by Bob Nellans, K9DE ex KB9DE ex WD9ABI

International Morse Code

The International Morse Code is made up of a series of what were incorrectly called dots and dashes, for many, many years. The problem with equating those symbols to and calling them dots and dashes is the fact that you do not actually send or receive those dots or dashes on the air, but rather the sound equivalency of dots, “dits”, and dashes, “dahs”. Actually the ending “t” or the “h” of those sounds is not included in the written representation of those sounds, unless it is the last dit or dah in that letter, number or punctuation. For instance, while the two simplest codes for letters are for the letter E which sounds like “dit” and the letter T which sounds like “dah”, codes for more complex letters such as A are “didah” and I is “didit”. Much more complex codes such as for C is “dadidadit”, for Q is “dadadidah”, for B is “dadididit”, for Z is “dadadidit”, for Y is “dadidadah”, for the period is “didadidadidah”, for the forward slash bar is “dadididadit”, etc.
What is being sent, the dits and the dahs, are segments of a continuous tone, commonly called, Continuous Wave (CW), a term often used interchangeably with the International Morse Code. In the most pristine form of CW, a dit is one third as long as a dah. Variations from that norm are mentioned below.

Sending the code

The original code sending device was a simple make/break contact device, much like a telegraph key, which was/is commonly called a straight key. The operator would press down on the handle/knob of the device to close the contact point gap, hold the key down for the duration of the individual character element, be it a dit or a dah, and the operator would then release the pressure on the handle/knob of the key, so that the associated spring would again pull or push the contacts apart, thus stopping the individual dit or dah. Needless to say, the lengths of everything, including the dits, the dahs, the spacing between letters or numbers, and the spacing between words or groups, were all controlled by the timing of the operator. Thus the more musically inclined people, with the better timing, were normally the people that sent the best code (CW). However, even if the person was musically inclined, virtually no two of those dits or dahs were ever EXACTLY identical.

A firm named Vibroplex later came up with a mechanical device that attempted to control the lengths of the dits and dahs by the settings of the mechanism, rather than by the timing of the operator. Instead of pressing down on the handle, as was the case with the straight key, the device which used a single lever that moved back and forth, sideways, was sometimes called a “sidewinder”, and utilized two springs that tried to keep the paddle centered, where it would close neither of the two sets of electrical contacts. One set of contacts was for the dits and another set of contacts was for the dahs. Using the device, which was commonly called a bug, the operator moved the lever one way for dits and the other way for dahs. (Dits were/are sent with the thumb, and dahs were/are sent with the forefinger, in the case of the use of either the bug or the electronic keyer, which is mentioned later in this article.) The mechanical device had a weight at the back of the unit, on a lever that was only indirectly controlled by the movement of the paddle, and it was the swinging of that mechanism at the back of the unit that controlled the actual sending and timing of the code, as requested by the movement of the paddle by the operator.

Most people found the bug to be more trouble than it was worth, but to this day there remains a few dedicated users of those mechanical keying devices. However, no two of those units were ever adjusted the same, so, even though the length of the dits and dahs sent by a given bug were relatively uniform in length, the length of those dits and dahs varied from bug to bug. I share the opinion of most CW operators that if you can tell that the other operator is using a bug, then the bug is either adjusted improperly or is being operated incorrectly. On top of that, many operators adjusted the weight on the back of the unit so that the dahs were far longer than the standard of three dits in length, and since it was the adjustment of the weight that controlled the length of the dahs, the practice of changing the length of the dahs was commonly called weighting.
Because of that weighting, bugs were universally hated by all of the non-bug devotees, as well as by some users of the devices. Fortunately, circa 1970, someone developed an integrated circuit that would electronically control the lengths of all the dits and dahs, and that chip was/is the heart of the electronic keyer. The electronic keyer normally includes pots to adjust the code speed, as well as the volume and tone of its enclosed sidetone, and at least two jacks, for the cords connecting to the paddle(s) and the ham radio.

With the electronic keyer, the individual dits and dahs are self completing — once a dit or dah has been started, it will automatically be completed. No longer needed was the vast majority of the mechanism of the bug. Rather, only two pair of contact points were need, that were each directly controlled by the movement of the single paddle. Needless to say, the company that manufactured the bug, Vibroplex, was the first company to offer a paddle for use with the electronic keyers, and I still have one of those Vibroplex devices. Mine is all chrome plated, and looks magnificent, but the combination of the lack of enough weight and the unit’s small footprint allowed it to walk all over the counter top in my ham shack. I drilled and tapped the underside of its main plate, and installed large suction cups on the screws that I inserted into those holes, to keep the device in place, especially as I started to send the code at the faster speeds.

