This page has a lot of text and is worth saving to read off-line later. It includes details of an unusual Morse learning program (now available as freeware) which apart from teaching both International and American Morse, also includes a number of "heritage" features.
There are copies of previous articles from Morsum Magnificat containing good advice for those just learning Morse as well as those who already know the code and want to improve their performance; there are also links to other sites which may be of interest to beginners/improvers. Whatever your needs, we hope you find something of interest here.
An interesting question was posed to me recently: "Is Morse ability passed on genetically?" The questioner observed that several old-time CW operators of his aquaintance had fathers who had been telegraphists, or service operators skilled in the code, and surmised that perhaps people who were naturally gifted in this direction "passed it on through their genes."
He even quoted my son Geoff, ZL1NGB, as an example to bolster his case. "Of course" he said "I'd expect your children to carry these genes, and this accounts for the ease with which he picked it up. And look at Ron, ZL1AMO's daughter! I wish we were all that lucky!"
Ron will be well known to many of you as a CW DXpeditioner, with a habit of popping up in unexpected places to effortlessly hammer out thousands of QSOs with eager award hunters. My questioner had overheard a brief conversation we'd held on 2 metres, in which Ron told me that his daughter had passed the 12 wpm test, starting from scratch, with just 4 weeks of practice. Neither Ron nor I helped our offspring in any way (except, by inference, via our genes) and both had studied only using computers.
The fastest Morse-learner I ever knew told me that he started Morse practice for his ticket (in ye Olde Days, using ZKF) just one week before sitting the test, and passing it!
His father was a country Postmaster, a skilled telegraphist, and his earliest memories were of sitting, fascinated, on the floor in the telegraphy office listening to his father's sounder.
He unconsciously learned to recognise when the station was being called, and would scuttle off to get Dad. In fact, he was quite a bit older before he realised that all adult males could not automatically read Morse, in the same way that they could read and write English!
But rather than having a genetically inherited ability, I think that he had been so saturated in the sound of Morse from birth, that his mind had become sensitized to it. When the time came to learn it properly, the subconscious was ready. Furthermore, he had no hangups about "not being able to do it". Every teenager knows that "whatever the old man can do, I can do better".
Walter Candler went to extraordinary lengths to emphasise a positive mental attitude. He was sure that many of us are beaten before we start, because we never really believe that we can do it. And I have many letters from learners saying they initially fell into the same psychological trap.
You may not have heard Morse from the cradle (neither did I), but you can condition your mind to it, by playing it in the background (digital muzak) while you're driving to work, washing the dishes or cleaning the car. You don't have to consciously listen to it. This may sound silly, but it works.
But there's another factor in both these cases - the computer. Learning Morse is just acquiring another linguistic skill, and educationalists in many fields now recognise the computer as a most patient, non-threatening and reliable teacher of skills.
Learning to Send with a Straight Key
Casey, ZL4CA, a legendary Morse operator of yesteryear, once observed that "anybody can learn to read fast Morse, but very few can learn to send it properly". To beginners, this usually seems an astonishing statement, because their experience is almost invariably the other way round. It seems easy to hammer out more or less recognisable characters on the key, but learning to read the stuff is an agonising and time-consuming process.
Casey probably overstated his case, because he was almost certainly a "natural" himself, one of those relatively few people to whom decoding Morse seems little different from listening to speech. It is difficult to send fast Morse accurately, because at some stage we all reach our limit of manual dexterity and brain/hand co-ordination. But I contend that it is not difficult to send accurately at 12 wpm, the speed required to pass our NZ test (and the UK test. Ed), if you go about it the right way. Nevertheless, some still fail. Why is this?
Most who fail the sending test do so because their rhythm is wrong. That's one reason why most Morse teachers concentrate on receiving first so that the correct symbol sounds are imprinted in the brain before the fingers learn bad habits. I devised some simple exercises which Richard, ZL1BOK and I recommended on his Morse learning sessions a year or two back, and which really seemed to help.
Before you even start to send Morse characters, it's vital get the relative lengths of the dits and dahs correct. Even though the mark length of a dah is three times that of a dit, the length of a dah plus ditspace is only twice that of a dit plus ditspace. That means you can send 4 dits in the time it takes to send 2 dahs. My first exercise is to send a continuous string of repetitions of 4 dits followed by 2 dahs, like "didididi dahdah didididi dahdah ...."
