CW: Learning Morse Code

When I became active as a radio amateur in the early 1980s, the “No Code License” debate was already in full swing. There were strong opinions on both sides of the issue. I remember many a hot debate at our local amatuer radio club centered on whether or not removing the Morse requirement would destroy the hobby, turning it into a glorified version of the Citizens Band radio that had become popular in the wake of the “Smokey and the Bandit” movie. That’s a debate that still rages today in some quarters. But almost everyone agrees that Morse Code is still a foundation of our beloved hobby.

Data transfer over the amateur bands has evolved to include a dozen different digital modes with more being envisioned every day. These spectrum efficient digital voice and computer based communication applications were still on the drawing board when we fired up our first Commodore 64 boxes to decode RTTY in 1983.

But Morse Code still has its allure. The romance associated with the simple binary injection of electromotive energy into an antenna conjures up the days when ship to shore communications required a code key and no small amount of skill. Some of us even revive the telegraphic language of the railroads, where manifests and timetables danced across long stretches of copper wire, alerting stations down the line of the contents of the box cars and Pullmans that were pulled across the continent behind steam locomotives.

Continuous Wave (CW) communications is amateur radio in its most fundamental form. CW makes it possible to contact the other side of the world with a few watts and a wire. It’s still the domain where a good ear can pull a QRP conversation out of a kilowatt pile-up.

And let’s face it, once you get the hang of it, CW is fun. You find yourself subconsciously tapping out the contents of billboards when you’re driving. You equate some of the rhythms of your favorite musical genre with Morse letters. And the challenge of comprehending full sentences of dots and dashes in your head exercises the body’s most important muscle as few other methods can.

So how do you approach learning this special language from scratch? And how do you take a rudimentary knowledge and turn it into contest calibre fluency?

Here’s a video from Aaron Parks with some suggestions.

Different people learn in different ways. And if you’re not an auditory learner, it may be a bit harder to grasp the meaning of any new language, Morse Code included. But whatever your preferred learning style, it’s possible to gain enough fluency to converse and compete.

Like Aaron, I gave up on improving my Morse proficiency on several occasions, mostly because there were not many hams in my circle who were excited sharing their enthusiasm for CW with others. When I decided to get serious about it, I chose the Koch Method and grabbed an app for my smart phone so I could practice whenever it was convenient. Dave Finley, N1IRZ wrote a great piece on learning Morse that centers on the benefits of the Koch Method.

Once you start to gain confidence, there are a couple of great Windows apps that can help boost your proficiency.

RufzXP is a nifty little Windows program that spits out nothing but ham IDs. In fact, it takes it’s name from the abbreviation of the German word “Rufzeichen-Hören”, which means “Listening to Callsigns”. It speeds up or slows down based on your growing, or in my case, declining competence.

Morse Runner teaches the skill that is at the heart of Radiosport, CW contesting. It’s a simulator that fires QSOs at you as fast as you can accurately copy them.

Check these out, and do a little Internet exploration of your own to find the tools that best fit your learning style.

And, once you have the basics down, nothing beats hooking up the code key and operating. Hams are, by and large, helpful to newbies and will slow down their speed to match your comfort level. Try contesting, too. If you’re not quite comfortable with your own abilities, hang with a club and look over another operator’s shoulder. Nothing beats modeling good behavior, so seek out the best.

Like any language, the best way to integrate it into your life is to use it often. Once you integrate CW into your amateur radio lexicon, you may discover that it will become one of your favorite modus operandi.