However, that single paddle mechanism could not make use of all of the capabilities of most of the electronic keyers, so other manufacturers soon came up with devices with separate paddles, arranged back-to-back, to send the dits and the dahs, which allowed iambic keying. The technique of the use of the iambic keying method will not be explained in this document. I will tell you that just because you use separate paddles to send the dits and the dahs, that DOES NOT MEAN that it is necessary to employ the iambic keying technique, while using those two paddle systems. I NEVER use the iambic keying technique, but I do almost always use dual paddles.
(As I am sure you have already concluded, since the dahs are sent by the forefinger and the dits are sent by the thumb, the wiring for any paddle keying devices or bugs have to be reversed for sending the code with the left hand, from the way that they would be wired to send the code with the right hand. By the way, even though I am right handed, I send all of my code left handed, at least partially in an effort to increase my efficiency of operation. After all, sending the code left handed negates the need to ever remove the pen from my right hand to send the code. If you are going to send the code with you non-primary hand, as I do, you should do so from the very start, since you will find that you have to learn to send the code all over again, if you later decided to send the code with the opposite hand.)
The separate paddles that I normally use are on my HAMCO “Trinidad” dual paddle unit, a massive engine turned brass device on a polished wooden base, which utilizes permanent magnets instead of springs to return the paddle contacts to their normally open position. Vibroplex later obtained the rights to that paddle device, and changed the name by which it is now known. At least for me, the faster I sent the code, the closer I wanted the contact points set. The points on my HAMCO are set so close, approximately 0.0001 of an inch, that it is virtually impossible for me to feel those paddles move when I touch them with my finger and thumb.

While sending devices like electronic keyers are a tremendous help, when it comes to sending perfect or nearly perfect code, to use them properly, your physical movements must be about half a dit or dah ahead of the code being sent. In other words, if you wait until the entire dit or dah has been sent, before you release the respective paddle, be you sending a dit or a dah, you will almost inevitably cause an unwanted dit or dah to be sent before you can release the paddle arrangement you are using to control the electronic keyer.
While I recommend that NO amateur radio operators use a bug, I STRONGLY recommend that EVERYONE use a paddle arrangement of their own choice, and an electronic keyer, to send the code for at least the first 1000 or so QSOs they work on the air. It takes about that long until the sending of the code becomes automatic. After they reach that milestone, they may wish to switch over to perhaps a memory keyer, a dedicated keyboard, or even a computer for the sending of the code. Many devices, especially the memory keyers, will allow the operator to record the information, and will send the recorded code for them, upon demand.

A primary use for such a memory device would be for sending CQ, which is an abbreviation asking other stations to respond to your call. You could program a button on such a memory device to send CQ perhaps three times, the letters “de”, meaning from, then your call sign a couple of times, followed by the letter K, meaning “go ahead”, and then a pause for responses to that sequence. If no responses were heard within perhaps 30 seconds, during which you could hit the reset button to stop the sequence, most such devices will send that same sequence over and over again, until you do hear a response and press that reset button.
Typically, I go to the refrigerator or to the bathroom while my memory keyer is sending CQ or more often CQ DX, if I do not get a response the first time or two that the sequence is sent, but I continue to listen for responses to those calls. If/when I hear a response, while I am in another room, I race back into the room, touch the reset button on the memory keyer, write down the call sign of the responding station(s) that I copied in my head while I was racing back to my operating position, and then work that station, or those stations, as the case may be.
Until you have worked a thousand QSOs, you will probably have to think about the actual code as you send it. Eventually you will find that you are sending the code without actually realizing what code you are sending at any given time. Instead you just think of general ideas, and all of the rest of it is done for you by your subconscious mind, your arm, and your hand. Likewise, you will then probably find yourself being able to work (copy) more than one CW station simultaneously. It is usually a bit confusing for the other stations, if they have not had other stations work them at the same time as they were working other stations, especially if it is a novice operator.

I picked up the technique of working more than one station at the same time in desperation, when I had two DX stations (DX is an abbreviation for distant station, implying they are in other countries), that I wanted to work equally desperately for new countries, who had responded to my CQ DX call. Saying for example that one of the hypothetical call signs was XA4AB, and the other hypothetical call sign was QU3XY, instead of addressing my message to just one of those stations, I addressed the two of them as “XA4AB es QU3XY de KB9DE”. (es means “and”) The technique worked so nicely when working two stations at the same time that I often subsequently worked three stations at the same time, when the opportunity arose. Working two stations at the same time is easy, but working three stations at the same time is much more of a challenge.
On the subject of challenges, something that had me questioning my own sanity was the circumstance where I would find myself writing down the essential information as though I was receiving it from another station, when neither my wife, nor I, physically could hear that other station, presumably because the signal was too weak. The first few times that happened, I did not bother to respond, but when I needed those contacts for new countries, I decided that I would respond like usual, complete the QSO with what I almost felt was my imaginary friend, and I would then madly dash to the DX Callbook to see if I found such a call and name listed. In each case, I found the call sign, the name, and the town that I had copied were listed in the DX Callbook, so I sent a QSL card. Eventually I received a QSL card in return, confirming those contacts, so those QSOs were obviously NOT made in my imagination.

As far as what you will need to know to pass your amateur radio exam, no longer will you be asked to send the code for the examiner, as was required when I took my original code tests, many, many years ago. However, you will certainly need to attain some code sending proficiency, if you expect to communicate in CW on the air. You should also know at least the sound of the comma, the question mark, the period, and the slash/fraction bar, even if you choose to ignore all of the less important punctuation.
One more tip, don’t send the code on the air much faster than you can consistently copy the code. By default, the other person uses your code sending speed as an indication of how fast you can copy code. Therefore, if you can barely copy code at 5 words per minute (wpm), and you send your information at 15 wpm, you will be in big trouble when the other station responds. It may be a good idea to send code at a speed slightly slower than you can copy it, so that you can handle the situation if the other station responds by sending code a little faster than you sent your messages. However, one of the best ways to increase your code copying speed is to work a station that sends the code a little bit faster than the speed that you can easily copy the code, but not fast enough that you give up trying to copy that code. I have often said that the contacts that I have worked that were sending code fast enough that I spent absolutely all of my energy copying what they sent, and then collapsed in a heap on the floor, at the end of the QSO, were the best tools available in the effort to increase my code speed.

