February 1941 QST
Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles
QST, published December 1915 - present (visit ARRL
for info). All copyrights hereby acknowledged.
Proficiency in Morse code is no longer required
as part of obtaining an Amateur Radio license. A proposal to drop the 5 wpm requirement
was first floated by the FCC in 2005. It was actually at the request of the ARRL;
to wit, "In 2004, the League called on the FCC to create a new entry-level license,
reduce the number of actual license classes to three and drop the Morse code testing
requirement for all classes except for Amateur Extra."
ARLB018 FCC Proposes Dropping Morse Code Requirement Entirely
Now, there is no code requirement for any license class, not even the
A lot of Hams are not happy about it, but times have changed and the need for
code proficiency just is not needed anymore because of the plethora of communications
formats available. No small part of the ARRL's motivation for requesting that code
proficiency be dropped for the entry level licenses was that the ARRL believed that
many people who otherwise might be getting licenses were putting off doing so specifically
because of the Morse code requirement.
This Business of Code
Suggestions for Improving Your Code Proficiency
By John Huntoon (W1LVQ)
According to the last survey made by the League's Communications Department,
60 percent of amateur activity consists of c.w. telegraph operation. At the risk
of boring the other 40 percent of you - though that chance is slim if one judges
by the interest manifested by all of amateur radio in the Code Proficiency Program
- I would like to talk about the business of sending and receiving code.
Too little attention is paid by the average amateur to acquiring skill in this
basic form of radio communication. We amateurs spend money on equipment, time in
building it, care in designing antenna systems - all excellent policies, to be sure
- but why stop there? Too few of us realize that in communication, the basic function
for which we have worked to gain our licenses, we are known to the world by the
way we handle our signals . . . what listeners hear as well as what they see on
the S-meter. Paderewski did not become a great pianist by altering his piano's sounding
board to see if he could get more volume!
It is true that technical considerations enter
into the production of a good note and clean keying, but I prefer to think that
the fist itself, a direct product of the operator himself, is the main criterion
by which the individual is judged. We can spend $10 or $10,000 on station equipment,
but we can't buy a good fist. Good operating goes along with a good fist. It is
important, then, that we amateurs give attention to how we send as well as to what
equipment we use to send it. So, let's delve into it a bit.
It is well to point out here one fundamental thing which is true of every art
and particularly so of code operating: real progress requires constant and applied
practice. There are no shortcuts; we have to be willing to do it the hard way.
First, let's "take the code apart." It is, really, another language. It is a
conversion of intelligence, by letters of the alphabet, into signals which may be
transmitted by wire or radio or visually, and then intercepted and deciphered back
into intelligence. Specifically, it is a substitution of various combinations of
signals and interim spaces for the 26 letters of the alphabet, ten numerals, various
punctuation marks and special symbols.
When this system was devised, two of the elements comprising the code equivalents
of letters were called the dot and the dash (the third element is the oft-forgotten
space). This dot-and-dash conception may have been satisfactory back in wire telegraph
days, but it causes a great handicap to those who wish to acquire skill in radio
code work. As far as radio communication is concerned, the code should be thought
of in terms of sound - dits and dahs, rather than as they are pictured on paper
as dots and dashes. One wishing to improve his ability to handle code, be he just
beginning or well along in his study, will have made much progress the day he begins
to think of code solely in terms of sound. The principle is by no means new, but
it cannot be stressed too strongly.
Let me digress from code a moment
to show why. Repeat slowly to yourself the letter "i." It is not a single pure sound,
but rather is enunciated by saying rapidly in succession the sounds "ah" (as in
father) and "ee." You use the sound "i" so often you probably never noticed that;
and what is more important, you learned it right, as one sound instead of a combination
of others. Why then do we learn code letters as combinations of sounds instead
of as sound units in themselves? If you have been taught to say "i" by the combination
of "ah" and "ee," you probably would have had one devil of a time getting the "i"
sound down pat. Another example in phonetics is the letter "u," which is formed
by saying "ee" and "oo" in rapid succession. When you hear it, you don't think of
the letters "ee" and "oo," do you? That's because you learned it as a unit. And
that is why code should be learned in units of letters rather even than dits and
When we learn the code in that way, we make the path of progress
much easier; we shortly learn whole words by their code sounds rather than by their
individual letters. A 25-word-per-minute man when listening to 35- or 40-w.p.m.
transmission can easily pick out the short words such as "and," "the," "stop" and
others. Why? Because he has heard them 80 often that they have become indelibly
fixed in his mind as wordsounds. At that speed he doesn't hear dits and dahs, or
even letter units; it is as if someone had actually spoken the word to him.
Don't get the idea that an author with a W1L . . . call is being presumptuous when
he writes a story on code, because you'd be very wrong in this case. WILVQ is just
another disguise for ex- W9KJY, a fellow who really knows his dits. Besides being
one of the fastest amateur operators in the country, John Huntoon has given the
subject considerable thought, and we think you'll find his ideas both interesting
The word "the" in Spanish is "el"; in French, "le," In code, it is the sound "dah
didididit dit." It's merely another means of expression, another language - but
not a combination of "dots and dashes."
Perhaps you are one of those who are "stuck" at some speed and can't seem to
increase from that point. If so, the trouble doubtless is that you, whether you
realize it or not, must take each code character and put it through a mental routine
to get the letter for which it stands. You hear the sound "didah," must mentally
convert it into "dot-dash" (ugh!) and from there, into the letter "a." You have
to use this process because that is the way you learned it and you have not given
conscious effort to overcome that fault. Your mind should work like a telegraph
printer: producing the letter simultaneously with reception of the code signal
- just as if it were spoken.