Tap your foot rhythmically. Send each dah plus space in the time of one foot tap, and two dits plus spaces in the same time. The taps occur in the spaces shown between the groups above. If you do this for several evenings, it will imprint the correct relative element durations in the mind. You don't even need a Morse key, you can just oscillate your wrist up and down on the edge of the table.
Now practise sending one dah followed by two dits in a stream. Again, the dah and the two dits plus spaces take exactly the same time. Now, just decrease the pressure on the key, so that the hand is moving up and down with the correct timing, but the contact doesn't close. Start closing the key again for one of the dahs, the two following dits, and the next dah, then stop. You have sent a perfect "X".
A little thought should enable you to see how to make up other common letters from these rythms. The trick is, to train the mind so that you can do this without tapping the rythm with your foot, and without "leading up to it". It comes pretty rapidly.
The most difficult test is to send exactly in synchronism with computer Morse. If you can do this, you're sending extremely well - it's surprisingly difficult!
Morse Learning Software
From time to time, I'm asked to give opinions on various Morse learning software packages. I can't comment on specific programs, but I do have some strongly-held "don't do this" opinions, applicable to all programs:
**Don't even look at a written table of the Morse code before starting to learn, and certainly never attempt to memorize one visually. You have to learn Morse by sound.
**Don't have anything to do with software that shows you the Morse characters on the screen.
**Don't have anything to do with training schemes that ask you to initially listen to successions of dots and dashes, or parts of characters, or to "count the dots and dashes" in characters. You have to recognise whole characters, and doing this will retard your progress. Listen only to complete, correctly sent, characters.
**Don't ever listen to Morse at a character speed of less than 12 wpm. Use 14 wpm or faster, if possible.
**Don't learn by memorising opposites, such as "K" and "R". This actually causes some people to confuse them forever!
**Don't spend lots of time copying random code groups. Reading plain language is very different (refers to ZL Morse test. Ed). Random code groups are popular because simple computer programs to send them are easy to write. They have a place, for identifying and practising "hangup" characters, but that's all....
(Extracted and adapted for MM from Gary Bold's 'The Morseman' column in 'Break-In', journal of NZART).
In almost every subject we may study there are efficient and inefficient ways to go about learning it. It seems foolish to go about learning in a hard way, if we know of a better one.
Many, many people have managed to master the Morse code by methods which we cannot recommend today, but they have done so at a heavy cost in time and effort, and often have experienced great discouragement along the way.
They have managed by persistence to overcome the stumbling blocks and achieve success in spite of them. But countless others have got stuck and have given up at some slow speed, generally less than 10 - 12 wpm.
Through the years all sorts of schemes have been devised for "memorizing" the code, some of them quite ingenious. Most of them involve some kind of visualization: a pictorial or systematic arrangement based on structure, or a "chain" of relationships of some sort, adding to or exchanging components of one character to obtain another.
A few have devised words or phrases presumed to have a sort of "sound-alikeness" to the code character. Such methods probably would help a person who might sometime need to signal for help in a dire emergency, but they have no value for telegraphic communication. There is never any reason to see the code in written form. Never translate "dit plus dah means A" and then write it, or as another has said: "If you find yourself hearing 'dahdidahdit' and saying to yourself 'Aha, that's a 'C', and then writing it down, you're in trouble -- that's translating."
Most of these well-intentioned aids to learning have overlooked the fact that the code letters are an alphabet of sound. These "aids" have interposed something else between the letter sound and the letter. Most of these methods present their schemes to the eye, not the ear.
Even those which purport to use sound (such as "sound- alikes") fail to provide the necessary unity of sound pattern (partly because they are too slow, but also because the "sound-alikes" are extraneous and distracting).
Both kinds require an extra step - a translation step - to get there. Those which require some sort of analysis (such as how many dits and dahs) of each character in order to identify it, or to run through a series of some sort, also have introduced needless steps which inevitably slow the learner down, and usually severely limit his achieving speeds over about 5-10 wpm.
