Why Learn CW?

Why would anyone want to put forth the effort to learn CW these days? It’s no longer required for any class of amateur license, and it’s more effort to learn than picking up a microphone and speaking via SSB. Nevertheless, people are still learning it, and having fun with it. If you haven’t yet experienced CW, or even if you have experienced it, but just never quite got comfortable with it, here are some reasons you might consider it.

CW is efficient.

By keeping all the transmitted energy into a vary narrow bandwidth, CW gains a huge advantage over SSB in the areas of signal to noise ratio and power density. This means it gets through better, given the same antenna and transmitter power. A CW signal occupies roughly 100Hz of spectrum, whereas SSB uses around 2000Hz. At those bandwidths, a 5W CW signal has the same power density as a 100W SSB signal.

There are always tradeoffs between transmitter power, antenna efficiency, propagation path, and the mode of communications. You can take advantage of CW’s efficiency in various ways. It can reduce your power requirements. It can reduce your antenna requirements. It can open up more possible propagation paths with a given antenna and power. Or it can do some combination of the above.

Many of us are constrained in our antenna options at home. Some people enjoy working portable with batteries on hikes and campouts. Some enjoy chasing long DX, winning contests and awards. CW’s efficiency offers real extra reach to people in any of these circumstances.

With CW, you don’t need to leave all the good DX for the “big gun” stations with stacked beams on tall towers, running legal limit amplifiers. A “small pistol” station, affordable and practical to set up on a small suburban lot, using a barefoot transmitter into a wire antenna, can work the world, winning contests and awards in the process.

One area where efficiency may be useful is in post-disaster emergency communications. There are different types of disaster scenarios, with different types of communication requirements. Many needs will no doubt be served very well by FM voice in the VHF and UHF bands, and I’m confident that the local repeaters will be very useful, busy and appreciated. HF SSB will also see plenty of use, I’m sure. But one of the potential appeals of CW is in the ability to use a simple, low-power, battery operated station with an improvised antenna to reliably send a message to a station far outside the affected area, where it can then be relayed via e-mail, phone, or radio to anywhere in the world. Among other things, this capability could be useful to relay welfare status messages from families in the disaster area to loved ones outside the area.

My suspicion is that few things are going to be more valuable in the weeks after “The Big One” than electrical power. Sure, we can make plans to be independent of the utilities, but eventually, batteries need to be recharged, and generators need to be refueled. Gasoline is likely to be scarce if refineries are damaged or if trucks have difficulty getting through. It will be much less of a logistical challenge to keep a 5 watt station running for a week or two than to keep a 100 watt station running over the same time period.

A hobbyist can freely pick and choose modes that sound fun, exploring at leisure, and ignoring those of no interest. But a truly prepared emergency communicator needs to know how to use whatever communications mode will get the message through. Whether you consider yourself to be a hobbyist or a prepared emergency communicator, every useful mode in your toolkit increases your options.

You will have people to contact.

The recent DXpedition to Amsterdam Island logged 63007 QSOs on voice, as opposed to 95037 on CW. The fact that there were over 50% more QSOs on CW than voice is a testament to the popularity and effectiveness of CW, especially for DX operations. Granted, here in 6-land, you won’t have that many people chasing you, but there are many operators out there willing to make contact.

In August, 1994, K3WWP started a streak of making at least one CW QSO every day, using no more than 5 watts into a simple wire antenna, from a compromised location in a valley in Pennsylvania. He’s still going, almost 20 years later, and he hasn’t missed a day yet! During the process he’s worked all states using less than a watt, and he’s won a stack of other awards. He’s kept it up during all seasons, all portions of the sunspot cycles, and all band conditions. For the past year, he has kept up a streak of making at least one DX contact every day. His original purpose in doing this was to make the point that five watts into a simple wire antenna is enough to reliably make good contacts in all conditions, provided you do so on CW. He has made the point!

CW is technically simple.

CW is the digital mode that doesn’t require a computer. It sends information by just turning a transmitter on and off. Nothing could be simpler. This same simplicity that made it the first radio mode also makes it easy for homebrewers and experimenters to build small simple radios. There are many kits for CW-only rigs, as well as plans available for those who want to build from scratch. You may also buy fully assembled CW-only rigs from the likes of TenTec and Elecraft, among others. These are typically smaller and cheaper than voice-capable rigs of similar power.

