Morse Code the Slow Way

Published Monday, September 12 2011

I’ve been doing this ham radio thing for just over a year now. Even though I don’t talk very much, I still really enjoy listening and occasionally making long-distance (DX) contacts. One area of study I’ve been dragging my feet on for ages is learning Morse code. If you’re not into ham radio, you may assume that Morse code died out with the telegraph, but the amateur radio bands are still alive with Morse code. Up until 2007, knowing “the code” was still an FCC requirement to obtain the highest level ham license, and before 1990 it was required of every license holder, regardless of level. Those of us who got our ham radio licenses after 2007 never had to experience the sweaty palms of an FCC Morse code exam!

In ham circles you’ll often see Morse code shortened to CW, “Continuous Wave”. If you want to get technical, of course, CW refers to the mode by which Morse code is sent, and not to Morse code itself. Nevertheless, the terms are often interchangeable in casual speech. CW is still a popular way to communicate in amateur radio for a couple of very good reasons. First, as I mentioned, for the first 86 years of amateur radio it was the lingua franca of radio communication and the majority of hams world-wide know it. And second, it cuts through the noise and static much better than voice modes do, so it’s one of the best ways to communicate long distances with low power on noisy bands. If you want to beat it, you’ll need a computer and a digital radio mode like JT65 or PSK31. For CW, all you need is the radio, your brain and a key.

My personal journey to learning Morse code has been a bit rocky. I started out last year with the very best of intentions: I wanted to be able to operate CW in the ARRL Field Day contest this past June. Of course, that was a bit ambitious. By the time Field Day had come and gone I was still woefully unprepared. But I’ve soldiered on. One thing that has really helped is the so called the Farnsworth method. Morse code is very aural, in fact it’s a terrible idea to think of it visually as dots and dashes. You really need to hear the sound of the “dits and dahs” that make up each character, and you need to hear them at the appropriate speed. Since 20 words per minute (WPM) is the de-facto standard for casual conversation over CW, that’s the speed that you want to study the sound of the letters. With the Farnsworth method, a long space is left between each 20 WPM character, so instead of the way it would normally be sent,

“di-dah . dah-di-di-dit . dah-di-dah-dit . dah-di-dit”

You practice by listening to a much slower version that still lets you hear the characters the way they’re meant to sound,

“di-dah . . . . . . . dah-di-di-dit . . . . . . . dah-di-dah-dit . . . . . . dah-di-dit”

I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I usually pick things up pretty quickly. I’m a fast learner. Learning CW, on the other hand, has humbled me. Even with all the amazing software and tools we have available now to help study, the best I can do is to improve just ever so painfully and incrementally every time I practice. I’ve been doing this for almost six months now, and I’m still a clumsy neophyte who makes a ton of mistakes.

Really, I cannot imagine doing this years ago, when all you had were tapes and records to study with, and when you had to learn to copy at 5 WPM before you could even get the most basic license. What a huge barrier to entry it must have been!

But there is good news. This past week I’ve felt a sort of breakthrough. Finally, after all this time, I’ve gotten to the point where there are no characters that really make me stumble - I know them all, albeit slowly. I feel pretty confident that if I had to take a 5 WPM morse test right now, I could pass it. With a bit of luck, that means that I can finally start cranking up the speed and moving from 5 WPM to 7 WPM to 13 WPM and eventually 20 WPM much faster than it’s taken me to get to where I am today.

It’s been an interesting journey. I’m nervous as hell to get on the air and make my first CW contact, but I think I’ll be ready pretty soon. Onward and upward, as they say!