This Business of Code Code
February 1941 QST Article
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."
February 1941 QST
Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles
QST, published December 1915 - present. All copyrights hereby acknowledged.
FCC Proposes Dropping Morse Code Requirement Entirely
Now, there is no code requirement for any license class, not
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
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!
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.
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 dahs.
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 and helpful.
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
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 our cue.
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.
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
codepractice, 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.
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.
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 copy behind.
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 2/24/ 2011