CW Tips


The Thrill of Morse Code
By Dale Holloway, K4EQ

When I finished a PowerPoint presentation for a local radio club meeting about the fun of operating Morse code on the ham bands, I thought it might make a good article for my website, so I wrote it up and posted it here. If you are an experienced CW operator, you probably won’t read anything new, nor will you necessarily agree with all the tips give. I’d love to hear from you if you think I missed the mark somewhere. With your permission, I may even incorporate your suggestions into the article. Enjoy!

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What do you think of when you hear the word code? I don’t necessarily mean Morse code, just the word code. Three words come to my mind: symbols, system, and secrecy. In a code, there is a system of symbols that is designed to keep the meaning of those symbols a secret from others. If you don’t know the code, you can’t decode the message.

I discovered the Morse Code when I was about 8-years-old and my parents gave me a Western Union Telegraph Set for Christmas. I was fascinated with it (there were two units in the set). You could send and receive Morse Code using clicks, a light, or a buzzer. And you could connect the two units together so you could send secret messages back and forth. You didn’t have to know the code because it was printed on the left side of the unit. It was magical.

The next year I started listening to Captain Midnight, a children’s radio program about a fictional war hero who led a mysterious group known as the Secret Squadron. Captain Midnight and his Secret Squadron flew around the world as heroes defeating evil wherever they went. And the best part? We could sign up and become a member of the Secret Squadron. Better still, we got a Secret Squadron manual and code book along with a secret decoder. How cool is that? Oh, for you oldtimers like me, do you remember what they advertised? Ovaltine!

About a year later, my parents let me put our old, upright AM/Shortwave radio in my bedroom. I would spend hours listening to shortwave broadcast stations all over the world despite not having an outside antenna. Soon I heard people talking to each other. I learned they were ham radio operators. I also heard strange sounds coming though the radio. It was sort of a whisper-like, thumpity thump sound, which I soon learned was Morse Code being sent on CW, also by ham radio operators. The whisper-like, thumpity thump sound was because I was listening to the CW on an AM radio.

It didn’t matter! The sound I heard was a code—a secret—and I wanted to learn how to decode it. I’d have to wait a few years for that.

That’s when our family moved from the Lansing, Michigan, area to Grand Rapids. Not long after we moved, I heard the sounds of Morse Code coming out the side door of a neighbor across the street from us. That was exciting to hear. Soon I met the person responsible for those sounds: Jim, K8QDM, a high school sophomore who had been licensed a year or two earlier.

Jim and I became friends and I began spending lots of time with him in his radio shack. It was an exciting time for me as I watched him make contact with other hams around the country. Soon he taught me some elementary theory and the Morse Code. I learned the code quickly and even made some CW contacts from his station before I was licensed. In July, I took the Novice class exam, which had a fairly simple theory test, plus a 5 wpm code test. I aced both tests. Then my examiner (wish I could remember his call sign) wanted to know how fast I could copy and sent me some faster code. At 16 wpm I was still copying him perfectly.

September 29, 1960. That was the date my Novice license was issued by the FCC. And it was the beginning of an exciting, fun-filled adventure with Morse Code that continues to this day.

History of the Morse Code Requirement in the United States

Before I get into some tips for becoming a good CW operator, I’d like to give a brief history of the Morse Code requirement for an Amateur Radio license in the United States.

1951 – In 1951 the FCC restructured the Class A, B, and C licenses into six classes: Novice, Technician, General, Conditional, Advanced, and Amateur Extra. Code requirements were 5 wpm for Novice and Technician, 13 wpm for General, Conditional and Advanced, and 20 wpm for Amateur Extra. To pass the code exam, the applicant was required to copy perfectly for at least one continuous minute out of approximately five minutes of code sent. Those who were successful were then tested in their sending ability.

March 18, 1977 – The sending requirement for all license class examinations was eliminated.

February 14,1991 – The Morse Code requirement for the Technician license was eliminated.

April 15, 2000 – The number of license classes was reduced to three: Technician, General, and Amateur Extra. The code speed for the General (13 wpm), Advanced (13), and Amateur Extra (20 wpm) class licenses was reduced to 5 wpm.

February 23, 2007 – The Morse Code requirement was eliminated for all license classes.

There was great controversy in the Amateur Radio ranks over the elimination of the code requirement for a license. Many hams are still upset today. Personally, however, I favored the change. For various reasons, the U.S. Amateur Radio population was decreasing. In my opinion, the main reason for that was because of the advancement in technology. Nearly all radio services had ceased using the code for their communications. Most people had come to believe it was an old, useless technology. Consequently, the code had become a huge barrier to many getting their Amateur Radio license.