Very many of those who originally learned the code from a printed chart of dots and dashes began the bad habit of counting the number of dots and of dashes from a mental chart. Then they must decipher the longer characters by counting: for example, to separate B from 6 and 1 from J.
Some Managed It!
Some of these hams were able by much practice, and perhaps realizing the nature of the problem, to overcome their speed plateau. (I knew one experienced ham-ex-navy-commercial operator who could go right along at 20 wpm this way, but that was his ultimate limit. He loved the code, but could never advance a step further. That was as fast as he could analyze: pretty fast at that!).
Those who have learned by the "sound-alike" methods, (e.g, they hear "didah", and it sounds like "alike", which they have been taught means "A") rarely reach even a ten wpm plateau.
One method extensively advertised for many years "taught" the beginner by the scheme "Eat Another Raw Lemon," which was supposed to remind him how each of the four letters E A R L was formed, each one adding one element to the previous one.
This was illustrated by large printed dots and dashes. There must have been a good many who started out this way, and in spite of it, at least some of them finally managed to become proficient. I knew of one such amateur who got to around 20 wpm that way.
The expert teachers tell us that any kind of printed dots and dashes or any other such pictorial impressions will only impede the student's progress when he is beginning to learn the code. All such methods violate good pedagogy, because they do not teach the code as actual sound patterns, as it will be heard and used.
They also require the student to learn something (which he must later forget in order to advance) in addition to the sound of the code itself. While these methods may seem to make it easier at first, they actually make it much harder, or even impossible, to advance. The wise teacher and student will avoid these approaches.
(Reprinted and specially edited for MM from Bill Pierpont's book "The Art and Skill of Radio-Telegraphy").
The basic purpose of the amateur licence is self-training in the art of radio communication. Our CW abbreviations make communication between people speaking a multitude of different languages possible, but any QSO becomes more meaningful if one can give the chap at the other end even a few words of his native language. This somehow personalises the QSO, and in my experience it also greatly increases the likelihood of a QSL arriving.
Anyone who works on the h.f. bands is inevitably going to contact a number of UA stations, a group who rarely hear the Russian language unless they are working among themselves. Judging from my own experience, they are really thrilled when a ham from another country gives them a few words in their own language, particularly on the key.
The Russian language is based on a 32 letter alphabet originated specially for the purpose by Brother Cyril, a Byzantine monk, and only slightly altered in the intervening centuries. This alphabet consists of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew letters, and sending it in Morse involves the use of the normal alphabet plus accented letters. (Quite fun at 25 wpm when you are trying to remember the Russian spelling, and the Russian grammar, and which Morse characters represent the Cyrillic letters you want!).
Fortunately, for simple information, it is not necessary to use accented letters. In passing, note that the UA ops are well versed in all our normal CW abbreviations, these being contained in the Russian equivalent of the ARRL Handbook. We can thus intersperse these abbreviations with a few suitable Russian words transliterated into Morse code, and so pay our contact the compliment of addressing him in his own language.
Hello and Goodbye
The normal Russian greeting is a word roughly pronounced "Zdrasti", and equally roughly translated as "Hello, how are you?" This, of course, becomes the ZDR that we have all heard on the bands.
The TOW often heard after ZDR is an abbreviation for "Tovarich", which in this context means OM. The often heard DSW means "goodbye".
If you want to say this in Russian, just send SPASIBO. There is a more formal and polite form, but unless you are a Russian student you will not be able to remember it, and SPASIBO is quite adequate.
The Russian word for weather is PAGODA, but WX is quicker and the UAs themselves use it. As one may wish to combine weather states - for example, "raining and cold" - remember that "and" in Russian is simply the letter "I" sent on its own.
Likely weather states can be sent as follows:
Rain: DOVDX IDET ("The rain he goes")
Snow: SNEG IDET ("The snow he goes")
Sunshine: SOLNCE SWETIT
A little: NEMNOVKO
There is no "h" in the alphabet and it is replaced by "g". KHz and MHz thus become KGz and MGz. Watts are WATTY. Other terms such as TX, RX, etc, are used as in English.
The famous WSEM, still sometimes heard during the UA-only contests, simply means "all". It indicates that only QSOs with other Russian stations are wanted. "Radio" is the same in both languages, and amateur radio is RADIOSPORT.
