepting any fault as our own error or weakness.

This potentially destructive mechanism can be used to build a positive self-image, rather than demolish it. A mistake must be considered a signal, pointing us in the right direction. If you fail, let your mistake pass away, with no blame or irritation. Learn CW in a relaxed mood, enjoy the pleasure of learning something new, repeat your exercises every day and be confident in the self-programming abilities of your self-image. Just a few minutes a day: you can take care of your “more serious” stuff later on.

Consoli also has some interesting things to say about getting faster. He agrees with me that it’s essential to abandon pencil and paper and start copying in one’s head. We also agree that at this point, you need to start using a paddle instead of a straight key.

He has analyzed the situation a lot more than I have, though. When asked about how I learned to copy in my head, all I can do is to relate my own experience. One day, I just went cold turkey. I put down the pencil and paper and never copied letter-by-letter ever again.

Consoli, however, says that what operators need to do is to program themselves to copy in their heads. He counsels operators to practice relaxation and visualization exercises. Visualize yourself as a high-speed operator, and maybe one day you will be one.

That seems to have worked for him. He is a member of the Very High Speed Club (VHSC), First Class Operator’s Club (FOC), and has been clocked at copying over 70 wpm.

Will it work for you? Well, if you haven’t been as successful as you’d like with other methods to improve your code speed, then Consoli’s methods are certainly worth a try.

Random Links

Here are some more links to websites that ham radio ops will find amusing and/or useful:

  • Climbing a really tall tower. Ever wonder what it’s like to climb a tower nearly 1,800 feet tall? Watch this video.
  • Software for people who build things. Although some of the software on this site is fairly old, it also has an amazingly huge collection of hints and kinks on a wide variety of topics. For example, there is a great tip on how to estimate a tap or drill size.
  • Social networking for hams. Although most hams seem to be anti-social, not all of us are. This is a website for those that aren’t.
  • QRQ CW Info, Ops, and Tips. More social networking, but for hams that like to work CW at high speeds. Most of these guys go a lot faster than I can, but I’m hoping to learn something from them.

CW or Voice During an Emergency?

On the ARRL PR Mailing List, someone wrote that he had been approached by a relatively new ham and was asked, “What percentage of hams do you think use CW on a regular basis?” The reason that the new ham asked this question was that he wondered if more people would be monitoring phone frequencies or CW frequencies during an emergency. That is to say, would he “have a better shot of getting in touch with someone on CW or phone”?

Here was my reply:

I am going to hazard a guess and say that less than 10% of licensed amateur radio operators are regular CW users. Having said that, a couple of thoughts occur to me:

  1. The type of emergency will dictate where one should be listening and/or transmitting. For example, here in the summer, we sometimes have tornado watches. For the most up-to-date information on this situation, I listen to the local SkyWarn net, which takes place on one of the 2m repeaters. It’s all voice communication.
  2. On the other hand, if I’m out on a boat in the middle of the ocean with no satellite phone, I’d want to be able to send out a CW signal. The CW signal will get out farther, and if you can’t be heard, it doesn’t matter how many people are listening. There are enough hams monitoring the HF CW bands that you should be heard.
  3. If you can operate both voice and CW, you’ll have more chance of getting in touch with someone than if you can only operate one of those modes.

Any other thoughts?