That Dad-burned Morse Code

I’ve always liked carrots better than sticks. Since the beginning of time…well, since the beginning of radio, anyway…which for many of us are equivalent events, knowledge of Morse Code has been a requirement. People used exclusively Morse Code (more accurately termed the International Radiotelegraph Code) on the radio long before anyone figured out how to make voices go over the air. It is still one of the most efficient means of getting a radio signal from point A to point B. Because of its simplicity, efficiency and universality, Morse Code has been considered the Lingua Franca of amateur radio. That’s Latin for “If you don’t know this, you’re a retard.”

Morse Code is no longer a requirement for any class of amateur radio license now, the culmination of a step-by-step dismantling of this time-honored tradition. Now, many new hams are surprised to find that, tuning around the shortwave bands, there is still TONS of high speed Morse Code being flung around the ether waves.

“Why would anyone be doing this if they didn’t have to?!” is a common question.

Of course, the toughest questions are answered best by further questions. The correct “question-answer” for this is, “Why would anyone go though the trouble of chewing and swallowing food, when you can you can just take it intravenously?”’

The fact of the matter is that tens of thousands of radio amateurs actually enjoy using Morse Code, and wouldn’t have it any other way. And these numbers don’t just include those Luddites who haven’t discovered the microphone yet. Many extremely technically-minded and cutting edge hams use Morse code for the sheer challenge and pleasure of it. Morse code is an art form, just like calligraphy, playing the didgeridoo, or crop-dusting. Plus, there are a few experimental modes where Morse Code is the only viable means of communication. Examples of this are Moonbounce, meteor scatter, and ELF (extremely low frequency) communications.

Learning the Morse code isn’t all that hard. Look at it this way; over a BILLION people speak, read, and write Mandarin Chinese, which has 1,062 basic characters. (Those basic characters are about enough to let you clear your throat in Chinese).

Morse code has about 50 characters total, if you include all the punctuation and a few other doodads like prosigns. How hard can it be?

It’s interesting and encouraging to see that, now that Morse code is no longer required, we hear more high quality “fists” on the air than ever. Hams are doing it because they want to, not because they have to…and this is always the recipe for excellence.

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Learning the Dad-burned Morse Code Thing

Now that we are free to learn Morse Code because we want to, we can go about doing it a bit differently than has been done in the past. I’ll present some controversial issues here, for which I claim no expertise. I’m not a psychologist by any means, but I’m pretty observant.

Morse code, like many other similar skills, is best learned by bypassing the brain, entirely. (Now, for those of you who believe that MOST things Radio Amateurs do bypass the brain entirely, I can offer no rebuttal). When I was in grade school, they taught this thing called “penmanship.” They stopped teaching that here, I understand, but they probably continue the torture in England. [G’s and M’s, correct me if I’m wrong on this]. I was roundly rebuked by third grade teacher, Miss Fiddaman, for “drawing” my letters. She told me I was thinking too much. (This was probably the last time I was ever accused of that). She said the letters should go right in my eye and out my hand. Actually, my handwriting improved considerably after this…though any ground I gained over the years has been lost by my nearly exclusive use of the keyboard.

But Miss Fiddaman was right. Highly repetitive tasks like writing, or playing scales on a musical instrument, or learning Morse Code are best done without a brain in the way.
One problem with traditional ways of teaching Morse Code is that it almost always guarantees hitting plateaus in speed. (The graduated licensing structure didn’t help with this much, either). When people ask me what speed they should learn Morse Code at, I tell them “thirty words a minute.” Then they clarify their question for me. “No, I mean, what speed should I START at?” I repeat my answer. “Thirty words a minute.”

“But the Extra Class License even in the bad old days didn’t even require that!” they protest, vehemently. “They only required 20!”

“That’s precisely the problem,” I respond. “You set your goals too low because you’ve been taught how hard it is. Actually, I’m being way too conservative by saying 30 words a minute.

The reason you reach plateaus in Morse Code is because you’re listening for dots and dashes…much like the “drawing” of cursive letters of which Miss Fiddaman accused me. You want to START your Morse Code training by listening to characters that are too fast to count individual dots and dashes. You learn to hear each letter as a sound in itself.

Now, the good news is this. You don’t have to copy 40 WPM text to copy 40 WPM letters. You can space these out as much as you want…your average code speed can be down at 5 words a minute…or 1 word a minute. It doesn’t matter. You will be hearing letters comfortably the very first day at 40 words a minute. I tried this out on my six year old grandson. After just a half hour after hearing the code for the first time, he could tell me if I was sending an A or an N at 50 WPM. Perfectly. (And, though grandparental pride would like to think Jeremiah’s a genius; I know that’s not the case; he’s MUCH more of a jock than a brain. Now I just have 24 more letters to work with him on). You will find that your speed automatically increases, without even thinking about it. My electronic keyer tops out at 50 wpm…otherwise I’d like to see if Jeremiah could do 55…or even 60!

I never told Jeremiah that fifty words a minute was positively screaming. It never even occurred to him. I’ll never tell him. I’ll let him figure it out for himself, some day. When he got his A’s and N’s right, I just told him, “that’s good,” and sent him off to play with his rubber dinosaurs.

Now, of course, kids really do have the advantage in learning Morse Code; there are a lot more cranial ruts formed in adults…all of which reinforce the “drawing” mode of learning, for most of us. I say most of us, because musicians seem to have an easier time of learning code than the average Joe. Most of them learned how to play scales without the brain…music instructors have known how to teach this for ages…oddly, this same technique seems to have bypassed the Morse Code teachers. I’ve never heard any music student complaining about having to play a piece at 40 notes per minute; they just assume it’s something that will eventually have to be done.

And they just do it.

Expectations are everything.

Now the wonderful news in all this is that Morse Code really, really, really becomes fun at high speed. It really does. Really!

Weird Hardware with a Wonderful Purpose

It really is amazing. There is no function in all of “electricdom” that is simpler than opening and closing a switch. A switch has two states: on or off.
And yet, nothing has elicited more creativity, more artistry, and more poetry in all of Amateur Radio than the hardware used to perform this aboriginal function. The telegraph key has been with us in one form or another for about 150 years. Some telegraph keys are marvels of human craftsmanship, imagination, and beauty. Every ham…no, every HUMAN BEING…should own a telegraph key whether they have any intention of using Morse Code or not.

Allow me to wax poetic for a moment. (I have an ample supply of poetry wax, so don’t worry, I won’t run out).

The telegraph key is the ultimate interface between human being and machine. It is the “Excalibur of the Electrical Age.” (I invented that phrase my very own self, but you are free to use it at any social gathering…with attribution, of course).

Like the renowned sword, not only is a telegraph key a thing of beauty in its resting state, but wielded in capable hands, it is poetry in motion. A goodly telegraph key has a personality of its own; a worthy one, as Excalibur, seemingly anticipates its master’s intentions, yea, and his very thoughts.

A telegraph key is a Grand Piano with but one key; O, but what a key that is! Nay, it is far greater than that; it is a magnificent Cathedral Organ with the majesty of every console, register, and pedal concentrated into one point of contact! Dare I continue?

No, I dare not; the risk of igniting these very pages into flames of glory is too great. You must find out for yourself.

Behold the wonderful telegraph keys displayed in the following pages.