PSE QSL is all that you need when asking for one. QSL BUDET WAM BURO will let the other chap know that you are definitely going to send him a card.
"Yes" is DA; "no" is NET; "not" is NE; "but" is NO; and "glad" is RAD. When saying "thanks for the QSO", send SPASIBO ZA QSO.
Example of Use
First over (he has called you).
UA1--- de G3--- = ZDR I SPASIBO ZA QSO = UR RST 589 = QTH HECKMONDWYKE = NAME CUTHBERT = HW? UA1--- DE G3--- K
UA1--- de G3--- = R SPASIBO TOW ALEX = HR TX 2 WATTY I ANTENNA DIPOLE = WX DOVDX IDET I HOLODNO = QSL BUDET WAM BURO = HW? UA1--- de G3--- K
UA1--- de G3--- = R SPASIBO ALEX UR SIGS VY FB = RAD QSO I HPE CU SN 73 I SPASIBO ALEX DSW = UA1--- de G3--- SK
More able Russian scholars may be able to pick holes in the above, but at least it has been understood by many UAs and very often their comment has been "Thanks for the QSO and the Russian".
If you want to do the same thing on phone be prepared for several years of hard but interesting part-time study! CW is much easier because accent and pronunciation do not enter into it.
Now what about some of our experts in other European languages giving us a few useful phrases for use in CW QSOs?
(Originally published in SPRAT, journal of the G-QRP Club)
I want to remind you that the venerable hand-key is still a potent and respectable weapon. In the last few evenings I've heard several measured, interesting QSOs conducted by traditional vertical switches at both ends, wielded by skilled practitioners who were a delight to listen to. I also have several friends who usually use bugs or keyers, but who occasionally revert to a hand-key just for the joy of using it.
"Acceptable" hand-key sending isn't difficult to attain, but you have to start off right. On several occasions learners have visited my basement classroom for advice. Typically, using my practice software, they have learned to read Morse pretty well, and have dutifully followed my recommendation not to commence sending until they have the correct sounds embedded in the brain.
But when they start pounding the key, nothing seems to go right. Their arms get tired, their Morse "sounds wrong", and my Morse reading software can't make sense of their fists at all. They know that something is wrong, but they have never seen correct sending, so they have no idea what.
When I watch them send for only 10 seconds, I can always see what is wrong. All the classical faults are often present. The wrong grip; "finger sending" with a tense, stiff arm; characters running together; choppy dits and dahs of almost the same length; attempting to send too fast. Fortunately, these learners usually come to me early, before these faults have become deeply embedded in the brain. I can demonstrate how to eradicate them in one 20-30 minute session.
I correct the grip. I show how to relax the arm, to pump the wrist, to slow down. I recommended exercises to get the dit/dah ratio right. I correct the pause between characters. (In severe cases, I recommend removing the hand from the key completely between characters or words.)
They retire to re-group. After only a week of remedial practice, their sending is often completely transformed. Some get so excited "my computer can read me now!" that they call me up and send Morse to me over the phone! Sometimes, even I can hardly believe the difference.
Good Advice from 1924
A good, description of the mechanics of "how to do it", is contained in the following extract from advice given by H. M. Lewis, on both 'American' and 'European' sending, from QST 1924. In particular, for 'European' sending, note the advice to "sharply drop the wrist" to form each element. When you start, the wrist should move down 2 - 3 cm. This will decrease as you gain speed and experience.
"There are two major patterns of Morse key in use today. One is the light, springy, steel-lever type American key. The other is the rigid, heavy 'chunk of brass' European key, typified by the British Postal Telegraph key. Some French and German keys are even heavier and clumsier. These two fundamental types require two entirely different methods of handling. The consensus of opinion of experienced operators, and also by the various committees set up by Telegraph administrations to study the cause of 'Telegrapher's cramps', is that the two types should be operated as follows:
AMERICAN KEY - fixed with knob 15 to 18 inches back from the edge of the table, two or three fingers lightly on the knob towards the back, and thumb touching the edge. Movement must be from the wrist and forearm, not the finger joints, and the elbow should not 'walk' around the table. Generally the fingers should not leave the knob during the transmission of a word, and don't attempt that 'nerve-sending' stuff: It is certain to ruin your style, and if persisted in for long periods results in the affliction known as 'telegrapher's cramp' (glass arm).
