"When I operate SSB my wife say's I'm 'cheating'....she says ham radio is 'diddy-dahdah', SSB is just another cordless phone." - Tom Althoff K2TA quoting his wife Colette who sums up CW/SSB operation very accurately.
If it is true that CW is in trouble these days, and unfortunately many signs point in that direction, here is why as stated so accurately by my good friend Tom, KB3LFC (now WY3H) - "Nothing worth doing is easy. The trend in just about everything today, not limited to amateur radio, seems to be 'You have to lower your standards for me because it's too much effort for me to meet them.' And so we go, lower, lower, and lower. Finally it's 'Hey thar, 10-4 gud buddy, watscher 20?'"
Perhaps it really isn't in as much trouble as we think. Since the ARRL and the FCC made it a "forbidden fruit", a lot more hams are dabbling in it now as is done with anything that is "forbidden". My CW section here is a good place for those folks as I have much info about the proper way to use CW including procedures and lists of procedure signals, abbreviations, the Q codes and much other info for the newcomers to the mode.
To me, ham radio and CW (Morse Code) are one and the same, and it would be a great tragedy if CW were to disappear from the ham bands. I know if that were to happen in my lifetime, I would give up ham radio. CW is the only mode that I use on the ham bands. It has always been that way since I was first licensed in 1963. I consider CW to be my second language, a unique language in that it is spoken with one's fingers instead of the mouth. That is one of the features that makes it so fascinating. Another feature that sets it apart is its variable speed. You can communicate at any speed from 5 words per minute or less up to 60 WPM or more. I have trained myself to be able to copy up to 55 to 60 WPM, yet I still enjoy communicating at slower speeds with the newcomers to the mode. Most of the time, I send around 18 WPM with my keyer, bug, or straight key for casual contacts up to around 30-35 WPM with my keyer in some contests. I have made almost 90,000 QSO's on CW, and can truly say that every one of them was enjoyable. I think that communicating with CW brings out the best in people. Perhaps it is because you have to think a little bit about what you are saying when you use CW. On other modes such as SSB, things are often just blurted right out without any thought whatsoever. We all know what that can lead to. Just listen to the SSB portion of the 75 meter band some time.
Another of the many things that makes Morse Code the most interesting of any ham radio mode is the variety of instruments with which it can be sent ranging all the way from simply touching two wires together to using a computer. Of course the most traditional instrument is the hand or straight key. I started my ham career using a J-38 style key that my uncle used on the railroad years ago. After that I tried building a bug from scratch. It was hard to get the correct type of spring to control the dit contact and I never did get it to work all that well. I then bought a simple bug that was encased in a plastic cover. After using it for a while I loaned it to another amateur and never did get it back. I then turned to electronic keyers and have been using them ever since with homemade paddles made from two straight keys, a Bencher paddle, Begali paddle, or ARRL Centennial paddle. My first keyer was the old single tube ARRL Handbook keyer which was good as a starter, but was a little short on performance. Next came the W9TO keyer which I built from scratch. That keyer was the state of the art for many years till microprocessors and IC chips came along. When that happened, I built the Accu-Keyer designed by WB4VVF. None of the keyers I've described so far had any kind of memory in them although the Accu-Keyer did have provisions for adding memory circuitry if my memory serves me correctly. After the Accu-Keyer came the CMOS Super Keyer II. My version has 4 memories that I used for calling CQ and for some contest work. It has many options to customize it to one's personal needs. That was followed by the WinKey keyer. Then it was the built in K2 and KX3 keyers.
Nowadays my setup involves a Begali Magnetic Classic paddle, the ARRL Centennial paddle, a Vibroplex Lightning bug, a Begali Blade straight key, and a homebrew straight key. I switch among them seamlessly as I operate. The Bencher paddle is used now for my portable work.
Although some folks for various reasons use keyboard or computer keying, it just doesn't seem like Morse to me that way and I don't do it. I do use a computer for logging in some contests. Mainly because it aids in dupe checking as I get older and can't dupe check in my head as well as I used to do. I don't send CW with it though. I do use keyer memories sometimes for calling CQ so I can do other things in the shack while waiting for responses on the slow days. That's about the only time I'm not sending by hand.
CW is the most efficient of all ham radio modes in several ways including making the most efficient use of the limited spectrum space available to ham radio. The next three paragraphs explain why that is so, and are quite technical in nature. If you hate math, you may want to skip them.
