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Making contacts with Morse

If you want to make long distance contacts without a mega-station or from a super-light portable setup, there's a lot to be said for being able to use Morse. The same goes if you're into building simple equipment or have high noise levels at home. Sure, using Morse is slower than talking, but when it comes to getting the message through with weak or fading signals, amateur radio's oldest mode remains an excellent choice. Especially if you value the skill of manual operating over the near-automation offered by efficient but less personal modes like FT8.

Want proof? The video below shows a comparison with SSB. Very roughly 5 watts of Morse is about as good as 100 watts of SSB. This is a big benefit if there's interference or your equipment or license level limits you to low power.

 

Lovers of simplicity also have reason to embrace Morse (or CW as hams often call it). What can be simpler than being on or off for a short or long time with no different tones or accents? A one or two transistor CW transmitter can be built in an afternoon. Yet it can be heard hundreds or more kilometres away as described and demonstrated here. Or, if you don't want to build from scratch, low-cost Morse transceiver kits are available to get you on the air.

In both cases (distance and simple equipment) the trade-off is that you learn a skill to do more so that your equipment can do less. That saves you money, complexity, weight and battery power. Below I'm using a typical low power Morse station. The transceiver and small battery can provide several hours of communication with stations around the world. Even lighter equipment is readiliy available for those on multi-day hikes with even stricter weight requirements.

a compact Morse station can be carried to an operating site in a small bag

Learning Morse

Morse is a sound language. Not a written language. Thus it is a mistake to memorise letters and their dot and dash codes from a list. Instead you should associate them with sound from Day One. As it was once a requirement for an HF amateur radio licence, most old-timers learned Morse as part of their studies. Now it is no longer a requirement those who learn Morse do so as they want to use the mode.

There are many online Morse learning resources available - just do a Google search and try some. As well there are Morse practice beacons in some cities as well as on-air activity to tune in to either on your own receiver or via a web software defined radio. 5 words per minute (wpm) is considered slow speed, 15 wpm medium speed and 25 wpm fast speed. Most contacts you hear are around medium speed with top DXers and contesters using higher speeds. Around the world there are Morse clubs that have on-air sessions, activity periods or small contests. These can sometimes be useful as speeds are often not very high.

You can get computer programs that convert keystrokes into Morse to drive a transmitter. And decode Morse. Thus it is actually possible to operate Morse without knowing the code. However the human ear is better at decoding through noise and coping with weak signals than computer decoders so the latter have significant limitations.

Keys, keyers and equipment

Morse is rarely used on VHF/UHF. But it is common on HF with bands like 7 and 14 MHz being the busiest at most times. Pretty much all amateur HF SSB transceivers have a key socket and can transmit Morse. A key (or 'straight key') is simply a momentary on/off switch. It need to have a lever or button that can be pressed quickly in long and short bursts without tiring your hand. There are fancy keys around but you can make your own from springy brass for speeds up to about 15 or 20 wpm. The general advice is for beginners to start with a straight key.

Many more experienced operators, especially those sending at higher speeds, use an 'iambic keyer' or 'bug'. This works differently in that it it is a side to side lever with the dits are one one side and the dahs on the other. A keyer timing circuit (typically built into most transceivers) handles the timing. Keyers can also be made at home with an example presented below.

Dedicated Morse-only transceivers and kits are available. These are typically smaller, cheaper and simpler than gear that also does SSB. More information on equipment options on my QRP page. Building your own is also a real option due to Morse's simplicity, again with details elswhere here.

 

Operating procedure

The basics of operating have a lot of similarities to SSB. That is you can tune around listening for others calling, originate a CQ call yourself or call a station who is just finishing a contact. Information on that in my HF primer elsewhere on this site. As well there's more about making Morse contacts, including an on-air demonstration in the video below.

 

Conclusion

Morse takes a bit of effort to learn but can be a satisfying facet of amateur radio. Enjoy the videos below for some examples of various facets of Morse activity.

 

 

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