Learning the Morse Code – Tools and Techniques

 

Special Note: Amateur radio licenses issued by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) no longer require a code test for any class of license. 

These notes are presented here to assist persons wishing to learn the code for their own enjoyment. Also, many of the attractions of amateur radio are enhanced by the ability to operate using Morse code. Indeed, many hams in rare foreign countries operate only using Morse code, and some exotic operating modes, such as moon-bounce communications, are much easier using Morse code as opposed to voice transmission.

Why Morse Code?

The Morse code was developed in the early 1800’s in conjunction with the first land-line telegraph systems, as a means of sending messages via electrical impulses over long distances. The Morse Code is named after it’s inventor, a gentleman by the name of Samuel F. B. Morse (Samuel Finley Breese Morse). The telegraphic code he invented was known as “American Morse”. A modified version of that code is in use today by ham radio operators world-wide. This version is commonly known as “International Morse” (or sometimes, as “Continental Morse”).  As far as amateur radio is concerned. it is known simply as Morse Code.  This is often abbreviated even further to CW (meaning Continuous Wave)

Time for a bit of radio theory – and we promise this won’t hurt a bit! 

Why is it known as CW?   Early radio experiments used signals generated by electrical sparks jumping across a small gap between two specially shaped metal electrodes.  The radio frequency energy generated in the manner was not a smooth oscillation, but rather a series of wave-trains that started out at high amplitude and diminished quickly to lesser values, only to be refreshed the next time the arc “struck”, or re-ignited. 

An analogy:  Think of such oscillations as being like hitting a bell with a hammer, it rings loudly at first, then the volume diminishes over time until it essentially dies out. In the case of the bell, energy is removed from the system by the sound waves moving away from the bell, each subsequent wave front having less energy than the previous one.  The waves produced are called “damped” waves, because of the reducing energy with time.  

Out with mechanics, in with electronics:  Radio signals are similar, except that instead of audible sounds, the energy is emitted as radio waves that can be received at a distance using a device known as a “receiver”.  Instead of a physical bell, the “electronic” version of the bell, in this case, is the antenna.  And instead of the hammer, the “striking force” is provided by the spark jumping the gap between two electrodes. 

The radio signals produced by a spark gap “strike” tens or even hundreds of times each second, as long as the sending key is closed. The wave-trains stop when the sending key is released.  The characteristic sound from a receiver hearing such signals is a BZZT!  BZZT!  BZZZZZZZZT!    (short and long sounds, sounding something like bursts of static noise) which as you can easily see, could be used to form the “dits” and “dahs” of the Morse code. 

This produced a signal having a buzzing characteristic, which because of certain technical reasons occupied a very wide electromagnetic spectrum – think of this as occupying several spots on a radio dial all at the same time.  Such a signal was very good for the early radio experiments, as “tuning”, or optimizing a signal either for transmitting or receiving was essentially an unknown technique. Such a signal was also easy to hear using the extremely primitive receivers of the day.   Unfortunately, such a signal was wasteful of the available energy, and was prone to causing interference to many stations at once.  

If a signal could be confined to a single radio frequency, or at least a very narrow range of frequencies, the effectiveness of radio transmissions could be multiplied by many orders of magnitude. 

Enter the vacuum tube.  

When vacuum tubes appeared around 1900 (plus or minus a few years), they were at first used only as radio signal detectors or amplifiers.  However, somewhere around 1913 to 1915 a gentleman by the name of Edwin Armstrong figured out how to make a vacuum tube “oscillate”, or generate radio waves without the need for a sparking gap.   The radio signals it produced were very different that those produced by spark-gap transmitters.  These tube-generated signals concentrated all their energy on one single radio frequency, and two amazing results followed:  First, the signals were very narrow in occupied bandwidth, allowing hundreds or thousands of signals to use the radio spectrum at the same time  without interfering with one another, and second, because the available power was all concentrated at one spot on the dial, a low powered signal from a vacuum tube oscillator that contained only a watt or two of  power could be equally as effective as a spark-gap transmitter using hundreds or even thousands of watts.  

The signals these vacuum tube oscillators produced were known as Continuous Wave (CW) signals, because the signals did not decrease sharply in amplitude with each subsequent oscillation like the spark signals did.   All modern Morse code transmissions make use of CW signals, and in fact, old fashioned spark transmissions are now illegal for any sort of radio communications. 

