Most people recognize Morse code even if they cannot decipher the sounds. It’s one of those things that we hear in old movies and TV shows and occasionally in radio or TV ads. As a ham you may hear it on local repeaters and HF voice for identification.
Continuous Wave (CW), where the signal is modulated by Morse code, is the original amateur radio mode, and has a long history with hams. Old telegraph codes exist but in ham radio when we say Morse code we mean International Morse code.
For decades Morse code proficiency was a requirement for amateur radio licensing in most countries with speed increasing proportional to license class/privilege. Morse code requirements for all license classes ended in the USA in 2007 (Technician dropped in 1991), opening doors to many hams who were otherwise interested in getting licensed but found Morse to be a real obstacle. This followed an ITU agreement in 2003 that Morse Code testing of radio amateurs would no longer be an international requirement.
Does this mean Morse code is dead? Hardly! While the number of CW (Morse) operators is fewer in number now than 50 years ago, there are still thousands of active hams whose primary (or even only) mode is CW. Why? Besides being fun and challenging, CW has some real advantages:
- Because nearly all the transmitter power goes into a narrow (~100Hz) signal, practically all signal power is useful, as opposed to phone (voice) modes.
Sometimes when SSB voice signals are inaudible due to poor skywave propagation, CW signals punch right through. In fact, many rare stations (DX) primarily use CW mode to reach more hams eager to work an odd location. A CW signal can have more than a 10-20 dB advantage over a SSB signal.
- The signal to noise ratio (SNR) is much better, making communication much more effective.
- Adjacent noise or signals (QRM) can be filtered much easier in the receiver with a narrow CW signal.
- Due to CW’s efficiency, lower power radios work well, and can run longer off-grid.
- CW-only radios are small, simple, and cheap, with more bang for the buck.
- Finally, a few hams prefer not to use their voice, and CW (along with digital modes) frees them up from being disabled or mic shy.
In addition to these general advantages, CW mode is the only high frequency (HF) mode that USA Technician class licensees can operate below 28MHz. So Techs can actually make contacts using Morse on 80, 40, and 15m, outside their typical local repeater range.
Perhaps Morse is intimidating to you as a prospective ham or Technician class licensee who wants to communicate beyond the local area. Even though we no longer need to know Morse to get a license, the reasons above should give you some incentive to learn it. Besides, it’s really not as tough as it might seem. And even though some hams blaze away above 25 words per minute (wpm), you can almost always send/receive slower at a more comfortable beginner’s pace and work through your mistakes.
While Morse may seem like a second language to most people, it is actually much simpler and easier to master than a new tongue with all its complexities. You need know only 26 alphabet symbols, 10 numbers, and several punctuation marks and common shortcuts to be proficient.
So how does one go about learning Morse code and using it? The Boy Scouts had a merit badge for Morse and the military may still teach you but these are less common nowadays. Don’t despair; there are many resources for learning Morse, some linked below. Here are four suggested steps:
- Learn to receive Morse code- the important beginning stage to become familiar with letters, numbers, and punctuation. Just learn it; you don’t have to be fast.
- Learn to send Morse code- it is important to have a good “fist” for others to copy at any speed; this involves timing, practice and good habits.
- Learn CW/Morse ham radio procedures- know what certain prosigns mean and how hams perform an exchange or QSO.
- Practice off-air with a CW Elmer or experienced friend
Then you’re ready to try for real over the radio!
You have many resources available to learn Morse and CW protocol: stand-alone PC apps, online apps, and some clubs or organizations geared towards not only learning Morse but also training for real contacts. Links to some below and more links within links.
One thing many of these training tools have in common is the Koch method and Farnsworth timing, which is considered an improvement over rote learning with gradual speed increases. Most people have a natural limit to their ability to copy or send above a certain rate (wpm). No matter; you can still enjoy CW at almost any speed.
Of the links below to various Morse resources, the last one is truly useful and interesting and worth checking out: All About the Telegraph and Deciphering Morse Code. Thanks to Noah Bass for suggesting this excellent resource. He found it while working on his Boy Scouts radio merit badge.
Perhaps you’re interested in learning Morse in CW mode but find the protocols intimidating? There are groups of hams to train and encourage good CW practice, such as CWops and LI CW club. One that the author likes is the Straight Key Century Club (SKCC), which promotes non-electronic Morse sending using purely mechanical keys (not computerized or electronically aided). By definition it’s mostly slow-paced, as not many folks can send more than 20wpm using a straight telegraph key. It’s free and members mainly do simple exchanges to gain low-stress experience. They are a generally supportive and helpful bunch who tolerate newbies and coach them along.
By the way, when describing Morse code, hams don’t use the terms dots and dashes, even though it may look like that on paper. We say dits and dahs, which aligns more with how it sounds, as opposed to how it looks.
Useful web links
The Endurance of CW in Amateur Radio
Morse code is still worth learning – but why?
Become a Morse Code Expert– The Art of Manliness
Just Learn Morse Code -PC app which author likes
CWops CW Academy– highly regarded way to learn both Morse and procedures
Learn Morse Code-CW with the Long Island CW Club, another highly-regarded resource
Learning Morse Code – ARRL
American Morse Code -Somewhat different from international (modern), because of telegraph sound
All About the Telegraph and Deciphering Morse Code. Thanks to Noah Bass for suggesting this excellent resource. He found it while working on his Boy Scouts radio merit badge.