Why do students of music attend concerts, keep a close watch on the schedule
of radio broadcast programs for good music, and buy recordings of the great artists?
Because, of course, they want to get the feel of the music. They know the maestro
probably can render the piece more perfectly than any other person. They want to
know how the pieces they are studying sound when played correctly. And there is
We, too, must get the feel of the code, and know how it sounds when sent correctly.
We have to get fixed in our minds, indelibly, the correct formation of each and
every letter and mark in dit-dah sound language and, later, of as many complete
words as possible. And, of course, there's one excellent way to do it: listening
to commercial tape sending.
This suggested procedure is for already-licensed
amateurs, persons who know the code at a speed of 15 words per minute or more. By
reference to press and weather schedules in old Call Books, the list of press transmissions
recommended in QST's "Operating News" section for code practice, or by actually
searching them out on the air, find a station or two with automatic keying sending
just a bit below your maximum speed - i.e., so you can just read it (not necessarily
copy it down) solid. Then stick to him by the hour; hang onto every letter, word
and phrase. Listen as you would at a musical concert; notice the formation of each
letter and the spaces left between letters and words. Probably you will notice his
businesslike "dahdidahdit" for "c," while you blush in remembering your own "dawwwdidawwdit."
Notice the proportion in length of dits to dahs; what seem like exaggerated spaces
between words (because you've probably been running yours together), and a score
of other details where his sending is different than yours would show up in the
same text. Take heed - and profit. Half an hour a night of just listening will work
wonders with your code ability after a couple of weeks.
Even better, however, would be your locating a commercial tape station sending
double. Man, here is where you can really get some unequalled practice! Rig up an
audio oscillator for your bug or key, separate from the receiver, and as each word
comes through initially, fix it in your mind. Then, as the tape repeats it, send
the same word simultaneously with the tape, as closely to perfect synchronism as
possible. Perhaps you will find yourself leaving too much or too little space between
characters, or making certain dahs too long - these are the most common errors.
Remember that all inaccuracies are yours, and profit accordingly. By such constant
practice you will learn the proper rhythm and precision of perfect code. It's bound
to work itself, subconsciously, into your sending.
A code instruction machine, particularly one where long spaces are left between
each letter on the tape so the student may repeat it back, can be used if suitable
commercial transmissions are not found. If you can't find a commercial station sending
double, one sending straight press can substitute in a minor way. When a long word
comes along, as soon as you get the first few letters you can often guess the remainder,
and then send with key and oscillator the rest of the letters in the word in synchronism
(we hope!) with the tape. Ideal practice can be obtained by using the WIA W official
broadcasts. After you have copied the text once, you can use it to send on an oscillator
simultaneously with WIA W on subsequent transmissions during the week when it is
repeated. If you don't have and can't get an audio oscillator, whistling the characters
aloud will accomplish nearly the same purpose.
When sending with key or bug, whether with an audio oscillator for practice or
when actually on the air, let your mind be thinking of the sound of each character
as it is sent. This can be accomplished by softly whistling each character in synchronism
with the key.
Practice of this sort will not only let you send better code, but shortly will
increase your receiving and sending speeds. But don't rush it let it come naturally.
Keep your sending speed well below your receiving ability; never under any circumstances
send as fast as you can receive. Those who do so have a conception of the code that
is mechanical rather than aural.
Direct copy on the typewriter at high speeds should be the eventual objective
of every licensed amateur. Complete success will not come unless the amateur is
an accomplished touch typist; two-fingered typing will not allow you to receive
at speed much greater than you can put down with pencil. For any speed in code reception,
you have to be able to type automatically and without conscious effort. A touch-typing
course for you lads still in school, an evening school class for those past that
stage, or perhaps a home-study course will do the trick for non-typists.
Practice copying at a steady speed. Don't listen and then type ferociously for
a second _ . _ and listen . . . and type hurriedly again. Your typing must be dissociated,
consciously, from code reception.
Often we hear the question, "How can I learn
to copy behind?" Too many such amateurs attempt to copy behind before their code
ability reaches the necessary stage. I do not mean in rate of speed, but rather
in manner of copying. That is, to successfully copy behind, an operator must have
reached the point where he is reading word-sounds, and not letters. A person cannot
carry a series of letters in his mind any more than he can numbers (that's why we
fellows carry those little red phone number books), but if he associates them as
complete words it is not difficult. Furthermore, when an operator copies individual
letters, he must set the text down in letter units, and that forces him to write
(pencil or mill) with conscious effort - which completely blocks any attempt to
Then what is the way to copy behind? Merely the same listening practice suggested
above. You've got to make this language of code a word-language to your mind. You
will know when you have reached this stage because suddenly you will automatically
begin to copy behind, so don't force the issue.
It all gets back to the same thing - practice and habit. As far as the code goes,
even today when driving alone in a car or walking alone, I subconsciously begin
to whistle code. I sometimes drive the household to near insanity by attempting
to sing arias when shaving before the bathroom mirror; but just as often I pretend
to be a big bad commercial sending V-wheels, or W1AW sending its nightly QST broadcast.
Try it. You'll find yourself getting quite chummy with code.
Posted November 11, 2020(original 2/24/2011)