My reasoning was that the code would continue to be used by thousands of hams even if there were no code exam for a license. Those who wanted to use it would and those who didn’t wouldn’t. It has always been that way. Besides, if the ham population were to continue to decrease in numbers, arguing over whether there should be a Morse Code requirement for a license would be a moot point. There may be no license available at all.

History has already proven my point about the code continuing to be used. There is still a high interest in using the code and perhaps thousands of new hams are discovering the thrill of communicating with CW.


Tips for Learning the Morse Code

The code we use in Amateur Radio today isn’t the old clickity click railroad telegraph code. That was the American Morse Code. Today we use the International Morse Code, also known as the Continental Code, although I don’t hear that name used anymore. My early ‘60s code proficiency certificate from the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) was called Certificate of Proficiency in Reception of the Continental Code.

A question I’m occasionally asked is, “What is the best way to learn the code?” My answer is always the same: “I don’t know.” Nevertheless, I have a few suggestions that may help.

My wife and I spent a year in Spanish language training at the Spanish Language Institute in San José, Costa Rica. It was a near total immersion program where our instructors were all Costa Ricans who spoke only Spanish in class from day one. If we went to the grocery store, everything was in Spanish. Everywhere we went people spoke Spanish. I soon discovered that to learn a new language well you have to see it, hear it, feel it, say it, think it, and do it. Learning Morse Code is similar to learning a language. You need to totally immerse yourself in it. You need to see it, hear it, feel it, say it, think it, and do it. Following are some helps.

CWops – CWops is an organization that is dedicated to the support of Morse Code activity on the air. According to their website, “Our goal is to bring together Amateur Radio operators who enjoy communicating by Morse Code (CW). CWops encourages the use of CW in Amateur communications, and it supports CW activity through planned events. CWops promotes goodwill among Amateurs throughout the world, and it fosters the education of young people and others in matters related to Amateur Radio.”

Farnsworth Method – CWops has an excellent Morse code learning and improvement program called CW Academy that may be helpful to you in learning the code. Check out their website (cwops.org) for more information. They encourage the Farnsworth method of learning the code, which is basically sending characters at 20 wpm and leaving a long space between them. As you increase your speed, you decrease the space between characters.

Random Text – CWops didn’t exist when I got my license in 1960. At thirteen years of age and being musical, the code came fairly easily to me. K8QDM, my mentor, would first teach me a letter, let’s say a C (dah di dah dit). Then he would send random text and have me pick out every C sound I heard. I didn’t learn the letter as dash dot dash dot. Rather, I learned it more as a musical tone: dah di dah dit. Then he would teach me another letter and we’d do the same thing. Then there would be more text sent and I’d listen for both letters. It was an effective method and I learned the code in a very short time.

Read Signs – One of the things I started doing as I was learning the code was to read every sign I saw in Morse code. When my dad stopped at a stop sign, in my head I was going “di di dit   dah   dah dah dah   di dah dah dit (STOP).” Believe it or not, I’ve never stopped doing that. I’m constantly doing Morse code in my head when I’m driving. It’s a language I love to speak and hear.

FISTS Code Buddy – The FISTS CW Club (The International Morse Preservation Society) has an excellent Code Buddy program, where you can contact someone on their Code Buddy list, sent up a schedule, and practice code with the person. Go to their website for further information (fistsna.org).

Practice, Practice, Practice – When the bands are in lousy shape, I often open up a magazine, turn on my code oscillator, and just start sending code to myself. I enjoy doing it and it helps keep me sharp. Practice may not always make us perfect, as the saying goes, but it certainly helps to improve our skills.


How to Have a Successful CW Contact

Learning the Morse Code is the starting point, but actually making a contact is another thing. Don’t worry, we were all intimidated by our very first CW contact and we all made mistakes. But take heart! It gets easier with every contact as we continue to learn proper procedures. Following are some suggestions that will help you have a successful CW contact and have lots of fun doing it.

1. Learn Common Abbreviations.

As you might imagine, we use many abbreviations on CW. I’ve included some of the most common ones below. A more complete list can be found online at http://www.kent-engineers.com/abbreviations.htm.

ABT – About
AGN – Again
BURO – QSL Bureau
CUD – Could
CUL – See you later
CUZ – Because
ES – And
FB – Fine business (great)
FER – For
HW – How
LIL - Little
NW – Now
PSE – Please
RPT – Repeat or Report
SRI - Sorry
TNX or TKS (please not THX) – Thanks
TT – That
U – You
UR – Your
WID – With
WUD – Would

A typical use of these abbreviations in a QSO might be like this: TNK FER UR FB WX RPT (Thanks for your fine business [great] weather report).

