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The SARC CW Course

Morse Code Is Not Dead!

CW – the Original (and arguably, the best) Digital Mode

Invented in 1837, CW which is more commonly known as “Morse Code”, was the very first mode of communication sent over a wire or airwaves.  It is called CW or “continuous wave” because it is an unmodulated radio wave of constant amplitude, though it might more accurately be called “discontinuous wave” since the wave is broken into short and long segments separated by spaces, to represent letters of the alphabet, numbers and punctuation marks.  It is legitimately a digital mode because it exists in only 2 states  –“on” or “off”.

The length of the dot (or “dit” as we prefer to say) and dash (or dah)  and the spacing between them is not arbitrary but has a fixed relationship.  If the relationship is not accurate, the quality of the CW will be recognized as “poor” and in extreme cases may be virtually unreadable.  While most CW heard nowadays is created by software and is therefore perfect, we occasionally hear on the radio less-than-perfect Morse Code, sent by operators still using a mechanical device such as hand key or bug.

Since CW has largely been abandoned by the commercial, military and transportation world, it is now virtually within the sole domain of amateur radio operators, whose passionate adherents will likely stand by it to the bitter end.  So, if you think CW is dying out, then listen on the 20 m band during one of the many CW contests throughout the year.  You will be amazed at the number of CW operators sending Morse Code at rates between a lazy 15 wpm and the a breakneck 50 wpm or more, from every corner of the world.  

If you wish to use radio to communicate by the most reliable and sensitive means, you will not use CW at all, but instead one of the modern “weak signal” digital modes such as FT8, JT65 and a whole slew of others,  which have transformed our ability to accurately copy signals which may be so weak that you cannot actually hear them.  This is a boon to communication as it allows information to be exchanged even when using low power transmitters and poor antennas – unavoidable for condo dwellers.  So these forms of digital certainly have their benefits.  

However, if you wish to enjoy amateur radio in the most traditional, challenging and enjoyable way, you will find CW is the method of choice.   Yes, you can deploy digital decoders to help you read CW on a computer monitor, and many do.  However, even the best digital decoders are inferior to your ears and brain working together.  So if you are serious about using CW, you really must learn to copy it by ear.  

As a beginner, you will likely start with a hand key to send the characters which require a separate wrist movement for each dit and each dah.   In the past, CW operators would typically graduate to a semi-automatic key called a “bug” which sends a series of dits when the paddle is pushed one way, but single dahs when pushed the other way.  That certainly takes some of the work out of sending.  Actually very few CW operators now use a bug although the holdouts can still be heard on the airwaves.  

CW sent by a hand key or bug is usually distinctive of the operator and can often be recognized in the same way that a person’s individual handwriting differs from that of others.   During WW 2 the identity of German and British radio operators could often be recognized by their “fist” i.e. individual way of sending code characters.   

Hand key

Semi-mechanical Vibroplex “bug”

Nowadays, 95% of CW operators use a paddle and electronic keyer to send CW.  This combination is a big step up from the hand key and bug because it allows sending virtually perfect CW, which means the dits and dahs are of the correct length and spacing.  The keyer can be a separate unit into which you plug your paddle or, more commonly, it is built into the transceiver.  You push the paddle one way and it makes a string of dits; push it the opposite way and it makes a string of dahs.   It is not difficult to master and the result is uniform and perfectly formed CW.

Kent paddle

Bencher paddle

Electronic keyer with built-in paddle

External Electronic keyer which requires a separate paddle

You may occasionally hear about “iambic keying” which allows the keyer to minimize the keystrokes or hand movements even further.  To visualize how it works, consider the letter “C” which can be sent iambically by merely squeezing the two paddles together. With a single-paddle or non-iambic keyer, the hand motion would require alternating four times for C (dah-dit-dah-dit).  Most CW operators have not mastered this technique and it is not recommended for beginners.

If you’re stuck in a rut and looking for a new and challenging experience, consider learning CW.  Persistence and practice will get you through in the end and you will be ready to join the select group of hams known as “CWers”.  I heartily recommend it.

~John VA7XB

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