Copying the code

The MOST IMPORTANT thing, when it comes to learning the code is a positive attitude. I started out with an attitude of despising the code, but realizing it was, back before the days of the no-code technician license, a hurtle everyone must cross to attain any amateur radio license. With that negative attitude, I spent seven (7) weeks of a minimum of three — fifteen minute sessions per day, trying to copy the code, and still failing my five wpm code test each week. At the suggestion of a neighbor amateur radio operator, who is now a silent key, meaning that he is deceased, I changed my attitude the eighth week, and passed the code test with flying colors. The better I became with the code the better I like it, and the better I liked it the better I became with the code — commonly called the snowball effect.
Most of the code tapes on the market today, including those available at your local Radio Shack store, are probably relatively good, since they virtually all use what is commonly called the“Farnsworth” method, of sending the code itself at a faster speed, with longer pauses between the letters, numbers, and punctuation to decrease the NET code speed. It is best if you can find tapes that start out with the individual characters sent at 20 words per minute, using the Farnsworth method, which means the code is sent at a fast enough speed to keep you from trying to count the number of dits and dahs in each letter or number. The other reason for learning the code this way is the fact that the characters will sound exactly the same all the way up to 20 words per minute, since only the spacing will change as the code speed increases. Jerry Ziliak, KB6MT, used to offer tapes like that, but I currently know of no source for such tapes. By the same token, I did not condone the technique that Jerry suggested for copying the code, but at least the speed of the actual code was the desired 20 wpm, on each of his tapes.
There is but one computer generated program for learning the International Morse Code that I will endorse. It is the Codemaster V program, authored by Marshall Emm, N1FN/VK5FN, and sold by his Milestone Technologies, Inc., 10691 E. Bethany Dr., Suite 800, Aurora, CO 80014-2670, phone (800) 238-8205 for orders, (303) 752-3382 for info. The program sells for $29.95, plus shipping and handling, which compares quite favorably to prices charged for the code tapes that come with no success guarantee. Best of all, it comes with an iron-clad money-back guarantee that you will be able to go from zero words per minute to 20 words per minute in 90 days.

Although my review copy arrived sending everything at 30 WPM you can adjust that code speed, as well as the net code speed, after selecting program settings, so you can customize the program to provide the desired 20 wpm code, with a net speed of 5 wpm for starters, and then move up the net speed as your skill increases. While you are in that portion of the program, also select G for general, and set Visible to N. After making that change, you will still be shown the letters as you are learning them, but will not thereafter be shown the text. Having the text displayed gets you into a habit of confirming that the program sent the proper code, rather than actually copying the code sent by the program. After all, you will NOT be asked to verify that the code sent during the test is correct, INSTEAD you will be asked to copy the code without prompts, so learn to do it that way.
The flexibility of his program seems to be virtually unlimited, since you can set up the program to send code groups of your choice. Those code groups can include the individual letters which may be giving you the most problems, any/all of the letters, any/all of the numbers, any/all of the punctuation, or any combinations thereof.

The other fallacy with trying to learn the code by use of any of the other computer programs that I have tried is the fact that you are required to type your responses on the computer keyboard, rather than to write out those responses, which automatically teaches you two other bad habits. You learn to copy code by running all of the text into one tremendously long stream, instead of providing extra spacing between words, and you learn to copy the code on a keyboard. A keyboard will NOT be available to you in a test situation, unless you bring your own typewriter to that test session, and, at least until you have passed your 20 wpm code test, it should not be available for you use when copying code on the air. With Codemaster V, almost everything is copied on paper, just as you will copy what is sent on your code test, with the exception of a game that is included on that disk, to drill you on your problem letters, numbers, and/or punctuation. The program is to be used with any of the IBM PC compatible/clone computers, and can be run from the MS-DOS operating system, can be run from MS-DOS from within Windows 3.x or Windows 95, or run directly from the Windows operating system.
As for learning the code, be it from code tapes or from computer programs, there is no substitute for practice, practice, practice. Especially when you are starting out, you will soon find that you will be frustrated with not being able to copy each of the letters and numbers as they are sent to you, and that will be the case right up to the time when you finally master the code. From the start you should force yourself to just put an underline dash where the number, letter, or punctuation belonged in the text, if you cannot IMMEDIATELY identify it, and catch the next letter, number, or punctuation, rather than to anguish over the one you missed, while missing several others. You are much better off spending at least three, or perhaps more, five minute sessions each and every day, with the code tapes or computer program, than you are to force yourself to spend fifteen minutes on the code, once a day.
If you drive any distance in your car each day, such as to and from work, listen to the code tape as you drive, even if you cannot write down what you hear while you are driving. (At least with the Codemaster V program, you can make up your own code tapes, customized the way that you want them.) If your tape player has an automatic shut-off feature, you may wish to turn on the tape player when you go to bed, and allow it to play all the way to the end of the respective tape, as you go off to dream land. Some people find that technique works very well for them.

