Give Morse Code a Try! – by James K. Boomer W9UJ
Amateur Radio: Many Facets, Much Enjoyment–Amateur Radio is blessed with a multitude of exciting facets and operating modes, not to mention building stuff and messing around with antennas. That’s what makes it such a neat hobby! Regarding operating modes, some hams like SSB , others like the satellite modes, while still others prefer television or the new exciting digital modes. Then, there are those of us who also like Morse code, or CW, as it is called, in addition to the many other modes of operation.
Remember When Your Parents Said Try it, You’ll Like It?–One thing I’ve learned in life is that you never know if you’re going to like many things until you try them remember when you were a tiny child and your mom or dad made you eat food you thought you didn’t like. And remember that many times you were surprised to find out that you liked that food item!
I Hated Morse Code!–My association with CW is analogous to the food example. That is, when I found out that I had to learn Morse code to become a ham, I was really disappointed! My thought process was, After all, I’m going to get on radiotelephone right away and will never use CW! But, I decided that learning Morse code was a reasonable entry fee to the exciting Radio Amateur community!
Lack of Money Talks!–Well, I got my license at age 15 in 1947, back in the build-it-yourself days and didn’t have enough money to build a radiotelephone transmitter. It was in the AM days and modulation transformers and the like were beyond my pocketbook. So, I reasoned that getting on CW at first and then quickly getting on AM radio telephone as soon as possible, after I had saved enough money for the modulator parts, was the best strategy. This was the beginning of a sweet addiction! Read on!
What is This CW Thrill and This CW Music??–I’ll never forget the thrill of hearing the first station that I contacted sending my call in Morse code! Then, I started hearing stations sending much faster than I could receive. And, surprisingly, a good keying transmitter sending Morse code began to sound like music to me. The sound of the keying was crisp and the Morse code had a truly musical quality to it. Also, everyone sent differently! Some sent very fast and erratic; others sent very slow and others sent just the right speed for me to copy.
The Receiving Speed Plateaus— The faster sending stations fascinated me and encouraged me to increase my code speed. So I started listening to W1AW code practice and found it invaluable. Also, I had a code practice oscillator, would have the practice text in front of me and attempt to send along with W1AW’s perfect code to increase my sending proficiency. I found that increasing my code speed went in plateaus. That is, I would reach a certain speed and not be able to copy above that speed for a few nights. Then, all of a sudden, I found myself copying 5 words per minute faster than my previous peak speed! The trick, I found, was to copy behind the sending station. The higher the speed, the farther you copy behind, I found! Also, I found that as I increased my receiving speed, I could just listen to the code and recognize whole words! The higher the code speed, the more recognizable the words were (up to the highest speed I could copy, of course!) Wow! Now, I could sit and listen to sending stations without having to write down everything!
The Critical Decision: Radiotelephone or Higher Speed CW Sending?–Soon, I found that I could receive faster than I could send on a straight key. Hooray! I could now talk to many other stations without having to ask them to slow down! But, I couldn’t send as fast on my straight key as they could with their speed keys. By this time, I had saved enough money for an AM modulator for my transmitter. But with slightly fewer dollars, I could buy a Bug speed key!
What a dilemma! What to Do? Well, I agonized and agonized and finally bought a Bug, because I had now tried CW and had begun to really like it! What a challenge and fun that was, learning to send on a Bug! It made automatic dots and all you had to do is make the dashes! But, now it was time to go back to W1AW! I had to learn how to send decent Morse code before I put that thing on the air! And so it was! I soon learned to send faster and faster and strived to send perfect Morse Code just like W1AW did but, of course, I never achieved this degree of perfection.
The Challenge and Fun of Learning New Skills, Increasing Your Proficiency–and The New Music!–Learning to send and receive Morse Code is a lot like learning any other skill, such as athletics or playing a musical instrument. You start out pretty shaky but if you stick with it, you begin to gain some proficiency, which encourages you to practice harder to further increase your proficiency. In engineering we call this a positive feedback loop. Once you have learned to recognize the letters and numbers by ear, you basically know Morse code at 5 words per minute! Then, it’s just practice, practice, practice. Recognize, too, that, like any other skill, some people are more adept at Morse code and attain higher speeds than others. It’s like golf, baseball or any other skill some are better at it than others, but it’s fun to play the game the best you can anyway!
The longer you operate CW, the more a good keying transmitter sending CW at any speed sounds like good music. CW operators develop a critical ear for perfect transmitter keying and strive to have perfect keying transmitters themselves, so they can generate that good music. ! Interestingly, I have also found that many of the best CW operators are also music fans and/or musicians. So, if you like music or are a musician, and haven’t tried CW, you might be surprised to find out that you really like it.
Now, You Can Really Crank Up the Speed!–Talk about speed, fun and challenge! Electronic keyers that make automatic dots and dashes are now readily available at modest cost. And many modern Amateur Radios have built-in keyers. With one of the many varieties of paddles you can send very fast CW.
CW keyboards open up a whole new frontier of fun with Morse code! Software that generates Morse code characters at the touch of your computer keyboard, is available to load into your computer. You can buy affordable CW keyboard systems that consist of a keyboard assembly and a little electronic unit that generates the code. Now, with these gadgets, you can send perfect code and at speeds beyond your imagination! And, look out! Believe it or not, there are people out there who can send and receive 80 words per minute! Sending fast code on a keyboard is also a great challenge, in addition to receiving very fast code. Don’t worry if you are not a typist. There are many hunt and peck and two-finger keyboard operators punching out fast CW. Also, a CW keyboard is a wonderful way to learn to type, in case you don’t already know how. Finally, a CW keyboard doesn’t ruin your Bug sending (fist); on the contrary it helps you be a better Bug sender because, unlike electronic keyers, it is a different concept than using the bug and it generates perfect code which you have fresh in your mind when you are sending on a Bug.
Morse Code Might Save Your Life Someday!–Besides being a fun operating mode, CW gives you some very useful skills that may save your life someday! There have been cases where people were buried in the rubble of a collapsed building and one trapped person who knew the Morse code, found a pipe on which to tap out emergency code messages that enabled emergency crews to rescue them.
Another interesting fact that may not be well known is that military aircrews carry small survival radio sets. With these little hand held radios the downed aircrew members can set a switch to make the radio emit a very distinctive siren-sounding rescue signal. Also, the downed aircrew members can talk over these radios (AM). However, importantly, downed aircrew members can also send Morse code by pressing a little tone button. And the Morse code is printed on a little decal on the radio! As noted earlier, the siren-sounding signal is very distinctive. So, if downed aircrew members sense that they are in a dangerous situation where the enemy can monitor the radio, home in and attack them, they can send brief Morse code messages that limit on-the-air time and thus decrease the probability of an enemy homing in and finding them. Also, if the downed aircrew members suffer injuries that prevent them from talking and they are in a dangerous situation, again, they can send Morse code messages that enable air rescue crews to rescue them.
Thank You! Thank You! Thank You–If Morse code had not been a requirement for an Amateur license, I would not have had the many hours of enjoyment that I have had and continue to have with CW. I often think of that it makes me say Thank you, ARRL and thank you, FCC!
Please Try it, you Might Like it as Much as I do (I hope)!–So, why not give Morse Code a try? It’s really fun and increasing your proficiency gives you a great deal of satisfaction. It sounds like good music and it grows on you!