By the way, this same Edwin Armstrong also invented the basic radio receiver used for virtually all over the air communications today, be it radio, television, AM or FM broadcasting, cellular telephones, police radios, amateur radio sets, and so on.   Known as the “superheterodyne” circuit, it is virtually universal in modern communications.  

Vacuum tubes themselves are mostly considered as obsolete technology today, and most of their functions have been replaced by transistors, integrated circuits, or other solid-state devices, which are of course smaller and more efficient, often much less costly, more reliable, and perhaps most important, offer better performance across the entire range of applications found in electronic devices.  Amateur radio operators still make use of some tubes, almost exclusively in transmitters, but even that is diminishing.   

We now return you to our regularly scheduled web-page:  

In the beginning days of radio, no one understood the engineering requirements necessary to construct equipment capable of sending and receiving signals using voice, so Morse code was the only means available. Morse code remains the simplest and most efficient way known to send messages via radio. It is easier to construct a Morse code transmitter and receiver than any other communications apparatus, and messages can be sent with less transmitter power than by any other method (except for ultra-complicated “spread spectrum” systems, which are expensive, difficult to construct, and beyond the reach of the average experimenter). Also, Morse code signals will generally penetrate interference, both natural and man-made, better than most of the more complex schemes.

It is entirely possible to construct a working Amateur Radio set for only a few tens of dollars, including antenna and accessories, and (using Morse code) use it to contact stations hundreds or even thousands of miles away. In fact, an entire group of Amateur Radio enthusiasts specialize in building and using very simple, low powered stations (known as QRP, in ham radio parlance). There are thousands of QRP enthusiasts around the world.

When it comes to communicating with hams in other countries, Morse code is by far the most effective way to catch that exclusive and elusive “rare DX” operator (DX means “long distance” in ham radio parlance). Several hams in Alaska have worked (communicated with) at least one ham operator in every possible country on Earth, with most if not all of the contacts made using CW (Morse code) transmissions. In many cases, the rare station uses only Morse code, and there is no alternative if you wish to contact them.

Because Morse code equipment is so easy to construct and operate, and because it has the capability to get messages through when other modes fail, and because it is a universal language understood by many operators around the world, the various organizations that oversee Amateur radio have recommended that Morse code skills should be a continuing part of the Amateur radio experience.

Learning the Morse code:

Learning the Morse Code is simple, easy, and fun. There are a few things to beware of (mistakes that can slow your learning) and several hints that can speed the process.

What not to do:

Perhaps the most important things to remember when starting out to learn the Morse code are the ones that can hinder the learning process:

The biggest mistake people make is to obtain a printed copy of the Morse code, which usually consists of a chart showing all the characters (letters, numerals, and punctuation marks) with the equivalent code symbol appearing as “dots” and “dashes” alongside each character, and then attempting to learn the code by using a test tone generator and a hand key, sending each character in turn. People who start out this way invariably have trouble copying the code properly! The reason is simple: If you learn the code by looking at dots and dashes, then, when you hear a character, your mind has to make a double conversion – first to translate the sound into equivalent dots and dashes as printed, then again to translate the printed character into the actual letter or numeral they represent. It may not seem that way to you, but that’s what happens, and it can take months or even years to “unlearn” this bad habit.

Morse code is a language of sound, not print. Morse code does not consist of “dots” and “dashes” – it consists of combinations of short and long sounds known as “dits” and “dahs”. The best way to learn the code is by listening to practice tapes (or CD’s), or by using a computer to generate the code characters, or by listening to someone else sending, either over the air or in an in-person session. Learn the characters by sound alone. Don’t worry if you have trouble at first. After a few practice sessions you will see that you can understand each character as it is sent (some will come to you more easily than others). Over a few days or at most 2 or 3 weeks, your skills will automatically expand to encompass this new technique. Yes, you will be slow at first. Don’t worry about it – all the rest of us were too! Like anything else, smoothness, speed, and accuracy come with practice – just like learning a new sport or solving grade school arithmetic, or becoming comfortable and confident in a new job.

Don’t try too hard! When learning the code, limit the time you practice to no more than 15 or 20 minutes per session. Experience has shown that people simply stop learning after this time, and all they are doing is going through the motions, without accomplishing anything. When your time is up, go and do something else for a while – read a book, watch TV, go outside and exercise, run an errand, whatever you like. You can come back to the code later, when a couple of hours (or more) have passed.

