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CW Backgrounder (skip)

Modulating a continuously transmitting signal by switching it on and off in patterns that can encode information is just about the simplest way of communicating electronically. It is both the origin story of digital communication, with a rich and fascinating history, and a pragmatic method for modern use in peculiar circumstances.

Morse code is the pattern of ‘dits’ and ‘dahs’ that encode information. CW is a use of that code in which the transmitter produces a nearly pure tone at a particular radio frequency, and cleanly toggles that transmission on and off in the pattern we call Morse code. The code predated CW in the form of wired telegraphy and a cruder form of wireless called “spark gap”, and of course, other codes of on-off keying have been invented that use different patterns or timings. The technical prowess of the CW mode comes from the modern CW transmitter designs and fundamentals of physics; whereas the heritage and, frankly, the practicality, comes from copying and sending in, for what was been since the beginning of electronic communication, the mother-tong of the airwaves.

For the radio amateur, using CW has several draws. Like the amateur sailor, it is a living demonstration of a connection to a shared heritage. Both as an expression of a hard-won skill, and as a tradition of using the same code as the early telegraphers who connected the Victorian world, Marconi and his peers who developed wireless technology, and the soldiers and sailors who exposed themselves to great risks over a century of peace and war to protect their people from harm in the ways only a person who can communicate vast distances could do. That is the heritage of our modern Internet and of international cooperation, and that is the heritage of the curios experimenter who wants to see what can be done with a little circuitry and knowledge of physics.

Beyond the romantic, the other draws are surprisingly pragmatic. A cw transmitter can be much simpler than one that has to modulate the signal in a more complicated manner -such as a voice signal. This simplicity makes home made transceivers more reasonable a task, but it also means those radios can be far more power efficient. To compound that, transmitting all-or-nothing in a tiny slice of radio-spectrum means an over the air power efficiency a great deal better than voice. The difference is so substantial, that a 5 watt “QRP” CW signal can be nearly as readable as a sideband voice signal being produced by a 100 watt transceiver. These two efficiencies make practical intercontinental contacts possible powered by flashlight batteries. This is a pragmatism that allows amateurs to comfortably hike to mountain summits and make these contacts. The narrow-band nature of CW also lends its self to rapid contacts between operators in crowded bands, which makes it the go-to for radio contesters as well.

Today, digital modes can accomplish some of the super weak signal and rapid, crowded operations of CW, but at the cost of a greatly increased equipment complexity and relative power requirement. Both modes certainly have their place, but CW offers something special that seems to appeal to a great new people each year. What that is certainly varies from person to person, and likely includes far more than I have touched on above. However, for me it is all of those things that keep me coming back to wanting to be part of this tradition.

To be able to understand every part of the machine that talks through the sky, to be able to carry a station in a daypack pocket and make an international contact with it, or to be able to eek QSO’s out of my regular station’s 100 watts and compromise suburban antenna, and perhaps most of all, to connect across time with the fascinating people that worked the world from their keys and paddles when everyone else was limited to only those people in their sight.

CW Learning

My own journey to learning the code was long but rewarding. It could have been quicker had I followed the advice of the sages of the hobby with consistent, daily practice, but as with many, this is a hobby among many daily concerns. I don’t find this disappointing though, as I have approached code practice as a hobby in its self. Interestingly, I find that a short bust of focused practice actually clears my mind like a form of meditation. If someone chooses this haphazard path, they should know that it may be slow, but it still can be rewarding and ultimately successful.

As someone still very much learning, I will provide a short list of some hard-won lessons. As far as I know, these are entirely uncontroversial, and I doubt any respected CW teacher will disagree with any:

  • Always practice at the minimal volume necessary for comfortable copy. Protect those ears. The amazing signal-to-noise capability of CW translates to simple audio practice, and even in a noisy environment, you may be surprised that very quiet tones are easy to copy.
  • Any resource that you find that presents you with visual cues (dots and dashes) isn’t worth your time. You are learning an auditory language, and visual crutches will hurt your learning process almost immediately.
  • When you find something that seems to work for you, stick to it! It will get frustrating at times, and you might want to experiment with other ways of gaining exposure to the code, but don’t give up on your primary learning tool too early.

Now for the controversial opinion: I’m aware that a lot of people advocate for the Koch method of learning CW with Farnsworth spacing. The most well known example of this is the lcwo website. Koch and Farnsworth did a lot of research, and provided a great deal of evidence that this is a really effective method to teach CW for military operators. The problem here is that they were trying to build the best system to teach recruits how to copy 5 character blocks of nonsense text at high speed with perfect accuracy to a keyboard. That was what militaries needed, but not what hams need. There are two fatal flaws to this system.

1: it focuses on transcription to keyboard. You will find that you learn to type what you hear without necessarily processing it. You might have to read what you wrote to know what was sent! Hams really benefit from learning to “head copy” - that is listen to code as one would read a page or listen to a conversation. You may not get every character, but we repeat the important stuff anyway. Head copy is what makes amateur radio QSOs fun and fluid. It’s about processing the meaning of what is being sent automatically, and only typing out things like a callsign.

2: Some argue that the Koch method is still good for initially learning the individual characters. To which I would argue it’s inefficient even for that. Initially, this method introduces characters as you learn them, and you progress when you are making few errors. However, by the time you get more than half way through the course, you rarely encounter the new characters among all of the characters you know. Your accuracy will remain high (because you know most of the letters), but it takes a lot of time to expose yourself to the new characters sufficiently.

So for ham radio operators wanting to learn CW, I recommend one of the tools that focuses on learning to head copy from the start.

Good examples of systems that focus on head copy from the start:

  • CW-Academy: The founders of a new breed of online in-person teaching. I have not enrolled in the course, but I know a few people who have went through this process and have nothing but positive things to say. Even if you do not sign up, their website has all of the course materials so it is entirely possible to self-teach. You do not need to enroll in a course to follow the system. They provide all course materials on the website and I have found that most useful to me. The courses are valuable if you want some accountability and encouragement.
  • Morse Code Ninja: This is was new one for me after hearing him interviewed on the ditdit.fm podcast. I started by using his practice files heavily to work on copying callsigns and head-copy of other things. I think it is absolutely brilliant as a resource. Since then, he’s produced a huge repository of training materials, and organized it in a way that a person can create a complete self-study course to go from learning characters, to qrq copy of words and sentences.