EUROPEAN KEY - fixed at edge of table, a little to the right of the operator's normal sitting position. Two fingers hooked over the top of the knob, thumb just under its head, and third and fourth fingers hanging free. The wrist should be about level with the key knob, and the forearm absolutely horizontal, the elbow quite a few inches away from the body. In operating, the wrist should drop sharply with every signal, but the elbow should be almost stationary in space. The light grip on the knob may be completely released at the termination of each complete letter. This assists in the formation of good spacing. This type of key is generally used with a stronger type spring and a larger gap than than the American type, but on any key most Amateurs attempt to send with far too small a gap and too light a spring."
I described the "element ratio-correcting" exercise I recommend in a previous 'Morseman' column. This has been so successful that I'll repeat it here:
"Often, during the day (but furtively, so that those around you don't think you're losing your marbles) play this exercise on whatever table you're sitting at: Wrist-pump out a continuous sequence of 4 dits and 2 dahs, " di di di di dah... dah... di di di di dah... dah... ".
Tap your foot regularly on the accented elements, about 1 beat per second - the 4 dits and two dahs should take exactly the same time (the element lengths are 1:3, but there's a ditspace between each one, so the total durations are 2:4). This gets the relative lengths of the elements right."
Attaining acceptable hand-key sending is not hard. Many learners I know who start off right can do 12 wpm after a week. I taught my son, ZL1WGB, to send to Novice standard, from scratch, in one hour - but he is an accomplished musician with excellent co-ordination, timing, and listening skills.
Try It Just Once!
You can do it too. You don't have to be a virtuoso sender or reader to try CW. There are a couple of QSOs going on right now at less than 12 wpm in the long grass at the bottom of 80.
If you've passed the test recently, but never operated CW, do this for me. Try it just once. Read my article on "The first CW QSO" in the Callbook (reprinted above from MM. Ed) and do what it says.
I don't care if you never do it again. But now you will be able to say that, just once, you have experienced a part of communication history. You will have communicated with another human using just your muscles and your ears and your brain, in words that went straight between minds.
It can be an eerie feeling. That first CW QSO always gives people a buzz! Always!
(Extracted and adapted for MM from Gary Bold's 'The Morseman' column in 'Break-in', journal of NZART, November 1995)
There are two basic kinds of learning programs: teacher-student and self-instruction. The goal of both is successful learning. For those lacking in self-discipline and motivation, the regularly scheduled class is the preferred way to go. Optimum self-instruction requires not only motivation and enthusiasm to learn, but also right guidance along the way so as to avoid wasted time in detours and dead-end traps.
Both ways require the willingness to spend the necessary time to acquire the degree of skill you want. There are today, as well as for many years in the past, a number of on-the-air amateur programs to teach the beginner from scratch, and others to help build up speed to a useful range, including the popular daily ARRL code practice programs.
Regular Place and Time
Learning takes place in an environment, a place with surroundings. The experts tell us that having a suitable and regular place to study and practice, one without distractions, and a regular time to do it, makes learning much easier. Normally we think of this as a classroom with a teacher and students. and a definite schedule for instruction.
However, to have a definite place at home (or other convenient location) works well. Regularity is one of the very important requirements for efficient learning, (ie, taking place in the same location, one associated with learning, and at regular times). Preferably it should be daily, allowing for time off at weekends. It also has to be systematic for good, forward-going progress.
One of the problems of class scheduling is that of timing: to find times and places which will meet the needs of the students. Too often, for prospective amateurs, this must be limited to once or twice a week, and most likely in the evenings after work, when one may already be tired, or on week ends when other demands on time distract one's attention or may make attendance irregular. This is not ideal, but can be made to work.
The quality and ability of a teacher is of the utmost importance. He or she brings an influence which greatly affects morale, which as we have seen is so important, and is needed to promote the enthusiasm and interest necessary for rapid lesson-by-lesson advancement.