Never, ever miss a single session with the code tapes or code programs, since you will rapidly regress any time that you miss even a single session. In other words, when you miss a session with those tapes, you do not start off the next session where you left off, but rather you will routinely find that you have lost a little ground in your effort to become fluent with the code.
Learning the code is much like learning another language, and for some reason that I have never heard anyone successfully explain, women ALWAYS seem to learn the code with much less effort than MEN. Perhaps it is because men seem to adopt a defeatist attitude, rather than simply refusing to fail in the effort to master the code. Men often come to me with excuses such as saying they are “tone deaf”. Everyone has problems at times telling the dits from the dahs, but the tone is the same for both the dits and the dahs, so tone deafness has nothing to do with their problem. That problem of not being able to tell the dits from the dahs will automatically be resolved for you, if you conscientiously stick with the effort to learn the code.

If you ever start feeling sorry for yourself, because of the problems you may face while learning the code, you should realize that many of the people with real handicaps learn the code, so the rest of us do not have any legitimate excuse for not learning the code ourselves. Perhaps the following story will put all of that into perspective for you.
One day I found a station, on the air, sending code that was even worse than what is the typically atrocious code sent by a beginner, but I dutifully responded. However, I soon wished that I had not, since almost none of the code was good enough that even I, with all the experience of working thousands of stations sending lousy code, could guess what that person was trying to say, most of the time. Eventually the code improved enough that we were able to exchange the essential information, and we completed the simple QSO some 45 minutes later. Almost immediately, someone using that same call sign called me on that same frequency, but this operator had a beautiful fist (was sending perfect code). Obviously the person I first worked was operating under the control of the operator that was now calling me.
Responding immediately, I found myself working a teacher at a school for the visually handicapped, in New Mexico. I was informed that amateur radio, at least via CW, was a way for the students of that school to communicate without the people with whom they were communicating being able to detect that they had a handicap. I also was told that there were students of that school that were deaf, students that were blind, and students that were both deaf and blind.
I responded that I understood that those that were deaf could copy the code by the flashes of light, as triggered by the sounds detected at the receiver, and that those that could not see could copy the code by hearing the CW sounds. However, I had no idea how those people that could neither hear nor see could detect the code being received. The answer provided to that query was simply “the thumper”. It seems that “the thumper” was a solenoid activated device that could be attached to the forearm of the student, and the solenoid then tapped out the code on the arm of that individual CW operator, as the code was received.

After hearing what all of those students went through to communicate in code, I no longer had any tolerance for the lame excuses I heard from less handicapped individuals, for not learning the code. Obviously, if someone wants to communicate in code, no matter what handicaps they might have, they can find a way to do so.
Once I learned how helpful it was for those handicapped students to work people in CW, I maintained a regular schedule with that school, and worked those students in CW. The teacher told me that those students valued the QSL cards, which I then sent to them to confirm those contacts, so very much that they continued to carry those cards around with them long after all of the printing had been worn off the cards. As an incentive for them to work more CW, I refused to replace those worn out QSL cards without some effort on their part, so I asked each of the students to earn other QSL cards by working additional QSOs with me.
Several of those students earned their own amateur radio licenses. Looking through my files of QSL cards, I readily found a QSL card from one of those students, Raul Midon, WD5AAR. He says on that card, in part, “Without your help, Bob, I would never have earned my own amateur radio license.” Raul was 11 years old at the time, on 19 October 1977.

That school, which had first opened in 1903, I understood later was the casualty of an austerity program, and was forced to close its doors. I worked Raul and several of the other students for several months after the school closed, but had to cancel that schedule when I was accepted for our state’s vocational rehabilitation program, to be sent to college in 1979. I became eligible for that rehabilitation program as the result of the injuries suffered in a so-called fatal motorcycle accident in 1975, as well as the residual effects of the injuries suffered during my time in the Army, during the Vietnam War.
When I first started out in amateur radio, I was the last person in my novice class to pass my five wpm code test. (As you learned earlier, my main problem with the code was my bad attitude toward it.) However, unlike my classmates, I did not stop practicing the code, once I had passed that initial code test. Instead, I practiced copying the code even more than usual during the 12 weeks that I waited for my license to arrive. (Back then we had to have the license in our hands before we could legally transmit, and the FCC would not reveal the call sign until that license arrived.) By the time the license actually arrived, I felt confident about going on the air in CW, the only mode then available to me, as a novice.

However, although the novice portions of the low bands were then so crowded that you could barely find a frequency on which you could transmit, in spite of that high level of activity, I could not get anyone to respond to my calls. Tape recording what I was trying to send, and then trying to copy the code that I had sent, I soon found out why others were not responding — my code sounded terrible. I soon brushed up on my code sending skills, and I was finally ready to get on the air, initially with a straight key and, a VERY short time later, with an electronic keyer.
Setting myself a target of 100 novice CW QSOs for the first year, initially seemed ambitious, but I soon changed that goal to 500, to 1000, to 1500, and finally to 2000. I exceeded each of those goals, as well as worked all states, worked all continents, and many foreign countries on the novice frequencies, all in CW and all with nothing more than simple wire antennas cut to the proper lengths. In fact my award for WAS has a special endorsement for working all states on the novice portion of the 40 meter band. Of course, those numbers of QSOs did not include what I had accomplished on the technician, on the general, and on the advanced portions of the various amateur radio bands, during that first year as an amateur.
I initially kept working other stations in code, even after I upgraded to levels of license that would allow me to work stations in other modes, in the effort to eventually become good enough with the code that I could pass the 20 wpm code test for amateur extra. However, the more I worked stations in code the more I enjoyed working stations in code, to the point that even though I had also went to the FCC office in Chicago to earn my third, second, and first class commercial radiotelephone licenses, with radar endorsement, I no longer thought it was worthwhile to make that trip for the prestige of being able to work the bottom 25 KHz of four amateur radio band, that were only available to those holding the highest class of amateur radio license.