How to learn the code:

If there is any cardinal rule about learning the code, it would be to practice each and every day! Also, it is possible to try too hard! (see the note about limiting practice times, above) Even if you can only practice for a minute or two, and even if you are away from your practice equipment, practice every day, without fail. Of course, the ideal is to try to get at least 15 or 20 minutes of learning each day, but even 2 or 3 minutes is much better than none. Failing to practice every day will put your learning process back at least 2 days for every day you miss, perhaps even more! If you are away from your tape recorder, computer, or whatever else you use to learn the code, you can accomplish useful practice by sounding out letters (out loud or in your head). If you are riding in a car, and see a STOP sign, sound out the characters: dit-dit-dit (space) dah (space) dah-dah-dah (space) dit-dah-dah-dit. You can do this in any number of ways, in any number of situations. If someone overhears you and looks at you strangely, simply tell them what you are doing, and more often than not, they will be interested enough to ask you questions about ham radio. Who knows, they might decide to get their own license

When listening to the code, the best learning technique for most people turns out to be one where the individual letters are sent at a relatively fast speed, but the spaces between the letters are stretched out to allow the student (that’s you) a moment to come up with the character the sound represents. The overall code speed (words per minute) is much slower than the sent character speed. This is known as the “Farnsworth” method” (after the gentleman who popularized the idea) and is almost universally in use today.

When copying the code on paper, block printing is usually easier than long-hand writing, for most people. Professional Morse Code operators use a typewriter! Don’t try to separate individual words at first, just concentrate on getting each letter. If you miss a letter, don’t panic – there’s a lot more where that one came from. This is practice, not life or death. If you miss a letter, try putting in a mark of some sort (so you know how many you missed). Then more often than not, you can go back later and fill in the missing character(s) from context.

For example, suppose you copied the following partial words:    ra_io    fre_uen_y    si_nal. Could go back later, look at that for a couple of minutes, fill in a few letters, and come up with: radio frequency signal? In any event, if you miss a letter (or even two or three) don’t panic and waste time on the ones you miss. Move forward, copying those you do know, and eventually the blanks will start to disappear.

Code training resources:

On-line code practice:   The following web site offers free code training resources, everything from simply learning the individual characters to practice using simulated messages or on-air contacts.  The site even offers “apps” that work with modern devices such as iPhones and the like.   Click on the link below for more information. 

http://aa9pw.com/morsecode/

The ARRL (American Radio Relay League) also has a wealth of information concerning Morse code, including links to projects such as building our own code practice set, and additional links to free on-line code practice sites and other Morse Code information, found at the left side of the page.  You can search these pages for information that may be of interest, and we encourage you to do just that. 

To get you started, we have pre-selected some of the more useful ones.    Here are a few: 

General Morse code tips and guides:  http://www.arrl.org/learning-morse-code

Code practice audio files from ARRL Headquarters station W1AW:   http://www.arrl.org/Code-Practice-Files

A simple code practice set you can build:  http://tinyurl.com/lxqjpov

MFJ Code tutor: The MFJ corporation (started by a couple of hams in Mississippi) offers a clever device called the “Morse Code Tutor”. This gadget is a small box that has been set up to send code, in several formats. It can teach individual characters, simulate contacts between stations, or simply send random groups of characters. It can operate in either standard or Farnsworth modes, and will generate code at speeds between 3 and 60 WPM. You can get more information about this unit by calling MFJ direct, at: (662) 323-5869, or on the web at: www.mfjenterprises.com

Click here for information about the MFJ Morse Code Tutor:  http://tinyurl.com/lb3mebw 

On the air code practice: On the air code practice is available from the ARRL Headquarters station W1AW in Newington, CT, several times each day. Check the ARRL web site for times and transmission frequencies. The best choice of frequencies to use is usually on the 20-meter band, at 14.047.5 MHz. You can also try 7.0475, in the 40-meter band, and /or 18.0975 MHz, in the 17-meter band. Best times of day are 4 PM and 7 PM, Alaska time. The ARRL code practice changes speeds every 10 minutes or so, and goes either from fast (35 WPM) to slow (5 WPM) or, from slow to fast, depending on the day.

A complete schedule for the W1AW code practice sessions, including all operating frequencies and times, can be found at the following link:

http://www.arrl.org/code-transmissions

The text for each session is taken from the pages of QST magazine (published by the ARRL) and is unique for each segment of each session, for the entire year (in other words, it does not repeat what it has sent previously for at least a year).

How long does it take to learn the code?

Most people who start out learning the code from “scratch” can master the code in 2 to 4 weeks, assuming they practice daily, as we recommend. Some people, who for one reason or another either have a bit of extra difficulty or fail to keep up their daily practice, seem to take a bit longer. 

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