How I Learned Morse Code

After I got licensed and became comfortable with simple phone (voice) operation, I noticed that the salty dogs in the local DX club were almost exclusively using CW, or Morse Code, on the radio.  They practiced the art of radiotelegraphy: where the contacts were easier to make, the operators were more skilled, and the signals were stronger.  I wanted in.

When I tell people I'm interested in radiotelegraphy, the most common thing I hear is "Morse Code?  Why don't you just talk to people through the phone / Facebook / text?"  Well, for the same reason a marathon runner doesn't hop on the bus and ride for 26.2 miles to the finish line.  The attraction is the journey you undergo to reach the arbitrary goal.  

I set a goal for myself at the beginning of his year: by the end of 2015, I wanted to be able to copy and send CW comfortably at 20 WPM.  In my head.  No pencil and paper.

I reached that goal last month.  Here's how I did it.  

Step 1: Learn All The Characters

Like countless CW noobs before me, I started out in with Gordon West's introductory 0-5 WPM Morse Code tapes.  I insist on calling them tapes, even though they come as a set of eight CDs.  That's because they're straight up dubbed from the original tapes, complete with Gordo telling you to turn the tape over for the next lesson.  The audio quality is pretty dodgy, but so is that far-away DX coming over a polar path, so it's fine.

The goal of this box set is to bring you from knowing zip about Morse Code, up to the point where you can pass the exam that used to be given as part of getting the now-defunct Novice license.  That exam was a five minute session of copying code sent at a character speed of 15-18 WPM, but at an effective speed of 5 WPM.  This is based on a well-established principle, the Farnsworth method.  With Farnsworth spacing, the individual characters are sent at a relatively fast speed, but with spaces inserted between the characters and words to give you time to recognize them.  Over time, you gradually reduce the inter-character and inter-word spaces until the character speed matches the effective speed.  At that point, you're copying code at standard Morse spacing.

Beginner's mind.

Gordo's 0-5 WPM course uses the Farnsworth method, and he's clear that you devote a notebook to the course and write down everything you hear.  He starts you out with the simplest letters: E and T.  From there, the following lessons add additional characters and start building them into words.  Although his patter is corny, it makes it fun and enjoyable.  

Step 2: Practice The Hell Out Of All The Characters

In tandem with the Gordo tapes, I also used the MFJ-418 Morse Code Tutor device.  Like the Gordo tapes, this device is from a previous era before smartphones and Morse Code training apps.  It's small, highly configurable, and the battery lasts forever.

I set the MFJ-418 to send groups of random characters in five-character blocks.  For instance, if all the characters I knew so far were E, T, A, N, I, and S, the code groups might look like this: SIISA TANTI EEISE SETIA INASE ETTTA AISTA.  I set it for a duration that produced about five lines in my notebook.  I'd usually do fifteen minute practice sessions once a day, until I could easily copy all the characters in the set without making more than one or two errors.  Once that was done, I headed back to the next Gordo 0-5 WPM lesson to learn another few characters.  Then back to the MFJ-418 to cement them in my mind.  Rinse, repeat, until all the characters were learned.

Pretty soon, I had filled up a sixty page notebook with the copy from the Gordo tapes and these random code groups.  I also found another means of generating those random code groups: an excellent iOS app called Ham Morse.  This highly configurable app supports Farnsworth spacing, gradual introduction of characters, random code groups, words, practice QSOs, and even pulling live news headlines and sending them as CW.  

Step 3: Increase The Speed and Start Sending

Because I was using the Farnsworth method, it was easy to start increasing my copy speed.  All I had to do was decrement the inter-character and word spacing slightly.  Even before I had learned all the characters, I began slightly speeding up the code groups from Ham Morse and the MFJ-418.  First 6 WPM effective speed, then 7-9, all the way up to about 11 to 12 WPM (the actual character speed staying at 20 WPM).  With each bump in speed, my accuracy would take a dive.  I just had to ignore the frustration and keep moving.  As soon as I had a couple of pages at the new speed with minimal errors, it was time for another 1-2 WPM increase.

This was also about the time that I figured I should start practicing sending Morse Code.  In the old days, folks used a straight key, but modern CW ops use a paddle and keyer.  If you don't already know, a paddle is basically a switch with two finger pieces, and a keyer is an electronic device that produces standard-length dits and dahs.  Most modern radios have a keyer built in.   I decided to skip the straight key entirely and focus on paddle technique, since that's what I would be using once I got on the air.

