Why learn Morse – by Phil Parkman G3MGQ

Why Learn Morse

With computers, and all the data modes they now make available, many people question the point in learning to send and receive Morse code. After all it’s a skill that takes considerable time, and therefore requires significant commitment, to acquire to a level where one can use it on the air. There are many reasons, of course, why learning Morse to a competent level is still worthwhile. Being a narrow-band mode (indeed the original!), CW will often get through where SSB cannot. Being narrow band, there’s usually plenty of room at the bottom of your chosen HF band to find a free frequency for CW while up in the SSB section QRM makes contacts a real struggle, at weekends in particular, when the bands are busy. There are of course computer programmes that can copy Morse; CWGet is one which you can download and it’s free to try out the basic facilities. However, listening on the noisy HF bands one soon realises that the human brain is still a vastly superior processor for picking out a meaningful signal, particularly where the CW is hand sent and therefore a bit variable.  However, probably the best  reason is the huge satisfaction in mastering this rapidly disappearing art. And, of course, that satisfaction is all the greater if it enables communication using only the most basic of equipment which you’ve put together yourself. CW-only rigs are the easiest to design & build and, being simple and with a low power consumption, are a great choice as portable HF rigs for backpacking, etc. A CW rig then makes a useful first project, enabling a newly Intermediate licensed amateur to get on the air quickly and effectively. Interestingly, I heard recently that the US military have decided that they need to ensure they have at least some people who can still use Morse because in many parts of the world people don’t have access to the sophisticated equipment that our western armies have become so dependent on.

How to Learn Morse

There’s been quite a lot published on the best way to learn Morse. At speeds above about 10wpm (words per minute) it takes too much time to decipher which character it is from the dots and dashes so you then miss the next one or more. So it is important that the characters, alphanumeric and procedural, are learnt from the outset as a unique “sound”, using the typical character speed for hand-sent communications of 18 – 25 wpm.
One method for learning Morse is to send the characters at the “correct” speed but to pad out the space between the characters and words to give more time for the student to recognise the sound and write it down. This is popularly known as the Farnsworth method, after Russ Farnworth W6TTB who marketed a set of LP’s (for the benefit of the MP3 generation, these were 33 rpm vinyl gramophone records which were superseded by CDs) for Morse code training in 1959 using this technique. This variable spacing technique had been used by many Morse tutors before Farnsworth; as early as 1902 Thomas Edison, himself a competent telegraphist, had written about it. Whilst this spacing method allows the novice to “hear” the characters, rather than mentally look up a table of the dots & dashes, it gives “thinking time” which can prevent the student from developing that instinctive recognition of a character that allows them to write it down without thinking, an essential skill for copying at the speeds you can expect to use in a QSO. The Koch method is considered better.
Koch was a German psychologist who, according to the late N0HFF in his book “The Art & Skill of Radio Telegraphy” (1)  in 1936 reported his research into the most efficient way to teach the Morse code to prospective radiotelegraph operators to meet the standard required for commercial radio operators; basically to receive & send a telegram of 100 words in 5 minutes.
In summary, what Koch found was his student learnt fastest if
l    the characters were sent from the outset at the full commercial speed,         as the whole character is learnt by its “sound”,
l    and without spacing out, to deny the student thinking time which al        lows analysis and speculation, distractions that still tend to block pro-        gression beyond 10wpm,
l    the character set learnt is built up progressively, an additional charac-        ter being added when the student has copied the whole of existing set         in random order with less than 10% errors,
l    the learning sessions are short (no more than 30 minutes), only twice         a day and well spaced (e.g. morning and evening)
As identified by N1IRZ  (2),  the addition of the next character only after achieving 90% reading accuracy constantly builds your confidence that you will be able to read Morse at the full speed, because that’s exactly what you’re doing already! How long it takes varies, as you progress at your own pace. Koch’s students achieved full competency at 18wpm after as little as 24 sessions, but those were people training to be professional telegraphists and were therefore highly motivated to succeed as quickly as possible.

With the programmes available off the Internet, like that by G4FON (3),  using the Koch method, most amateurs should achieve proficiency in the 40 or so alphanumeric and other commonly used characters within about 3 months if they practise for only 15 minutes morning & evening every day – that’s only twice as many hours practice as those professionals!  But remember, start at the full speed with only 2-3 letters and add an extra character only when you score 90% or better, but don’t cheat – you’ll only set yourself back! Always write it down – it’s the only way genuinely to test yourself and avoid the “thinking” trap, but it will also encourage you to keep going as you show yourself that you can get there. So why not give it a go and in only 3 months you could have the satisfaction of the CW QSO. Tony, G4KLF, is considering doing some QRS Morse for some of us on-the-air so, if like me you’re interested, drop me an email and we’ll see what we can arrange.

(1)  http://www.zerobeat.net/tasrt/c29.htm
(2)  http://www.qsl.net/n1irz/finley.morse.html
(3)  http://www.g4fon.net/CW%20Trainer.htm

Footnote:

I first tried Morse as a cub scout, learning the different letters from a table of dots & dashes – so wrong!

Next I learnt with my father from RSGB audio tapes, working up from 5wpm until I  hit the 10wpm barrier, where I quit and went off to Uni. Years later I joined the Harwell Club and went to their weekly CW training, using their programme & code on a floppy on my BBC computer, and again hit the 10wpm barrier. I just managed to get up to 12wpm but it was such a struggle I never used it except occasionally to join the net after the RSGB slow Morse transmission. So I lost it – all that effort wasted!

Now I’ve realised what the problem was, I’ve downloaded G4FON’s trainer and have started from scratch using the Koch method. My goal is to participate in the AFS contest for RSGB Affiliated Clubs in January although, as I’ve had to start again from scratch but this time at full speed, I’m quite a bit behind schedule at the moment! The biggest problem is to stop thinking about the character you’ve just missed, the bad habit you can get into using the Farnsworth method.

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Phil Parkman –  G3MGQ from the Vital Spark, January 2010.

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