The fact that CW uses no microphone, and thus has no need for the operator to speak out loud, makes it possible to operate quietly with headphones. You can chase DX at night without waking your spouse or family members. You can work from inside a tent in a campground after quiet hours without disturbing your fellow campers. You can do a SOTA (Summits on the Air) expedition near a hiking trail without bothering hikers who came to the peak expecting serene solitude.

CW is a skill that is within anyone’s reach, with practice.

At the risk of causing a ruckus, I’ll point out that CW operators aren’t all super-geniuses. I will surely concede that perhaps many of our favorite CW operators truly are geniuses, but my point is that CW doesn’t require any extraordinary innate talent or natural gift. What it requires is some skill that anyone can acquire through a dedicated investment of practice time. You can learn CW. I guarantee you that somewhere on the airwaves, there’s someone who is not quite as smart or talented as you who has already mastered the code. If you learn CW, you may eventually have a QSO with him.

Some people have likened learning CW to learning a foreign language. I beg to differ. I have been learning Spanish since age 14, and have achieved some fluency. My wife is a native speaker of Spanish, we have bilingual children, and I use Spanish at home a lot. After decades of study, I’m still learning new vocabulary and new figures of speech every few days, and there is absolutely no end in sight. Although I’m able to communicate at a basic level, I still have an enormous amount to learn. In contrast, Morse Code has 26 letters, 10 digits, and a handful of punctuation marks and prosigns. There are about 43 things to know, and that’s it. I still can’t claim complete mastery of CW or Spanish, but the finish line looks much closer for CW than Spanish, despite Spanish having a multi-decade head start in my case.

I’ve also heard people claim it’s too hard to learn CW as a mature adult. Partly from experience, I’ll concede that a brain can become somewhat more resistant to acquiring new skills as the decades pass, and the accumulated wisdom gradually starts to fill up all available spaces in the grey matter. Regardless, it only means that if a teenager and someone my age both spent equal time practicing CW, the teenager would achieve mastery a bit faster than I would. It doesn’t put mastery out of my reach. When you stop learning, that’s when you start dying.

When JFK set the goal of putting US astronauts on the moon, he said that “We choose to go to the moon and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”. Accepting the challenge of learning CW seems pretty small by comparison, but the exercise of stretching your brain and acquiring a new skill has some value simply by virtue of giving your brain a little workout. In addition to the fun and challenge of doing something new, studies have shown that keeping mentally active and learning new things can slow mental decline sometimes associated with aging.

Though there is some mental workout, the mental exercise to learn CW isn’t huge, and it’s not as hard as it used to be. Back in 1938, a psychologist named Ludwig Koch demonstrated a superior method of learning code. He recognized that what goes on inside the brain when copying code at a usefully high speed is very different from what goes on when copying at 5WPM or so. When going slow, you have time to consciously think about each letter. But when going at a useful speed, the letters must be automatically recognized by reflex, without conscious thought or effort. So the Koch method concentrates on building those automatic reflexes from the start. It involves starting out by learning just two letters at full speed, drilling until those letters are mastered, and then adding more letters to the mix, one at a time. Each time a new letter is added, you drill at high speed until you can copy with at least a 90% accuracy. You never slow down the code speed, so by the time you make it through the alphabet, you are copying all the code at full speed.

Why didn’t the Koch method catch on back in 1938? Mostly because it requires somebody to send the practice drills, and grade the results, and move on to a new set of characters exactly when the student is ready. Before computers, this would have meant having an individual tutor dedicated to each student. But now, the computer can become your tutor. There are several free programs that use this method of teaching code.

There are people to help you learn. While a computer may be the most patient tutor for the repetitive task of drilling you on receiving the characters, a human is still best to give you tips and coaching, particularly in the area of sending, and in the etiquette and customary procedures involved in making QSOs. There are many Elmers in the Marin Amateur Radio Society for those interested in CW. Mike Ransom, AI6II, has graciously volunteered to help organize a CW class, and if you’re interested at all, you should take advantage of this opportunity.