Learning Morse Code – Part One


My first introduction to Morse code was in the early 1960’s. I was a lad of perhaps 10 years old. I have a dim memory of being in a car with my childhood friend Roger Boncutter. He suggested we get our ham radio licenses.

That geek on the left is me. Roger is on the right. We're standing in my front yard in a middle class neighborhood in Cincinnati, OH.

That geek on the left is me. Roger is on the right. We’re standing in my front yard in a middle class neighborhood in Cincinnati, OH.

“We’ll have to learn Morse code,” Roger said. Roger was two years older than I was and I looked up to him and trusted him. He showed me a page of the dots and dashes (we now call them di’s and dah’s as that’s how they sound) next to the letters of the alphabet. I tried to memorize them, but gave up. Suffice it to say I’d have to wait just about forty years to get my ham radio license.

Fast forward a few years and in September, 1966 I was sitting in a desk at Roger Bacon High School in Fr. Warren’s classroom. I had my Latin book in front of me and my eyes were glazed over. Not only was Latin a foreign language, but it was a dead one at that!

I didn’t do well in Latin. In fact, I failed it my freshman and sophomore years. Yes, I had to go to summer school to advance in high school. I sucked at learning a foreign language. I was stubborn in high school and more like a wild stallion than a mature young adolescent.

Plus, I wasn’t mature enough to recognize the benefit of learning Latin – and how discovering its vocabulary would help me years later as a professional writer.  After doing custom remodeling and building custom homes for two decades, I started AsktheBuilder.com. Yes, it’s really worth it to pay attention in school. Such is life for young men who don’t listen to their parents and teachers.

Morse code is just that. It’s a foreign language. It’s not a tough language to learn, as you only have to memorize about 50 combinations of letters and numbers to get started. As you advance and begin to master Morse code, you’ll soon discover there’s probably closer to 75-100 combinations as Morse code uses things called prosigns and Q-signs (they’re also called Q signals and Q codes) where two or three letters are jammed together to create an abbreviation for a phrase.

Modern texting on cell phones has nothing over Morse code, affectionately known as CW by those of us who produce the invisible truncated tones over the airwaves. CW is the acronym for continuous wave. Think of a steady tone in your head. Go ahead, start to hum. I know it’s corny, but do it. Do it out loud. Now, interrupt that tone into sounds of different length. That’s Morse code.

You’ll see kids and adults today text: “r u sick” or “roflmao”. CW operators had been doing this for decades long before cell or smart phones were even a gleam in the eye of the inventors of the tiny radios. Yes, cell phones are radios. You knew that, right? Most people don’t make that connection. They just think cell phones are magic.

The Cold Winter Night

Nine months ago is when the CW bug bit and wouldn’t let go. I was in a small room filled with young Boy Scouts watching two Morse code pros do a demonstration. The radio they used, as well as the magic of passing a message about zombies, set the hook deep.

I started to work on learning and using the code, but all sorts of things got in the way. I wasn’t focused. Read that again.  No, seriously. Read that sentence again.

If you want to learn Morse code, or how to solder a pipe. or how to tape and finish drywall like a pro, you must be focused. You must be passionate about what you’re trying to do.

Think about that for a moment. Think of the things you’re really good at. How did that happen? How many hours a week did you practice at doing that thing? Yes, it’s all about practice. Where do you think that old adage “Practice makes perfect.” came from?

Create the Ideal Environment

People around you who don’t care about Morse code will find the di’s and dah’s annoying. At first they may humor you, but after a while that grin on their face will turn to a frown.

You have two choices: You can get earphones or a headset, or you can relocate yourself so you don’t bother people in your family. Moving to a remote, soundproof location where you still might use ear or headphones can create a great environment to learn.

The open nature of my home was not a great place to do Morse code. It bothered my wife. I needed to get as far away from the living area of the house as possible. Plus, near my basement office, I didn’t have an ideal location to erect a great antenna. I needed a real ham radio shack.

The attic of my garage was the perfect place. There, in that dark cavern, I could carve out 85 square feet of space, install a window in the gable end for some natural light, build a partition wall to allow heat to stay in the space and build and erect outdoors in the adjacent tall trees a multi-band zepp center-fed dipole 80-6 meter antenna.

All of this work was completed and move-in day to the shack happened on November 3, 2013. Here’s a photo of part of my shack. It’s hard to show the entire room, even with a wide-angle lens. We’ll pick up the rest of my Morse code journey in Part Two.

This is one third of my ham shack. The room measures just over 7 feet deep and it's 12-feet wide. Photo credit: Tim Carter W3ATB

This is one third of my ham shack. The room measures just over 7 feet deep and it’s 12-feet wide. Photo credit: Tim Carter W3ATB

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3 thoughts on “Learning Morse Code – Part One

  1. Pingback: Learning Morse Code – Part Two | W3ATB

  2. I’m not sure if you will get this – I received a QSL card from you today… for a contact with WA9WDP. I haven’t held that call since 1975! Sorry. If you do send another card to whomever has it – please tell them the ‘original’ WA9 Whiskey Delta Papa’ says HELLO! [now K9RX]

    • Gary,

      Yes, I goofed!!!! I was trying to pull the contact out of a bunch of static. Fortunately I recorded the QSO and got the correct call. I sent out a new QSL card to him. I should have read your profile on QRZ.com as it clearly says you’re off the air. 73 Tim

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