CW - The Once and Future Mode

by
Marshall G. Emm N1FN/VK5FN

 [First published in "73 Amateur Radio" Issue #473, April 2000]


My grandmother was born in 1877. That means that I personally knew and spoke to a person who remembered the introduction of the electric light, the telephone, the automobile, and world war. She knew her grandmother, who was born in 1840, before the Civil War and before the invention of Morse code and the electric telegraph. I'm 50 years old, and I knew someone who knew someone who remembered the Civil War! The pace of change is so rapid now that we tend to forget that we're only a few generations removed from a very primitive lifestyle

Man has been around for something like 25,000 years (depending on who you talk to, and their definition of man). We have documentary records, i.e. recorded history, going back perhaps 6,000 years, again depending on who you talk to. But it is only in the last 150 years that we have been able to communicate with distant people at speeds faster than a runner, or a horseback rider, or someone on a boat. 150 years ago communications beyond line-of-sight traveled at literally a walking pace.

What we think of as Communication today was born with the electric telegraph, which in turn depended on Morse code. What Samuel FB Morse and the other pioneers of telegraph could not know was how profound would be the changes resulting from the telegraph. It wasn't just "the birth of communications" but a full-scale revolution in relationships between people who weren't in physical proximity. Warfare, commerce, politics and everyday life were changed dramatically and permanently.

In 1844 the only telegraph line was Morse's demonstration line between Baltimore and Washington, a distance of 40 miles. Six years later, according to the US Census of 1850, there were already 12,000 miles of telegraph lines in use. By 1900 there were hundreds of thousands of miles of telegraph lines all over the world, connected in true networks that would be familiar to any student of the Internet. There were tens of thousands of professional telegraphers. We forget how big a deal it was. And we also forget that the original wet-battery powered telegraph networks evolved into the telephone system, the wireless radio networks, and even the broadcast media. All of those were gradual evolutions from the original electric telegraph. And at the heart of it all was Morse code.

Just as the original electric telegraph depended on Samuel Morse's code, so did the evolution of radio-communications, and later digital communications. It sounds "clever" to say that Morse was the original digital mode, but it's literally true. Morse uses a simple "binary state" to store and carry information, and that is exactly what all those gigabytes of "ones and zeroes" on your hard disks and DVDs are using.

What's more, if you want to you can use any of the current means of communication to carry a message in Morse code. There is actually a large group of former (and aging) telegraphers who use the telephone system to hook up keys and sounders, keeping the art alive with the aid of Ma Bell. I believe they are working on ways to do it via the Internet even now.

Amateur radio operators were the pioneers of wireless telegraphy, and up to a point were the pioneers of most other forms of wireless communication. It is certainly true that code is no longer the defining element of amateur radio, but it is still useful, and fun, and for many of us the true heartbeat of the hobby.

Click to view in full size.  1850's Pen Register.  During a dot or dash, the current through the coils creates a magnetic field which pulls the lever down, pressing a pen against the paper tape.
 

Click to view in full size. 1860's Printing Telegraph.  The “piano keys” are linked to the characters of the alphabet.

From HISTORY, THEORY AND PRACTICE OF THE ELECTRIC TELEGRAPH byGeorge B. Prescott,  1860/1866 (fourth edition), 1972 reprint by Artifax Books..


A Quick Look at the Code

What is Morse code and how does it work? At its simplest level (and undoubtedly the way Morse intended it) it is just a set of dots and dashes or short tones and long tones used to represent the letters of the alphabet. But when it's working properly, that is, used by people who have "mastered" it, Morse code is a set of sensory cues, or signals, that are recognized instantly by the receiver. It is not a language, and it is nowhere near as difficult to learn as a language.

Human interaction is full of such sensory signals, using auditory, visual, and tactile "codes" which are understood instantly and instinctively. Morse is a little more elaborate, perhaps, in that it uses the sensory cue technique to represent an actual language (English or otherwise), and therefor can be used to communicate an infinite number of "messages." But let's look at some simpler sensory cues, which will give us an idea of why Morse works so well-
 
 

Auditory cues - you hear a loud whistle and you immediately know whether it is a) an attention getting whistle, such as that used to summon a Taxi, or b) a wolf whistle.
 

