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.





  1. Dan,

    Agree with you 100%. There’s more to the Code than just “using it”. In my case, there’s a joy that comes from mastering a task that once befuddled me. My lack of dedication as a teenager led me to become licensed years later in my early 20s instead of my teens. The joy I have received since then made A) learning the code and B) getting my speed to a respectable neighborhood well worth the journey.

    In the same vein, I guess that’s why we kitbuilders and homebrewers also get a kick out of building things. Seeing something either designed or built with your own mind and hands gives a considerable amount of satisfaction different than just buying something and putting it on the air. To borrow a line from Seinfeld – “Not that there’s anything wrong with that”. But making that QSO with a kit you just finished building or a radio or accessory that you cobbled together out of the junk box is a supreme “high”.

    72 de Larry W2LJ

  2. Elwood Downey says:

    “… I expected you were a CW pro”. It almost sounds like the writer expected you to /already/ be a CW pro, and is thus surprised you are just now learning it. If so, I bet he misses the distinction that you are now learning American morse, as opposed to International morse.

  3. Bill,NA8M says:

    I come at the problem a little differently with a little different experience. I use a memory keyer to send my call sign, signal report, or exchange in a contest. I use a code reading program on my computer to translate the code. I’ve been doing it for a while and I get rather handy at it and I’ll admit I hear enough of the DX’s transmission to know a little of what he is sending. I DX on phone and CW.

    The DXer’s solution to the problem mostly involves timing and getting the split just right. After you hear your own call sign a few dozen times it’s a note at any speed you hear and know. And with DX spotting I don’t have to get the call sign just right as I can use the reader and my meager CW skills to get the details. There are few rag chews with the DX in my world of chasing wallpaper.

    Having said all the above I’m having tremendous fun learning to rag chew on CW. Our local radio club sponsors a ten meter CW net a night a week. It is tremendous fun to really work through a rag chew type QSO with a patient friend. But I don’t count on just my CW ability for that new one. No way.

    Bill, NA8M

  4. Perfect. I couldn’t have put it better myself.

  5. the first two reasons are spot on. If you are not cognitively involved in using Morse anymore than typing at a keyboard and reading a screen you are going to quickly grow tired of it. When you actually learn the code and start getting above 10 WPM you are going to feel a great deal of satisfaction. And guess what? Once you learn it you will never forget it.

    Third reason: if you don’t know the code how are you going to help anyone else learn it? That is part of the ham radio tradition, elmering others. In fact, I’d highly suggest that new learners of Morse team up with one or more ops who can help them learn the code as well as the procedures, abbreviations and prosigns that go along with it.


  6. I think I started this thread with my initial comment to kb6nu, in which I ignorantly equated International Morse Code with American Morse. Sorry, I’m a newbie.

    I have lots of things I’d like to do on my “bucket list.” One of them would be to learn and be able to send and receive, intellligently and with relatively good speed an accuracy, International Morse code. Would be good discipline for my mind, and no doubt give me a better appreciation of the traditions of amateur radio.

    I’d probably like to code Photoshop, Microsoft Word, Dreamweaver, and other programs I “use” frequently to get things done with my own limited input. However, whether it’s Adobe making photoshop or dreamweaver, or microsoft doing word or excel, Apple doing my operating system, or someone making CW to text (or vice versa) devices,I have no qualms using the latest technology, and I appreciate using that technology with as little input as I can. In fact, I use technology quite well. I stimulate my mind and creativity in other ways. I suppose I could be a traditionalist (or Luddite) and re-learn Basic or some other programming language, but why bother when so much better technology is available?

    M Shlafer, K8AAM

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