I eventually earned a certificate for solid copy of 30 wpm code, as sent as code practice, by W1AW, so the code was no longer a problem for me, but I got almost as much joy out of helping a new amateur radio operator get started on the novice (CW) portion of the bands, as I did out of working a new country, which is still a great thrill. (My wife, Dorthy, can always tell when I work a country for the first time — she comes home to find me on a natural high that does not allow my feet to touch the ground for at least 24 hours.)
Dorthy became an amateur radio operator, several years later, in 1978, she blew away all of my novice accomplishments by attaining her WAS in two months and two days, her WAC in three months, she won the Indiana section of the 1978 Novice Roundup Contest, and she finished the first year on the air with 3000 contacts, as well as 47 countries, all of which were worked in CW, on the novice portion of the bands. She much later upgraded to technician plus.

Taking code tests

The first thing I will say about getting ready to take any code test, for those that have prepared for the upgrade by making contacts on the air, is to warn you to get off the air, and back to the tapes or computer program a couple of weeks before taking the code test. While I certainly applaud your efforts to improve your skills on the air, as I did, what you will hear during your code test will not have any QRN (natural noise) or QRM (man-made noise), and there will be no QSB (fading of signals), as you experienced them on the air. Instead of having any weighting, as you also might have also experienced on the air, you will hear pristine, perfectly proportioned and spaced code during your code test, and some people have trouble adjusting to those excellent conditions, after what they have experienced on the air.
You may find that it is good, when you find yourself not being able to get over the hurdle of a given code speed, and especially before you go to take a code test, to intentionally push yourself beyond the speed at which you have been practicing or the speed of the test you will take. Do not expect to achieve solid copy at that higher speed, but make an honest effort to copy what you can. For instance, if you intend to take the 13 wpm code test, spend at least a practice session or two with the 20 wpm tape before taking your test, and you will probably find that you are almost sitting around waiting for the next letter, number, or punctuation, when you hear the 13 wpm tape. If you are going for 20 wpm, you can accomplish the same thing by the use of a 25 wpm tape or setting your computer program for about that speed.
Another way to accomplish the same thing, again if you are going for your 13 wpm test, is to first take the 20 wpm test, even if you are absolutely sure you have no chance of passing it. Some VE sessions are set up to always run the 20 wpm before the 13 wpm before the 5 wpm test, and the candidates are encouraged to go through each of those sessions until they pass one of those tests or have failed the 5 wpm test. There is definitely some merit to such a program, even though it might appear to be cruel, since I have seen people that felt they were marginal at 13 wpm, pass the 20 wpm test the first try.
Perhaps the best example of the benefit of trying to copy the code at speeds that you feel are beyond your reach is pointed out by the following experience from one of our VE testing sessions.
One evening, Larry Weaver, KB9V, who now lives in Florida, gave me the code tapes and testing equipment for our monthly testing sessions, since he was unable to attend and administer those code tests. One of the first candidates to arrive said that he was skeptical of his ability to pass the 5 wpm test, but he was going to give it a try. Checking the tapes Larry had given me, a 5 wpm tape was not among them, so I convinced the candidate to instead try his hand at the 13 wpm tape.

About the time I was starting to set up the tape recorder to administer that code test, another member of our VE team arrived. I explained the circumstances, and asked him to administer the 13 wpm code test, while I and the other team members processed the paperwork for our other candidates. However, that VE team member left the 20 wpm tape in place, when he started the test, instead of replacing it with the 13 wpm tape. I stepped back into the room to inform him of the error about the time he discovered his own mistake, but I then grabbed his wrist as he reached for the stop button on the tape recorder. The candidate was copying the code well enough that I felt he would be able to pass THAT test, so we allowed the test to continue unabated.
Even though I was correct and he was able to pass the test over what he had copied, he was still not aware that it was the 20 wpm test that he had passed. He was absolutely astounded when we told him that he had NO more code tests to pass, since he had passed was the 20 wpm test.
Since the certificate for passing any test element lasts for a full year, he was assured that he would never have to face another code test, as long as he passed each of those related theory tests within that time frame. He had his amateur extra license just four months later.
When taking your own code test, you will be copying a portion of the code sent during a hypothetical conversation, or QSO, as it is played on a tape player, and you will then take a 10 question, multiple-choice test over what you have copied. You will still have the use of that copied text for reference while you are taking that 10 question test. The most difficult part of taking the test over what you have copied is often finding where the answers to the various questions are located within what you have copied. Perhaps the best thing that you can do when you finish copying the code is to review what you have copied, and perhaps underline any key words such as: locationnameantennaradio, and age in that copied text. That underlining will allow you to readily determine where the answers to those related questions on the test are located.