Visual cues- a smile or a wink can convey volumes of information, none of which requires conscious thought. The same is true of more complex signals used by football and baseball coaches. The ultimate set of visual cues, and a close parallel to Morse, is Sign Language.
 

Tactile cues- you're about to cross the street with someone and they suddenly reach out and lightly press their hand on your arm. You don't think, you don't translate, you respond.

Recognition of such signals is a very primitive skill, which we all learn at a very early age. They are easily learned (and used) because in evolutionary terms they predate spoken and written languages. There are still many sounds we make that convey real meaning, but are almost impossible to write in words. We can say "the girl screamed" but we can't get the same message across with "the girl went 'Aaarrrrrrgggggg.'"

So responding to intelligence embedded in auditory signals is a part of our basic skill set as human beings, and it should be no surprise that humans are for the most part very capable of learning Morse code to a point where it can be used without conscious thought. Perhaps it is just difficult to think about things that don't require thought, but in fact, old Samuel FB himself missed the boat, and is given more credit than is really due. Morse did not invent the process of copying code by ear- nope, he designed the code to be written on paper and read by eye. It was wasn't long, though, before telegraphers realized that they could copy what was sent just by listening to the clicks of the pen register, and then it wasn't long before the pen was abandoned in favor of the sounder.

Morse code works with a very primitive part of our brain, and the result is that the technology used to support communication in Morse can be very, very simple. As simple as a flashing light, or a barely audible tone.
 

The Superiority of CW as a Mode for Amateur Radio Communications

CW is the mode of communications most commonly used with Morse code. It may be unfashionable, but I think it is important to distinguish between the two. CW is a mode, and Morse is a code. Morse code can be used with flashlights, buzzers, sounders, and even FM radio, but none of those is CW. If we don't make the distinction, we can end up with newcomers making horrendous mistakes like "CW practice" using oscillators and FM transceivers- in the CW part of the 2M band. Don't laugh- I've seen it done.

But I digress-- we were talking about why CW is a superior mode. Just for the fun of it, let's imagine that the hobby of amateur radio doesn't exist, but the FCC has decided that it should be created as a hobby for ordinary citizens. We've been appointed to a committee to consider the options and recommend the best solution.

We start by defining our goal, which is simply to provide a means whereby two people (to be known as "hams") can communicate with each other over some considerable distance using radio waves. The two people may not know each other, and they may be on opposite sides of the globe.

Having defined our goal, we issue a "Request for Proposals" to interested corporations and groups in the "Industry." Because it is a hobby there isn't likely to be a lot of money to be made by the respondents, so we only get two proposals. Proposal Number One is from a giant corporation called Minisoft, and is titled "SSB 95/98/2000." Proposal Number Two is from the Earth Friendly QRP Club, and is titled simply "CW."

In responsible bureaucratic fashion, we list the advantages, disadvantages, and costs of each proposal side by side so that we can make a fair comparison. It's an interesting exercise, because almost all of the pluses are on the CW side of the page. We end up with about 300 pages of overheads, charts, and calculations, and so we try to boil it down to an "Executive Summary" that even our bosses will be able to understand...

Executive Summary:

The "CW" system is superior for amateur radio because the equipment is inexpensive and can be easily built by most prospective hams, a signal requires only a "point" frequency or very narrow bandwidth, and a comparable signal using the "SSB" system will require 18dB more power output.

The only argument against the CW proposal is that to use the "CW" system the "hams" would have to learn Morse code, while the "SSB" system requires only that the "hams" be capable of picking up a microphone and knowing when to push the button.

It is the conclusion of this committee that the "CW" system will empower far more "hams," at far lower cost, and with much more efficient usage of limited RF spectrum. But we're gonna recommend the "SSB" system because the Minisoft folks took us out to lunch and gave us a coffee mug.


