The Morse Code

By Dave AD7DB

Revised April 5, 2002

Effective rate: 30 baud. Once upon a time, U.S. ham radio licensing was stifled by some archaic rules about high speed code proficiency. But in April 2000, this requirement was lifted, and now there's only one 5 word-per-minute code requirement around (just for old times' sake). It's looking like even that will go away in a few more years.

I got my Novice license back in 1977 and upgraded to Technician (which was later designated Tech Plus) in 1986. For years, all that was preventing me from getting a General ticket was that 13 WPM code requirement. According to some old QST magazines from the 1930's, (references will be available when I find the specific articles again), the 13 WPM code speed had been intentionally and specifically chosen to be a particularly difficult hurdle. Well it was a goodie, because I never could crack it.

But patience has paid off after all these years, although I didn't plan it that way. In September 2000, well after the gang rush that probably occurred in April, I filled out the paperwork, showed the necessary documents to some VEs down in Fountain Valley, paid the fee and upgraded to General Class, without that 13 WPM test standing in the way anymore.

My next upgrade was to Extra. I went for it so I could have access to all that Extra space on HF, as well as apply for a better callsign without all those cumbersome W's my old one had.

I am aware of some amount of resentment [1, 2] from a few old-time hams who dislike new General class hams who didn't have to pass a 13-WPM code test. But I look at it this way: for many years and most of two great sunspot peaks, I was left out of the fun of the worldwide HF bands while those of General class and higher were able to enjoy it. But I'm not concerned. A year or two from now and it won't matter. The Novice Enhancement in 1987 didn't sit well with some people then, either. (Some old-timers were dumping their 220 MHz gear because they refused to use a "Novice" band. Savvy new Novices were scooping up these bargains as fast as they could! It was hilarious.) But it's been a non-issue in recent years as far as I can tell. Besides, read some old QST magazines from the late 1960's at your library. Many people felt that the so-called "Incentive Licensing" killed ham radio as they knew it.

Take notice of all current arguments for keeping a code requirement. Pro-code advocates almost always equate removal of code testing to abolishing use of CW completely. It's a pretty scared bunch of people who will think that without mandatory code testing, nobody would bother to learn code, and over time they would have nobody to converse with using CW. I think they would do better to promote the fun of CW, rather than keep using it as a barrier. They may just find that more people would join them through friendship than through forcing it on them.

Getting back to learning the code, I tried the Gordon West 13 WPM General Class code course. I feel I made a hard effort of it for several months before I gave up and dropped it; it just was not worth the effort. What happened was, I quickly got up to 10-11 WPM and leveled off, what is well known as "The 10 Word-Per-Minute Plateau", and then I spent months trying to beat that barrier without success. This is not to imply that Gordon West makes a bad code course; it might be OK for many people, but it didn't work for me.

One ham told me that working just CW mode for hours during a contest (such as Field Day) will get your code speed right up there. "The trick," he said, "is that the contacts will follow a regular pattern. You'll expect to get a callsign, signal report, and station type and location." I'll concede that he's probably right, but the actual code test will not be in the format of a contest response. (I suppose that throwing someone in the ocean for 3 hours will turn them into a Mark Spitz if they don't drown first, but it doesn't sound like a lot of fun to me.)

Some people, probably the sound-oriented mindset, have no trouble with the code and breeze through it like it's nothing at all. [You feel like you want to punch out someone like that when it looked like it came all too easy to them, and you've worked at it for months or years without getting your speed up.]

Me, I'm definitely the visual-oriented mindset; I find it hard to believe that there are people who can't visualize what a thing will look like from looking at an exploded diagram of components. I have no trouble with things like that. The big drawback is that, in my mind, I will subconsciously try to visualize the dot-and-dash patterns. That of course will never work. The time needed to mentally convert it to the letters and then to write them down is what is probably limiting my speed.

There's another big reason I have had trouble with the code. It was the way I was first taught it, by well-meaning volunteers at a local radio club:

"L and F are EASY! They're exact OPPOSITES of each other! Di-DAH-di-dit, di-di-DAH-dit! Di-DAH-di-dit, di-di-DAH-dit! See how easy those two are? Di-DAH-di-dit, di-di-DAH-dit!" This is exact dialogue that I can still remember all these years later.

And so that's how I learned L and F. And if I heard one of them, I had to think of them both to figure out which one I had heard. I also used to suffer from mild dyslexia. You can probably see why this would never work in the long term.

But there is a much better way!

Code Quick
My brother, John, N7JY, went from an effective rate of zero to passing his Extra Class 20 WPM, as he put it, "in 5 weeks and a day." You can write to him and confirm this.

The package he used is called "Code Quick", published by Wheeler Applied Research. This one uses very different methods of teaching the Morse Code. Among the things they have you do:

As you learn a letter's sound in code, you write the letter with the tip of your finger on a piece of sandpaper. This tactile trick drills it straight into your brain so that you minimize the translations: you hear the sound and your reflex is to simply write it. No visualizing the letters.

A complete series of what they call "sound-alike phrases." I asked my brother how it could help me defeat the hardcoding of L and F from years ago. He said it was easy. The sound-alikes for those letters come out as "The light is lit", and "Did I fail it?" There are cards included which have simple little cartoons, and not one dot or dash on them. The cards show, for instance, a puzzled-looking ghost hovering near a grave. The sound-alike for this letter ("Y") was, "Why did I die?" (dah-di-dah-dah). The cards are to help learn the sound-alikes, any trick as long as they get ingrained into your head. He said that much of the course consisted of learning the sound-alikes and then it was a matter of building up the speed.

I met Dr. Wheeler at a ham convention and asked him about the package. He says that these methods allow you to learn the code easily, and you only have to learn it one time in this manner, and then you can handle it at any speed. (His page explains it in a lot more detail. He's pro-code, for reasons that should be obvious.)

My brother says that after learning the code this way, hearing the code is almost the same as having someone whispering the letters in your ear.

So what's the catch? As with most of the traditional code courses, getting your speed up takes planned effort. Dr. Wheeler says you should do it in three sessions of twenty uninterrupted minutes apiece, every single day. Once in the morning, once during lunch hour, and once before you head for bed. Most people get their speed up beyond 13 WPM in a month or so. If you have less time per day to study, it will take longer. I didn't have the available daily time needed to pull it off correctly, but I tried enough of it to be convinced it's the right way to learn the code. (It was my brother's package. Once he passed his 20 WPM test he didn't need it anymore!) It's just as useful even with just a 5 WPM code test these days.

Now, here's the best part. Wheeler Applied Research offers a money-back guarantee if you're not satisfied.

(The above paragraphs are a shameless non-compensated plug.)

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Dave Bartholomew
Copyright © 1997-2002 David G. Bartholomew, AD7DB.
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