After the FCC dropped the demand for “one minute of solid copy”, there was a time when those code tests were of the fill-in-the-blank type, and the FCC had found 5 different ways to spell the name Allen, so your copy still had to be absolutely perfect to get the answers correct. With the multiple choice format, with the various answers not being all that similar, it assures that one or two correct letters/numbers within a character group will often be enough to pick out the correct answer from the choices for the related question, IF YOU CAN FIND THOSE NUMBERS AND LETTERS in what you have copied.
You will NEVER be questioned about any of the punctuation in ANY of those messages, so you may choose to ignore ALL the punctuation, if you can recognize it as punctuation, and not another letter or number. (The codes for the letters are made up with combinations of one to four dits and dahs, codes for numbers are combinations of five dits and dahs, and codes for punctuation are made up of six or more dits and dahs.) The problem, for some people, with trying to ignore punctuation is the tendency to ALSO ignore the numbers, which you CANNOT afford to ignore and still pass your code test.
The REAL key to copying code well is to DIRECTLY translate the TOTAL sound of the groups of dits and dahs to a letter, number, or punctuation. No matter how often they are told, many people seem determined to INSTEAD listen to the sound, decide how many dits and dahs are involved in that sound, and the order of same, and only then try to associate that combination with a letter, number, or punctuation. The worst examples of that approach is a three-step variation where people write down the dots and dashes, as they hear the code, and after the code has been copied in dots and dashes, before taking the test over what they have copied, they try to translate those dots and dashes to letters, numbers, and punctuation, almost always without much success.

I have known people that were able to use the more direct two-step translation approach all the way up to speeds of about 11, 12, or even 12.5 wpm, but they NEVER reliably make it all the way to 13 wpm using any of the two-step or three-step translation techniques. Remember, 13 wpm is the code speed you have to achieve to obtain your general license. Since you will have to unlearn any two-step translation approach, in your effort to get to your general license, and especially to pass your 20 wpm test to earn your amateur extra license, why make it more difficult for yourself by using any two-step approach in the first place?
The ONLY sure-fire way of avoiding counting dits and dahs is to have the code sent to you so fast that you cannot possibly count the number of dits and dahs, which happens at speeds of 20 or more wpm. The problem is how to start yourself off learning the code at a net speed of 20 wpm, and most people simply cannot. HOWEVER, everyone CAN start off learning the total sounds of the various letters, numbers, and punctuation, when each of them are sent at 20 wpm, with enough space between each of the letters or numbers to drop the NET code speed to 5 wpm, the Farnsworth approach.
Hopefully, no one ever learns the code at or below an actual code speed of 5 wpm any more, unless he/she was unlucky enough to be forced to learn the code in the military. At least at one time, the military used the antiquated method of teaching the code at its actual speed, which forces you to learn the code over and over again, as you move up in speed. Instead, the Farnsworth method is normally employed, with the individual letters, numbers, and punctuation sent at least at 13 to 15 wpm, with enough extra spacing between them to drop the net code speed to 5 wpm. Therefore, moving from the 5 wpm code speed to the 13 wpm code speed, for your general exam, is simply a matter of the removal of some of the extra time between the individual letters, numbers, and punctuation signs, and NOT any actual change in the speed that the dits and dahs are sent.

The problem with that approach is the fact that the code then sounds somewhat different as the code speed increases from 13 to 20 wpm, because of the fact that the dits and dahs are being sent at a different speed and are each shorter in duration than when the code was sent at 13 wpm. In essence the person that goes all the way to extra, using that method, must learn the code at least twice — once at 13 wpm, and then again at 20 wpm, which is further reinforcement for the idea of learning the code at 20 wpm in the first place, and then you only have the spaces between numbers letters and punctuation shortened to change the NET SPEED from 5 wpm all the way up to 20 wpm.
If you are one of those people naive enough to think that they can learn to copy the code by sending the code, even if it is by the use of an electronic keyer or a computer program, be at once undeceived. That approach will allow you to learn how to send the code, but it will NOT allow you to learn how to copy the code. The problem with that approach to learning the code is the fact that you ALWAYS know what information you are trying to send, but you only have a general idea of what information might be sent to you.
However, once you have learned to copy the code, and have passed ALL of your various code tests, such code sending devices as paddles and electronic keyers are just the thing you need for perfecting your code sending techniques. The real key to the code sending situation is, “Can you copy what information you have sent in code, when you try to do so a week or more after you have sent the message?”

Locally tape yourself trying to send random code groups — NOT actual text messages, that you may be able to memorize, so that you do not remember the contents of what you have sent. Lay that recorded tape aside, and make another tape of another set of code groups you attempt to send the next day, etc. At the end of the week, pop the first tape into the tape player, and attempt to copy that code. It is almost certain that the code that may have sounded fairly good to your ear when you were sending it, will sound much inferior to how it had then sounded, when you try to copy same. Typical of the novice sending errors is the sending of “dadit dadit” for C, which is actually N N, instead of “dadidadit”, which is the sound of sending a C.
By the time you have learned the sounds representing each of the letters, numbers, and punctuation, you will most likely have memorized almost all of the text on the initial code tape or CD with which you are working. When that happens, the code tape or CD in question will be totally worthless to you as a learning tool, since, be it on a test or on the air, you will NOT know what is being sent to you, until you receive and copy that information. After randomly stopping my initial code tape, at any spot on the tape, I soon found that I could then turn the tape on and listening to no more than two words, and be able to write out the text faster than the tape was being played. When that happens, you absolutely must change EXCLUSIVELY to random code groups — NOT words, or you will be wasting your efforts to learn the code.
Now is a good time to point out the problem associated with anticipating what will be received, rather than just copying the information as it is provided.
Soon after I received my initial license and got on the air, as an amateur radio operator, I found out the hard way that I had developed a bad habit, while working the many United States stations in CW. Since virtually all of the stations with which I was then communicating had amateur radio call signs whose first letter was “W”, without realizing what I was doing, I would automatically write down a “W” at the start of the call sign of each of the other stations. One day, I copied the other station’s call sign as being WVE3JSK. Since amateur station identifications never have more than two letters before the first number, even if the call contains more than one number, such as in 4X4VW, I had clearly copied the call sign of the other station in error, so I kept having the other station repeat the identification, and I kept copying that call sign identification the same way each time.