 

Attempts to Kill the Code

Despite the usefulness of Morse code and CW, there have been two major thrusts to eliminate them in the "real world." The first is the abandonment of Morse for communications at sea. We should be able to surmise something about this from the fact that it was done by ukase. What happened was that a (or perhaps the) international maritime organization issued an edict that ships over 300 tonnes were not to carry Morse equipment, period. Those that had it were specifically directed to remove it. That doesn't make much sense until you consider it in terms of money and politics. Mostly money, of course. I have heard from several maritime radio officers that the ship owners deeply resented having to pay a radio officer "just in case," when any other officer can pick up a microphone and use a keyboard to communicate via satellite. How many lifeboats were on the Titanic?

Then there's the military, and guess what- we find money and politics at the root of it again. The US Military in particular has a preference for solving problems by throwing technology rather than manpower at them.. And of course the military's preference is deliberately nurtured by the contractors, many of whom can only survive by selling new technology to the military. The military being what it is, they take a heavy hand to things at times, and a side effect of all the new communications technology is that MARS stations were orderednot to use CW.  Remember, these are essentially amateur radio stations cohabiting in military networks. They weren't given "newer and better" equipment, but ordered to throw away an existing capability!

In our "unreal world" of amateur radio we have seen a lot of pressure to abandon the code as a licensing requirement- usually it's sugar coated, along the lines of "nobody is saying you can't use it, we're just saying you don't have to learn it." Why? Doesn't take much analysis to come up with the answer- money and politics. For most of us as individuals, amateur radio is a hobby. But for far too many "support types" it is an Industry. Manufacturers and bureaucracies are concerned that the market is "shrinking." They point to license numbers and say that the amateur population is declining, and getting older, and something must be done. Obviously we need to make it easier to become a ham, and about all we can do apart from giving away licenses is to eliminate the code requirement. But guess what, boys and girls... we've been there and done that. We got a huge influx of no-code licensees in the '70s but we didn't maintain their interest and they are dropping out of the hobby like flies. That is the shrinkage that the Industry is seeing. The popular wisdom now is that access to HF will bring them back and keep them in.

The important thing here is that in the three major areas of code use, it is being actively discouraged for reasons which have absolutely nothing to do with its usefulness.
 

Code Today and Tomorrow

This article wasn't intended as a defense of Morse code, which after all is said and done[needs no defense. So let's get down to brass tacks. Literally. Take two brass tacks. Stick them into the end of a clothes pin, facing each other, so that you can click them together. Click them together in the familiar rhythm of Morse code, and someone on the other side of the room will be able to hear them and understand what you are saying. Connect a wire to each of the tacks, and the other end of the two wires to a CW transmitter. Connect another, longer piece of wire to the transmitter and now someone on the other side of the world can hear your little brass tacks clicking together and understand what you are saying-- even if they don't speak English. The CW transmitter is in essence so simple, so foolproof, that any amateur radio operator can build one, with parts from an old TV set or an inexpensive kit. Before you know it, you are having fun, and that's what hobbies are all about. Not only is it fun, but you can feel very proud of yourself because you are using equipment that you made yourself!
 
 

Click to view in full size. A fully functional telegraph key made from a clothes pin by K4TWJ..
The range of available equipment for CW operation is huge, as you might expect after a hundred years or more of development. The simple Morse telegraph key is little different from the very earliest examples. But it is a tool, and like all tools there have been lots of refinements and artistic renderings- many telegraph keys are genuine works of art, including some made from or plated with silver, gold, and platinum, or even studded with jewels. As an indication of how pervasive Morse code and the telegraph culture were 70 years ago, the humble telegraph key was used as a motif for all sorts of other items, such as cigarette lighters, staplers, toys, and jewelry (even today there is a variety of jewelry chain, with mixed short and long links, called a Morse code chain." Over 50 different manufacturers of "toy telegraph sets" are known, and these sets actually worked.

The basic telegraph key is a simple switch, and there have been many different approaches to the same task- from semi- or fully-automatic mechanical keys (bugs), to electronic keyers and paddles. The current generation of electronic keyers are based on microprocessors that have more grunt than a main-frame computer did a scant 50 years ago.