2. Learn Common Prosigns.

Prosigns are procedural signs—sort of a CW shorthand. Following are some of the more common prosigns and how to use them properly. Notice that some have a bar over the top of them. That indicates that the two letters are to be sent as one character. Hence, AR would be sent as di dah di dah dit.

AR (End of Transmission)
K (Go Ahead, Over)
KN (Over only to this station)

Use AR at the end of a transmission immediately before the call signs. Use K or KN following your call sign. Example: HW CPY BOB? AR NØAF de K4EQ K –or– KN

Some operators will end their CQ like this: CQ de K4EQ AR K. This is not technically incorrect but neither is it necessary. If K is given (over to someone), it’s obvious that you’re done with your transmission. The preferred method is to use AR in a QSO after you’re finished with your transmission and immediately before you give the other station’s call sign.

SK (End of Last Transmission)
The prosign SK is used in place of AR at the end of your last transmission of a contact. So it goes immediately before you give the call signs. Example: 73 DOLORES CUL SK KDØCIV DE K4EQ T U dit dit

Notice in the above example how it ends with T U DIT DIT. T U is CW shorthand for thank you and dit dit (i, i) is something that has evolved through the years on CW. It’s a take on the early twentieth century shave-and-a-haircut-two-bits. It would be appropriate to end with the prosign K but if you are the last to transmit, many hams, myself included, like to say thank you dit dit.

R (Received as Transmitted)
The prosign R is equivalent to the voice response ROGER. On CW it’s used at the beginning of your transmission if—and only if—you correctly copied all the previous transmission. Example: AAØZ DE K4EQ R R FB ON UR NEW KX3

Do not send R if you did not copy everything. Example: AAØZ DE K4EQ R R PSE RPT MODEL OF UR ELECRAFT

AS (Wait)
This is a helpful prosign and is used when you want the other operator to wait for a few moments. Do not follow it with any other characters. Usually it is sent at least twice to make certain the other operator understands. Example: SRI PAM I SPILLED MY COFFEE AGAIN

BT (Double Dash)
The typical use of BT is as a separator between sentences. It’s generally used in place of all punctuation except the question mark. Example: TNX FER WX RPT BILL BT WX HR IS ALSO HOT BT

BK (Break)
The prosign BK is primarily used with short transmissions when you want the other station to transmit. It is to be sent as one character but I think 99% of the operators today send it as two characters. I’ve given up fighting the trend and do it myself now. Example: KCØSDV de K4EQ R FB CLIFF BK HW LONG DOES IT TAKE U TO MAKE THE PLAQUES? BK

3. Learn Common Q-Signals.

Q-Signals are a set of three-letter abbreviations beginning with Q that save time and allow communication between operators who don’t speak a common language. Each Q-signal makes a statement or request. When followed with a question mark, the Q signal is a question. For example, QRP means “Decrease power.” QRP? means, “Shall I decrease power?”

Below are a few of the more common Q signals. Knowing their meaning will enable you to have much more enjoyable contacts on the air. You can find more complete lists of Q-signals online. Please note that my definitions are not exactly accurate, but they are how most hams use them today.

QRL – This is typically used to see if a frequency is in use before transmitting there. For example, before calling CQ, call QRL?

QRM – This refers to interference from other stations. If you’re in contact with another station and another stations begins transmitting near your frequency, we call that QRM. QRM is practically unavoidable when the band is really open and lots of stations are on the air. Good operators learn to work through it.

QRN – This refers to static noise on the band.

QRP – This refers to low power—typically 5 watts or less.

QRS – Typical use of QRS would be to ask the other station in a QSO to slow down his or her code speed (e.g., PSE QRS).

QRT – Stop sending. Typical use on the air would be, “I’m going to QRT now.”

QRZ – Typical usage is as a question. Let’s say you call CQ and a very weak station calls you back but you didn’t quite get the call sign. You would send QRZ? de K4EQ K.

QSB – This refers to fading signals.

QSL – This acknowledges receipt of information.

QSO – This refers to a contact. (e.g. “I had three QSOs on 17 meters yesterday.”)

QSY – This refers to changing frequency (e.g. “PSE QSY UP 6”).

QTH – This refers to location (e.g., My QTH is Ballwin, MO”).

Again, this is not a complete list of all Q-signals, nor are the definitions I gave exactly accurate, They merely reflect how we commonly use Q-signals today.

4. Configure a Comfortable Operating Position.

You may wonder what a comfortable operating position has to do with having a successful CW contact. Maybe successful isn’t the right word. Perhaps “How to Have a More Enjoyable CW Contact” would be better. Regardless, I have three suggestions that may help you.