Finally, I decided to ignore the fact that I had copied the other operator’s call sign incorrectly, and to allow that operator to send the rest of the information that is normally exchanged during a CW QSO, such as the name, the location (QTH), and the signal report (RST). As soon as he sent his QTH, I instantly realized the error that I had made in copying his amateur radio call sign. The QTH was Timmins, Ontario, Canada, so the call sign he had been sending was actually VE3JSK, and NOT the WVE3JSK that I had written down. I was working an amateur radio station located in Canada — NOT another amateur in the United States. Up until that moment, I had never considered the possibility that, with the crude wire antennas that were then available to me, I would be able work amateur radio stations that were beyond the borders of the continental United States. My mistake was that I had written down what I might hear, rather than correctly copying what was actually heard.
Actually the ratios of dits to dahs that I was talking about earlier may be of little concern to you as a person copying the code, but ANY variations from pristine code are the reasons that electronic code copying devices prove to be so unreliable, unless they are copying computer generated code, without any interference or noise on the amateur radio band. Even electronic keyer generated code will vary in the length of spacings between words. There are no electronic code copying devices that will rival the code copying ability of a human being. Besides, none of those code copying devices are allowed to be used when you are taking a test, and, under very marginal band conditions, those code copying devices will produce nothing but gibberish. Therefore, at least until you have passed your own 20 wpm code test, if you wish to go that far in amateur radio, forget that code copying devices even exist.

Of course, the definition of a word group is self-explanatory, since it can be a single letter, as in the case of the letter/word “A”, or more characters as in the case of words such as “ALPHABET”. Code groups are a little more difficult to define, but are usually thought to be mixtures of letters, numbers, and punctuation, such as: “FT-990”, which is the model of Yaesu HF (otherwise know as the low band) radio that I own. A random code group is a meaningless group of letters, numbers, and punctuation, and you will routinely find the lengths of those various groups to be uniform, such as in the following groups: “?A3LVE”, “WKSRFH”, “ZN,Q?T”, “/YT6$X”, “9BUOCM”, etc.
Although I typed each of the letters in those code groups in uppercase, unless you wish to do so, there is no reason at all to EVER use any capital letters when copying code, especially if you use some indication of the ends of each of the sentences, such as an extra long space or the appropriate punctuation. After all, no one but YOU will need to read what you have copied, be it on a test or on the air.
Many people, as was I, were taught to print what they copy of the received CW, instead of writing it out in longhand, but most of us found it much easier to write out what we copied in longhand. HOWEVER, no matter what method you use to record what you have copied, be it longhand, printing, or some other method such as typing the information on an actual typewriter, it is almost essential to leave extra space between words or code groups, if you are going to understand it when you later read what you have copied. To make sure there is no question where a word or code group ends, it is perhaps best to double space between words or code groups. All too often, I will see the person taking the code test space equally between each of the letters and numbers in the entire text, and then they cannot find the answers to the questions on the test, over what they have copied, even if they are among the very few that copy all of those letters and numbers absolutely perfectly.

If you find that you have not properly double spaced between the words you copied on your code test, it may be of help to take the time to then separate possible code groups and words by use of the forward slash-bar (fraction bar), before trying to answer the questions over what you have copied. Likewise, as stated earlier, you should ALWAYS place an underline dash where any character goes that you could not IMMEDIATELY identify. (That is perhaps the hardest rule of all to follow, because the letter or number that you missed will then bug you. However, while continuing to try to remember what that letter or number was, several other letters or numbers will be missed. REMEMBER, you will NOT need to copy each and every one of those letters or numbers, since you do NOT need to attain perfect copy to be able to correctly answer ALL of the questions on your code exam.)
Say, for instance, our hypothetical test taker decides to follow none of my recommendations, and he/she puts a single space between each letter number or punctuation that he/she is able to copy, he/she misses half the numbers, and he/she always fails to copy the same four specific letters. I will make your challenge more realistic by not telling you which of the numbers and letters that person failed to copy, or where that person failed to copy them.
Perhaps a segment of what he/she copied would look something like:
r i i s a d u y 3 t a 1 9 t b a k a a t 7 e e t
If I did not know what he/she was supposed to copy in that segment of the text, I would perhaps put in slash-bars as follows, in the attempt to clarify
r i/i s/a/d u y/3/t a/1 9/t b a k/a/a t/7/e e t
which, in that case, is not much help in trying to pick the correct answers as to what was actually to be copied. It is doubtful that he/she will recognize that the answers to four or five potential questions about the make and model of the rig, the antenna type, the antenna length, and the antenna height, were contained in that segment of the text.
Below you will see what it looks like with proper spaces, dashes for the missed characters, and proper double space separation between code groups.
ri_ is a du__y ____3_ t_ a 1_9 ___t ba____ka at _7 _eet
Even though he/she should have copied that segment as “rig is a duffy ff-432 to a 169 foot bazooka at 57 feet”, with the proper spaces and the place keeping underline dashes, it is quite likely that the operator would correctly answer most, if not all, of the questions over that portion of the text.
The only info that will be repeated during that hypothetical QSO will be the call signs of the two respective stations, as given at the beginning and at the end of that QSO segment. By the same token, you can get yourself into trouble by trying to make the info that you are receiving sound logical.
REMEMBER the first call given is the station to whom the message is being sent and the second call sign given is the station sending the message. I will not pretend that the following is typical of one of the hypothetical test QSO segments, but it may give you some idea of the essence of what you might copy during a code test, if you decide to copy everything you hear.