I started out with my base station, sidetone only (no TX), plus a non-portable paddle.  This worked fine for practicing at home.  I also wanted to be able to practice on a paddle with real audio output, without hauling around my radio.  There aren't many turnkey solutions for this.  Here's what I came up with:

It's a Palm Radio Mini Paddle, Code Cube, and Tone Tube.  They all fit nicely on a slab of heavy steel, which keeps the rig from moving around the table when I key it.

This practice rig (plus the MFJ-418 or Ham Morse) gives me pretty much everything I need to go anywhere and be able to work in a daily send+receive practice session.  It doesn't provide decoding of the sent CW.  In other words, I still needed a way to ensure that the code I was sending was clean and had correct spacing.  I use a program on my laptop called fldigi to listen to the audio sent from my practice rig and decode it on the screen.  It's not flawless decoding, but it works reasonably well.

I continued the same routine as above: copy random groups of characters, then send those same groups on my practice rig.  Repeat.  Proficient?  Increase the speed.  This worked well and got me up to about 18-19 WPM over several months.  But what I was I really building skill at?  Copying and sending random groups of characters?  That's not real life.

Step 4: Word and QSO Practice

Introducing: words!  I was in for a surprise when I set the Ham Morse app to send plain English words.  I kept dropping letters and entire words.  Where I could copy 18 WPM code groups with high accuracy, I just fell apart when trying to copy words sent even at 15 WPM.  I believe what was happening was that it took all my concentration and focus to decode the 18 WPM code groups.  Once I changed to words, another part of my brain was engaged in trying to guess what the word would be.  That context switch delayed my decoding.

I worked at writing just the individual letters as they were sent, and tried not to think about the complete word.  Frankly, this wasn't very fun.  I had gotten very comfortable with the random code groups, and it was discouraging to take a significant step backwards in terms of copy speed.  On the advice of one of my mentors, K4XU, I just kept slogging away at the practice, and eventually got back in the groove.

Receive, write, send, repeat.

Ham Morse will also send practice QSOs.  It simulates a transmission from another operator, kind of like playing the computer opponent in chess.  You can configure the app with your call sign and name, and the fake QSOs will use that information to make the sent text more realistic.  

To practice sending with this feature, I copy the QSO down on paper, then use my practice rig to reply to the imaginary other operator.  This is a great way to build on-the-fly sending skill.  Up to that point, I was sending by reading letter for letter from what I had already copied.

I don't remember exactly when it happened, but one day I dropped the Farnsworth spacing altogether.  I think this was around 15 WPM.  From that point on, I only practiced with normal spacing. 

My First CW QSO

This happened on February 14, 2015, about six months after I first started serious practice.  I was chatting with Carl, KB9DKR, in Tennessee.  He was operating a club call, KE4BSA.  We were talking about learning Morse Code, and he suggested we switch modes to CW and continue the conversation.  I was really nervous, but I agreed.  I'm sure my hands were shaking.

We exchanged RST (signal reports) and did the conventional exchange of call signs, and he congratulated me on having my first real CW QSO.  This was awesome!  We switched back to sideband to continue the contact over voice, but I went ahead and logged the CW contact separately -- the first in my log.

Continuing Education

Once you get to the point where you can send and receive with reasonable accuracy, it's time to add real QSOs on a regular basis. I've been doing this as much as possible since that first QSO above.  Until a couple of months ago, 20 WPM with pencil and paper was as fast as I could go.  Even at that speed, I wasn't able to copy everything in a typical QSO.  There's just a limit to how fast a person can write.

I knew head copy -- writing down only the essentials -- was the next step.  I enrolled in CWOps' CW Academy.  It's an online, instructor led CW course that's conducted over Skype and on the air.  From their web site: 

Level 2: (intermediate, operators who know Morse and can operate comfortably at speeds between 11 and 15 wpm; meetings are held online and on-the-air)  The objectives for Level 2 training are to increase one's speed above 15 wpm through practice with head copying and sending; to hone one's skills in conversational QSOing, contesting and DXing.

This course was led by Ed, K6HP, and it was great.  It gave me the confidence and skills to put down the pencil and begin copying Morse Code in my head.  We met twice a week, and though these sessions had a lot of talking, the real practice was done as homework.  Ed encouraged us to write down only the other op's call, location, and signal reports.  After all, if you start to get lost, you can always fall back to pencil and paper.

CW Academy in session.

In January 2016, I'll be starting CW Academy's Level 3 class with K6RB, the founder of CWA.  He assures us that by the end of the class, we'll be doing a solid 25-30 WPM head copy if we practice diligently. 

I can't wait!

Resources For Learning Morse Code

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