Have a comfortable chair. If you are operating voice, it really doesn’t matter much whether you sit, stand, lie down, or stand on your head (well, maybe that head thing wouldn’t be such a good idea). But you want to be comfortable as you position yourself to send CW, especially if you are operating for long periods of time, such as during a contest.

Have room for your arm on your operating desk. For proper sending with a key—straight key, bug, paddle, or whatever—you want your forearm to rest on a flat surface with your hand naturally dropping to the key. It will be far less tiring and make sending much easier.

Arrange your equipment for easy access to the equipment controls. This would be true for any mode of operation, but is especially helpful on CW. I like my transmitter tuning knob to be as close to my key as possible. That way’s it’s easier to change frequencies while chasing DX or in a contest. I find this especially helpful when attempting to contact a DX station that is working split. I like to switch VFOs briefly to determine on what frequency the DX station worked his last contact.

Don’t Worry about Your Speed. Almost all of us want to improve our code speed, and to do so we need to challenge ourselves by pushing the limits. But . . . speed is not the ultimate test of a good operator. In fact, I would argue that speed has very little to do with being a good operator. The most important consideration should be accuracy. The FISTS CW Club emphasizes that accuracy transcends speed. I couldn’t agree more.

For general contacts, send at a comfortable speed. I find that QSOs are more enjoyable when I’m not struggling to keep up with the speed of the other operator who may be sending slightly faster than I feel comfortable with. Contesting is another thing. During contests I can send and receive much faster than I feel comfortable with for everyday chats.

When you call CQ, don’t send faster than you can copy. That’s a sure way to get frustrated quickly—when the other station comes back at the same speed you sent but you struggle to copy. As a side note here, you should always answer CQs at the same speed the other station is sending.

5. Don’t Be Ashamed to Write Down Your Copy.

Many seem to make a big deal about just copying CW in your head. Actually, I think it’s a good thing to be able to do that and you can certainly converse at higher speeds that way. However, there is nothing wrong with writing down your copy. Just make sure you don’t send faster than you can write what you receive. If you do, the other operator will likely send too fast for you. Anymore I tend to write down a lot because, after a three- or four-minute transmission by the other station, I tend to forget the things he sent that I want to respond to.

6. Check the Frequency With QRL? Before Calling CQ.

There may be a QSO in progress and because of propagation you cannot hear the station transmitting. The station you can hear is listening and four blocks away from you.

The proper way to check the frequency is to make certain you don’t hear anyone, then send QRL? one time. Wait about five seconds then, if no one responds, call QRL? again. You might include DE and your call sign, but it’s not necessary. Wait five more seconds and, if no one responds, call CQ.

As a side note, for years many of us checked the frequency simply by sending di dit   dit (ie). I haven't heard that for years now.


Calling CQ

After you have made certain the frequency is clear, you can feel free to call CQ. The question is, what’s the best method to call CQ? This is where personal preference rules and it differs with just about every operator. I think the main thing to remember is to keep your CQs fairly short. When I had my Novice license, I remember one operator calling CQ for at least two minutes before he gave his call sign. Not good! So, what’s the best method for calling CQ?

Many operators use the 5 X 3 method of calling CQ, i.e., sending CQ five times, your call sign three times, then K (over). It would look like this:  CQ CQ CQ CQ CQ de K4EQ K4EQ K4EQ K

Personally, I prefer to use a 4 X 2 CQ method:  CQ CQ CQ CQ de K4EQ K4EQ K.
If there is no answer after about 15 seconds, I call again. There is no official or unofficial rule about CQing. Just use common sense and courtesy.

Your First Transmission in a QSO

After establishing contact, your first transmission should include three things: RST report, your QTH, and your name. Let’s assume W1AW answers my CQ. Now what do I do? Here’s a typical response:
W1AW DE K4EQ GM ES TNX FER CL BT UR RST 599 599 ES QTH BALLWIN MO BALLWIN MO BT NAME DALE DALE HW CPY? AR W1AW DE K4EQ K
As you can see, I’ve acknowledged the other station’s call sign, given a simple greeting, his signal report, my location, and my name. The other operator will then likely send me the same information, maybe add a bit, then turn it back to me. Our conversation will develop from there.

Note that many operators will use OP instead of NAME. Also, the number 9 is often shortened to simply the letter N; hence, RST 5NN.

 

Conclusion

Any way you look at it, making contacts using Morse Code is just plain FUN! I’ve never lost the thrill of it 60 years now after learning it. I hope some of the tips I’ve provided will help you enjoy it as much as I do. Now go turn on your radio and listen for K4EQ. Let’s have some . . .
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© 2020 Dale Holloway, K4EQ  ۰  All Rights Reserved