The "atmosphere" which the teacher brings is a major key to the learning process of a class: it can make or break it. The personal relationship of teacher to student is also a factor not to be overlooked.
The teacher can provide encouragement when things seem to go too slowly, can help with any problems before they become big, and prevent wasted effort and discouragement when he sees something going wrong. A teacher can be the difference between success and failure. No machine can provide this personalized help.
Of all teacher-student relationships, the one-to-one teacher-student relationship is the most effective. There the progress can be matched closely to the student's ability to progress, both in attitude and learning itself. For example, one competent teacher was able to bring a responsive, eager student from zero to a solid 30 wpm in a month's time: that's progress!
The Presence of Other Students
The influence of others present is of considerable importance. While we have emphasized the value of non-competition in the basic skill-learning process, there are students who do their best with competition, even in the most critical initial-learning period.
They work well in a class environment with others of similar mind. However, their competitive attitude may discourage classmates who are not of a competitive nature: something that may prove to be almost a disaster for the rest of the class.
Many classes have been organized with a degree of privacy, providing each learner with a pair of headphones and a key. Some set-ups have added booth-like partitions to increase this privacy. All of the instructions and code practice materials are heard through the headphones.
A typical telegraph school, civilian or military, often had a series of tables, each able to accommodate from about 6 to 20 students. Each table was supplied with either its own individual instructor, or equipment which sent code material at a given stage or level of instruction, sometimes both. The student then moved from table to table as he advanced in skill.
Records of Progress
Some kind of progress charts can help motivate the student by keeping him informed as to how he is doing and that he is going forward. Most of us need that kind of assurance.
The Self-Teaching Situation
It was the advent of "machinery" which could produce code signals (the Omnigraph, the phonograph, etc.), that brought the first real help for the self-learner. Then it became possible to learn by ear only, at times and places convenient to the learner, and at modest cost, even though these were rather limited in the variety and quantity of material they provided for practice.
The real turning point in availability and variety came when the wire recorder and the tape recorder arrived on the market. Here, like the phonograph, the "machine" was something people probably already owned and could be used for other things besides code-learning. This kept the cost down.
Prepared code tape courses soon became available. In addition, code practice could easily be recorded from the radio or other sources and played over and over as desired. Many good courses became available and many are available today.
Later came electronic keyboards and keyers, which form perfect code characters, and are ready to be used at convenience, while some of them even offer a wide variety of preprogrammed materials for practice. One of their main advantages is that they always produce perfectly formed characters - something that greatly expedites initial learning and, later, speed building.
Several excellent code teachers highly recommend computer programs rather than class instruction, especially the interactive programs, as the very best teachers of all for beginners.
They are impersonal, avoid any distracting sense of competition, do not create emotional barriers, and permit the student to work at times convenient to his schedule and to learn at his own rate. Very many people have advanced rapidly using them. They are popular and effective.
Personal computers make possible a fantastic range of code learning and practice. Several excellent freeware programs, as well as commercially produced programs, are available for learning and for speed-growth. Some people have been able to prepare their own programs, tailored for their own particular needs.
Interactive programs give the learner the maximum opportunity to advance rapidly at his own speed. Some of these also provide automatic adjustment of the learning steps, resolving any problem areas as they arise.
Programs are available which give either immediate or delayed helps to the student, and some provide step by step "report cards." There are programs also which allow the student to conduct QSO's with the computer, just as if he were actually on the air. The potential here is very great indeed.
What a Contrast!
Contrast this with the old way, where for many years it was normal to begin to learn the Morse code from a printed table of the code characters expressed in printed dots and dashes. Almost everyone started that way, even in the telegraph schools.
Many people did succeed in learning it this way, even by themselves, but for most of them it was a slow and often discouraging process. There had to be a point where they went from the visual symbols to interpreting by sound: that was the hard part. The marvel is so many succeeded.
Finally, there are available computer programs and devices which can read received code transmissions. Because they are machines, they can only read code signals which are reasonably accurate in timing.
For the student who has access to one of these, it will give him a chance to see how accurate his sending is. They are not recommended as substitutes for personal receiving.
(Reprinted and specially edited for MM from Bill Pierpont's book "The Art and Skill of Radio-Telegraphy").
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