How I Learned Morse Code

When I was about 11 or 12 years old, I would come home from school to my father pounding away on a straight or paddle key sending Morse Code back and forth to some person from an unknown destination. I always wanted to know how to send and receive Morse Code, but I was never able to understand.

One day, I asked my father, “How do I learn Morse Code?” He sent me over the the Encyclopedia Britannica set that we have, and I studied Morse Code for days. I memorized the dots and dashes and was able to quickly learn Morse Code easily.

I was able to write down the entire Morse Code alphabet, but learning to hear Morse Code was a totally different story. Learning Morse Code by ear was much harder than learning Morse Code by looking at it from an encyclopedia! The only problem was that I learned the wrong version of Morse Code, and I had to re-learn the entire thing!

Today, it’s much easier to learn Morse code, especially since you can now learn Morse Code online!

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.


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.

Morse Code Saves Naval Ship

A Navy communications technician named Glenn Pladsen shared an interesting story of how Morse Code saved a naval ship when all other communications were down. Pladsen was recruited by the Naval Security Group to be a Cryptologic Tech, Maintenance (CTM) where he developed his skills in Morse Code and electronics. In 1972 Pladsen was assigned to a direct support position where he was one of eight CTMs that actually was positioned on ships. His placement was aboard the USS William M. Wood destroyer in 1973 where he was placed to maintain electrical gear and do repairs when needed.

The duty of the ship was to show the presence of the U.S. Navy in the Mediterranean and they did so by sailing from port to port. That summer the USS Wood was ordered to participate in a NATO exercise where it would act as a “bad guy” and shadow the NATO taskforce. Part of this exercise meant hiding and pretending to be a ship from an enemy navy. Upon the onset of the exercise the other US ships had been designated to other areas and had sailed away.

Given the old age of the USS Wood it was probably not surprising that it ran into some problems out in the wide ocean. As the exercise ensued the USS Wood experienced engine problems and was left stranded in the ocean. Normally this would not have been a problem but the two emergency generators on board were down and restoring power to the ship would take another eight to 10 hours. Being that the ship was in a major shipping lane with no power, no lights and no radios and no expectations of being at any port they were facing a bit of adversity.

Turns out adversity came in the form of a huge freighter which was headed straight for the destroyer. Luckily a Russian destroyer was in the area and with some quick thinking was signaled using battery powered flashing lanterns. The American ship managed to use Morse Code to communicate to the Russians and luckily they understood the international language of the code. The Russian destroyer then helped divert the freighter out of harm’s way and stayed with the USS destroyer until it restored power.

If it weren’t for the use of the Morse Code than this story may had an entirely different ending. Unfortunately Morse Code is no longer a requirement and thus fewer people are learning this useful and potentially life-saving skill.

Morse Code SOS

Contrary to popular belief, the Morse code for symbol for SOS (. . . – – – . . .) is not an abbreviation or acronym for “save our ship,” “save our souls,” or “send out succour.” The code above was originally intended solely as a signal for distress and was first adopted by the German government in radio regulations in 1905. It soon became the global standard after the second International Radiotelegraphic Convention signed in 1906. The SOS distress signal remained the maritime signal up until recently when in 1999 it was replaced by the Global Maritime Distress Safety System, an international set of safety procedures. Learn Morse code!

Origin of SOS in Morse Code

The Germans never intended on naming the distress signal SOS, the codes makeup was just a simple way to transmit the signal and was easy to remember. It is easy to see why the code was translated into the popular terms mentioned above and how people confuse it for what it really is. One of the original distress signals used was “QCD” and was used by Marconi International Marine Communication Company. This code stood to mean “all stations, distress” and has also been commonly misinterpreted to mean “come quick, danger,” “come quickly, distress,” or “come quick- drowning!” The signal was used by Marconi operators but was never adopted by international standards because it could be mistaken for simply “CQ” or “general call” if the reception was poor. It wasn’t until 1912 and the sinking of the Titanic when the ship’s Marconi operators used both QCD and SOS distress signals to try and get help. Because of this ill-ending story and inconsistency amongst ship operators the use of the CQD has died out.

SOS as a distress call has always been transmitted as a continuous sequence of dits-and-dahs without the spacing that goes between letters in traditional transmissions. The term was regarded as safe for use as long as the Morse code operators were aware that it was just a convenient way for them to remember the distress signal and not transmit it in the literal sense. Eventually SOS was written with a bar over it to designate that it was to be transmitted continuously and without internal spaces.

Another notable characteristic of the signal is that it can be used visually as well. It can be used in three short flashes, three long, then three short to signal distress visually as well as spelled out so that it can be viewed from above perhaps by a rescue plane or chopper. The neat thing about SOS is that it is readable upside down as well as right-side-up from above.