n6new de kl7bdi the name here is billy. i live in oklahoma city, florida. i am using a gonset 511b radio. my antenna is a 46 foot rhombic at a height of 352 yards. your signal report is 367. we have bright sunshine and rain. yours is the 19th state i have worked. n6new de kl7bdi
Your test messages will probably not be that tricky, but I threw in several examples of things that were not very logical. For instance, a KL7 call would be issued to someone in Alaska. It is entirely possible that the person first was licensed in Alaska, and has now moved to the continental United States. However, he would not have initially been issued a KL7 call sign, if he lived in the continental US. Oklahoma City is in Oklahoma — NOT in Florida. It is not likely that he would have both bright sunshine and rain for weather. A firm named Gonset made amateur radios some 30 or 40 years ago, but the firm never offered a model 511B radio. Rhombic antennas are routinely quite long, so it would be much more logical if those antenna height and length figures were reversed. I have never heard of a 367 signal report, and I doubt that one would ever be given on the air. None the less, answer all questions in accordance with the information as it was copied.

Notice how many numbers are involved, in most messages. Numbers are typically in the answers for AT LEAST half of the questions over what you have copied on the code exam. You are not likely to pass your code test without knowing at least part of your numbers, and I feel that if you know one number, then you should know all of them. However, if the test over what you copied asked for the model of the Gonset radio, in this case, and you had copied “5__b”, that should be enough data to answer the question correctly, IF you can find where that data is located in your copied text.
It is absolutely essential that you copy at least the majority of each of the call signs, and that you know which station is sending, and thus which station is receiving, the message. If the operator gives his occupation, that is likewise a good subject for a question on the test. If he/she gives a reason that they will be leaving the air at end of the QSO, write it down.
Unless trying for solid copy, if you can discipline yourself to do so, while taking the code test, do NOT write down any words that will not be instrumental in coming up with the correct answers to questions about the text that you have copied. In other words, in the case of the above example, you could write something like “antenna 46 foot rhombic 352 yards”, since all the other words will not be needed to answer questions about the antenna.
As I mention in my tips for taking the various amateur radio exams, which are not provided here, if you can think fast enough while taking a code test, and are copying behind what is being sent, it may also be advantageous to substitute some suitable abbreviations for the text that is received, since those abbreviations will require less writing. In other words, you might write down “ant” instead of “antenna”, “qth” instead of “location”, “rhom” instead of “rhombic”, or “rst” instead of “signal report”.

Speeds above 20 wpm

While all of the above is intended for use by those learning the code, and preparing to take one of the amateur radio code tests, I will also very briefly address the issue of how you go much beyond that 20 wpm code speed.
Most people say that they have a hard time trying to write down all of the information fast enough above 20 wpm, even if it was not for the problem of copying the code at those speeds. Much like the two-step or the three-step approach to copying the individual letters and numbers is not compatible with copying code at 13 wpm, the constant starting and stopping involved in copying individual letters and numbers is not compatible with copying the code at high speed. At higher speeds, virtually no one ever writes down each and every letter or number as it is received, even if they are typing that information on a typewriter, with which I understand the record speed of 74 wpm for solid copy was achieved, unless doing so in a code copying contest.
Much like I told you that you will get to a point where you will find yourself lost if you think about the actual code that you are SENDING at any given time, even though it takes longer to achieve, that will also become the case when it comes to copying the code you RECEIVE. If you think about the individual letters and numbers you are receiving at any one time, you will ALSO become lost in what you are copying.
As your speed increases, you will first go from hearing those individual numbers and letters to grasping entire words as a single entity, and then move on to comprehending complete phrases, ideas, and concepts. With each of those steps, you will find yourself actually writing down or typing further and further behind what is being received. However, if you are anything like me, you will usually not bother to write down what you are receiving, but will rather be making brief notes about what you want to include in your response to what is being sent to you, since you will be comprehended in your head what has been received.

When you are at your best in CW, you will no longer be aware of the fact that CW is involved, but instead you will be thinking only of conversing with that other individual. You will find that all of the translation to and from the CW will be magically done for you by your subconscious mind.
I hope that you will find those tips both useful and helpful in your efforts to learn and use the International Morse Code, and like me, you will find that once you become proficient in CW, you will actually prefer that mode.

Good luck on your code exams. K9DE, Bob Nellans
Bob Nellans, K9DE
20737 Linden Rd.
Argos, IN 46501-9536


An amateur radio operator, military veteran, jack of all trades and master of none.

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