The bandwidth of a CW signal depends on two factors: 1 - The speed at which it is sent, and 2 - The shape of the keying waveform. Basically the bandwidth increases with increasing speed, and also increases the closer the keying waveform approaches a perfect square wave. A perfect square wave is an undesirable keying waveform for a few different reasons including being hard to obtain and causing key clicks. There should be a small rise and fall time to the waveform to produce the best sounding CW. Without delving into the complex math, I'll just say that a normal CW signal has a shape that boils down to a so called shape factor or 'K' of 4.8. The formula for CW bandwidth is BW = BPS X K where BW is bandwidth in Hz., BPS is baud rate per second, and K is the shape factor. Baud rate is determined by the number of dit sized elements (bauds) sent in a minute. The word 'PARIS' is used as a normal word when computing CW speed. PARIS contains 50 (dit sized) elements or bauds, so a speed of 1 word per minute is defined as 50 bauds per minute making a baud rate of 50/60 or approximately 0.83 BPS.
Taking all the info in the above paragraph into account, a CW signal at 1 WPM occupies 0.83 (BPS) X 4.8 (K) = 3.984 Hz. or rounding off, 4 Hz. A 10 WPM signal would occupy 10 X 4 or 40 Hz. A 25 WPM signal 100 Hz., and so on. So allowing for 100 Hz. spacing between signals, about 10-12 25 WPM CW signals can fit in the same space as one SSB signal.
Going a little bit further, assuming a SSB signal takes up 2000 Hz., and comparing a 100 watt 25 WPM CW signal with a 100 watt SSB signal, we have the following. The average power density for CW is 100W / 100 Hz. or 1 w/Hz. For SSB it's 100W / 2000 Hz. or .05 w/Hz. Follow closely now, it gets interesting although a little more technical. We could say that the gain in using CW over SSB is Gain(db) = 10*log(1/.05) which is about 13db. That means that a 5 watt CW signal packs an equivalent punch to a SSB signal at 100 watts.
Despite its wonderful efficiency, there are currently many movements afoot to reduce or eliminate Morse Code on the ham bands. I urge everyone who loves CW as I do to keep up to date on these movements by reading the ham publications, and regularly visiting the ARRL and FCC web sites. After you become informed, make your feelings known to the FCC, the ARRL, and your ARRL representative. This is the only way that we can keep the status quo for Morse Code. If we lose anything, it is not the ARRL or special interest groups who should get the blame. It is us, the individual CW operators who did not take the time to speak up. Just listen to the CW bands during a big contest. A large portion of the ham fraternity still uses and loves Morse Code. If each one of those amateurs speaks out in favor of CW, we have nothing to fear whatsoever.
Countering the anti-CW movements is a large and growing grass roots effort to preserve CW on the ham bands. I hear from more and more hams who are trying CW for the first time or returning to it after many years. The two fastest growing clubs in all of amateur radio are the FISTS Club organized to promote CW operation and the NAQCC which promotes CW with QRP and simple wire antennas. I helped found the NAQCC with Tom KB3LFC (now WY3H) and am the now retired VP of the club. For almost 20 years I wrote a QRP column for the FISTS publication, Keynote.
One thing we can all do to preserve Morse Code on the ham bands is simply to get on the air and make those CW QSO's. Since August 5, 1994, I have gotten on the air every day long enough to make at least one QSO, usually more if conditions are good. Actually, I've averaged about 12 QSO's per day during the streak. I write about the streak periodically here on the web site. If you're interested, take a look at the latest report on the still continuing streak. The above-mentioned NAQCC offers a QSO-A-Day award to promote activity on the CW bands.
It is important to work those who are new to CW. Many of these newcomers still hang around the Novice segements of the ham bands even though the Novice class license is no longer being issued. The young ones are the ones in whose hands the future of CW lies, and we should do all we can to encourage them to stick with CW. Be sure to read the reports written by teenage hams who love CW.
If you are a non-ham, you may be wondering what the message is. It's WELCOME DE K3WWP at about 10 words per minute. DE means from.
Many hams have been asking me about increasing their code speed. I think the best way to go about it is simply to find someone sending code about 5-10 WPM faster than you can copy solidly and copy as much as you can. The more you do this, the less you will miss, and you will soon be copying this new speed solidly, and can move on to still higher speeds.
An excellent computer program is called simply Just Learn Morse Code available for free here.
The following are some good on-the-air sources of code practice to help increase your speed.
W1AW covers the speeds from 5 to 40 WPM with daily practice sessions. Dates, times and frequencies are listed in QST magazine as well as on the ARRL web site.
George Hart, W1NJM, used to regularly conduct high speed practice from 20-65 wpm throughout the year on Monday and Thursday at 01:30 UTC on 3523, 7023 and 14023 KHz. Certification tests were held occasionally on an as-requested basis, depending upon interest. These practice sessions unfortunately were discontinued. I have just learned they may be resumed if anyone is interested in conducting the runs. For more info check the SOWP (Society of Wireless Pioneers) web site.