Hmmm, now that I’ve typed that headline, I’m wondering about some potential earlier digital modes. Things like smoke-signals and drum messages have some of the same characteristics. Even so, I’ll restrict this discussion to radio frequencies and to amateur radio.
One of the things that I like most about our hobby is the extremely wide array of activities available. Plus, you can get involved at whatever level best suits your interest, your available time, or your pocketbook. That includes CW, or Morse Code operation, from low-speed straight-key conversations to high-speed telegraphy competitions. CW has something for everyone.
ORIGINAL DIGITAL MODEWe call it a digital mode as it consists of an essentially binary code of on and off tones. Dits, or dots, are one unit, while dahs, or dashes, are three units in duration. Spaces between letters are three units and the spaces between words are seven units. If only that last one was followed more closely on the air, CW would be a bit easier for beginners to decipher.
For those of you interested in digging much deeper, Wikipedia provides a great deal of information at Morse Code.
WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS
Another wonderful aspect of CW is the simple nature of the transmission itself – turn the carrier on and off. This, in turn, allows the use of simple transmitters and receivers. Plus, since the bandwidth is narrow and the on/off tones readily decoded, a CW signal can get through QRM, interference, and QRN, noise, when other modes cannot. While amateur radio’s tagline is “when all else fails,” CW can claim to be at the head of that list.
I’ll also note that I’m always impressed by the straightforward and minimalist construction of QRP, low power, transceivers housed in tuna cans and Altoids tins. These simple transceivers can be found on mountain tops via the Summits on the Air (SOTA) program or just on a park bench with a long-wire antenna tossed over the top of a nearby tree. It’s just so easy to get on the air for pleasure or for emergencies.
LOW-SPEED TO HIGH-SPEED
As I mentioned in the opening, you can get involved with nearly any aspect of amateur radio at whatever level suits you. With CW there are a number of organizations that serve everyone from beginners to experts. Here’s a quick list, my apologies to those that I’ve left out.
- FISTS CW Club – The International Morse Preservation Society This CW club is dedicated to encouraging newcomers and furthering the use of CW. They offer a number of programs including nets, sprints, and code buddies.
- SKCC – Straight Key Century Club This club is dedicated to straight keys and fosters a great deal of on-the-air activities. Membership is free.
- The CW Operator’s Club This club offers a CW academy program for beginners or those who want to develop their proficiency. They also offer a number of events and sprints.
- W1AW Code Proficiency Program and Qualifying Runs As you’re building your CW speed, you may be interested in testing that speed through ARRL’s code proficiency program. W1AW sends transmissions from 10 to 35 words per minute, with an occasional 40 wpm transmission. Send in your copy and you’ll earn a certificate of your code proficiency.
- High-Speed Telegraphy Contests At the other end of the CW extreme are the regional and world high-speed telegraphy championships. Here the qualifying range begins at 40 wpm and moves swiftly up from there.
That should be enough links to get you started at whatever level of CW proficiency you’re at and whatever level you’re thinking about pursuing.
OK, in today’s world of amateur radio digital transmissions we don’t often consider CW in that realm. Instead, it includes various forms of PSK, JT65, Olivia, RTTY, and even Hellschreiber. It also includes one of my personal favorites, D-STAR.
Even so, I commend CW as an excellent facet of our wonderful hobby of amateur radio. Note, too, that all the Icom HF rigs have CW built-in – usually with keyers for use with your paddles as well as memories for frequent messages. So, plug in your key and get on the air!
Among ham radio operators I often encounter contentious discussions about what’s best. This happens in person at hamfests, online in chat rooms, or blog comments, as well as on the air. I’m sure the response to this blog post will be no different.
I argue that the discussion needn’t be about what’s best. It needs to be about opening up and exploring all the fun and magic of amateur radio. That’s what I’ll be trying to do with my blog posts – sharing my own exploration of all the fun and magic of amateur radio.
Stay tuned. In the meantime, I welcome your comments.
Ray Novak, N9JA
Division Manager, Amateur and Receiver Products
Lifetime Amateur Radio Enthusiast