I have the extremes pretty well covered in my shack. Most of the time I use a very advanced memory keyer, with more features than I will ever use, driven by a fairly expensive paddle. But about a foot away from it, and connected, ready for use, is a simple straight key that I bought at a swap fest about a month before I got my first amateur radio license. I still use it from time to time, and not just on Straight Key Night. It's easier and more efficient to use the paddle and keyer, but the minute my hand touches the straight key I am making a physical and metaphysical connection with my own past and with every telegrapher who ever went to sea, or pulled a Western Union shift, or sent a report from behind enemy lines.
 
 

Click to view in full size. Modern “Single Chip” Electronic Memory Keyer, with microprocessor control. This is the CMOS Super Keyer III from Idiom Press.


On Learning the Code

Using Morse code is a skill, like riding a bicycle, or playing golf. You have to learn how to do it, and you get better at doing it through practice. Riding a bicycle is a good analogy, because it seems impossible at first but eventually something "clicks" and you can do it. Not only can you do it, you wonder what all the fuss was about. In one respect, however, playing golf is a better analogy because it is open ended. The more you do it, the better you get, but you never quite reach perfection.

There are many, many techniques for learning Morse code and for increasing proficiency. The unsaid secret is that almost any of them will work if you give them a chance. The only way to really learn Morse code is to use it. You are teaching your brain to understand what it is hearing, and teaching your hand to send what you are thinking. Skills are developed through use, and there are no shortcuts.

As amateurs we do often have unrealistic expectations about the learning Morse code. There are few if any professional Morse operators left in the world, although there are lot of hams who used to be pros. A professional is someone who makes his living from sending and receiving code, eight hours a day or more, day in and day out. It's their job. Amateurs have limited time available and so it takes a good bit longer to reach anything resembling "mastery" of Morse code, but it will happen if you keep at it. At some point, whether you are giving a "first qso" to a novice at 5wpm or ragchewing with a friend at 20wpm, it will suddenly dawn on you that you are not copying what is being sent, you are hearing what is being said.

That's the point at which you will have discovered the real joy of Morse code, and become a member of the international and eternal brotherhood of brasspounders. Not because you have to, and not because it is fun, but simply because you can.

Looking Forward

From time to time I hear speculation that we could face a natural disaster that wipes out most of what we call "technology," or perhaps a war with an enemy who has figured out how to use their technology to defeat ours. These scenarios are often dredged up in an attempt to justify preserving Morse code, which is seen as being under threat and in need of defense.

In the first place, if there were a sudden need for thousands of Morse operators, they could be trained very quickly- possibly more quickly than communication networks could be created for them to use. We went through that in World War II.

In the second place, Morse code will survive as long as people want to use it, and there is absolutely no question that it is the mode of choice for an increasing number of hams. There are many "sub hobbies" within amateur radio, but the one area which has seen spectacular and sustained growth over the last few years is QRP (low power operation). Because of the power advantage (equivalent readability on the order of 18dB greater than SSB), CW is used in the majority of QRP operations. QRP is inexpensive, it's environmentally friendly, it's challenging, and it's fun. CW is the mode that makes it possible, and you don't hear any complaints about Morse being "too hard." But don't take my word for it, listen around 7.040 most any evening.

Diehard DXers know that CW will get through when SSB just won't cut it, and the same is true of the top contesters. Anybody who thinks CW is dying out should listen to the CW sub-bands during Field Day.

I'm in a position to know that interest in Morse code (and the machines that make it useful) has been growing steadily over the last four or five years. I'm also an active operator, so I know that use of CW on the air is also increasing. Maybe it's not "high tech." Or maybe, since it is direct digital input to the brain, it's as high as tech can get. Either way, it's fun, it's rewarding, and it's going to be around a lot longer than I am.

Click to view in full size. High speed dual paddle, by G4ZPY.  The design is optimized for use with an electronic keyer at up to 60wpm



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