Category Archives: CW

The Joy of Elmering (with Congratulations to KK4FKM for His First QSO!)

I got some good news and some bad news Tuesday. The bad news came when Dean, NYØI, let me know he couldn’t get into my EchoLink station. A little investigation proved that my radio is deaf; the problem is either the feedline or the antenna itself. What a disappointment.

But the good news I got that day was so good that it more than made up for the bad news. I got a taker on my offer to be a CW Elmer! Michael, KK4FKM, found me listed over at the SKCC Elmer Page and sent me an email. Great timing — I easily pushed my antenna woes to the back of my mind and set up a SKED with him for yesterday afternoon on 20m.

Kent SP-1 Key

The Key I Used to Work KK4FKM: The Kent SP-1

At the appointed hour I called KK4FKM KK4FKM KK4FKM DE NØIP NØIP NØIP KN. I wasn’t sure I’d hear him since the band was unusually noisy and KK4FKM was running QRP. But sure enough, there he was!

He was buried pretty deep in the QRN; I quickly flipped on my CW filter to isolate his signal. I managed nearly solid copy on the first go-around, but I couldn’t make out his subsequent transmissions. I was booming in there, though, so he had the opportunity to copy plenty of code.

Afterward we chatted by phone. I was moved when Michael told me this was his first QSO! What an honor to be his first contact. Impressive, too, that Michael’s first QSO was by CW, especially considering that he has his General — he could have gone straight to HF SSB if he wanted to, but instead he went the extra mile and tapped out his first QSO on a straight key, QRP no less. Well done!

It turns out that Michael and I have even more in common than our appreciation for CW. He is a police officer in a department about the same size as the one in which I served, and he is a Baptist, too. After a delightful conversation, we set up another SKED before bidding one another farewell.

This is one QSL that I would send if it cost me a hundred stamps! It’s in the mailbox. Congratulations, KK4FKM!

If you ever have a chance to Elmer, go for it. And if you could use an Elmer, don’t hesitate to seek one out. You’ll be doing him a favor. Of all the things we can do in this hobby, Elmering might just be the most delightful one of all.

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Anniversary of Vail’s First Demonstration of the Telegraph

Over at “This Day in History,” the lead story today is “Morse demonstrates telegraph.” It leads off, “On this day in 1838, Samuel Morse’s telegraph system is demonstrated for the first time at the Speedwell Iron Works in Morristown, New Jersey.” Well, I thought, surely this is worthy of a blog post, so I poked around on the web to learn more.

It turns out that this first demonstration was put on by Morse’s partner, Alfred Vail. Vail had first become involved three months earlier when visiting his alma mater, the University of the City of New York. He stumbled upon Samuel Morse demonstrating his “electro-magnetic telegraph” with over one-third of a mile of wire coiled around a room. Vail was hooked. He convinced his brother George and father Stephen to support further development of the telegraph at the Speedwell Iron Works, and he signed an agreement with Morse to turn Morse’s crude prototype into a market-ready model — at his own expense — by January 1, 1838, in return for a minor share.

The challenge was to get the thing to work with a length of wire much longer than Morse had managed to use. Alfred Vail recruited an apprentice at Speedwell, William Baxter, and got to work. After many frustrations, they finally succeeded in getting their model to work:

At last on January 6, 1838, the machine was ready to be demonstrated. The cotton-covered hat wire was coiled around the room on nails to equal a distance of two miles. Alfred sent Baxter to “invite Father to come down and see the ‘Telegraph’ machine work,” which sent the eager lad plunging into the cold afternoon without stopping to throw a coat over his shop clothes.

The machine that sent Stephen’s message, “A patient waiter is no loser,” was still far from perfect. A few days later [January 11] several hundred men and women crowded into Speedwell to witness the first public demonstration. The message this time had a practical cast: “Railroad cars just arrived, 345 passengers.”

http://www.morrisparks.net/speedwell/tel/tel.html

I’m not sure how these messages were formatted, but most likely they were not sent letter-by-letter. In those early days messages were laboriously sent using numbers that were assigned to commonly-used words. Eventually the “Morse Code” alphabet would replace this system, though great debate rages over who invented it.

Vail himself gives credit to Morse for the alphabetical system on p. 30 of his book, The American electro magnetic telegraph: with the reports of Congress, and a description of all telegraphs known, employing electricity or galvanism (available online for free), though some doubt the truth of this statement. Many years after his death, someone even sneaked in and engraved on Vail’s tombstone, “INVENTOR OF THE TELEGRAPHIC DOT AND DASH ALPHABET.”

Whoever invented the alphabet, what does seem clear is that Vail was the one who invented the straight key, an elegant improvement upon the cumbersome machines first used to encode messages. Today, you can even purchase a replica of Vail’s “spring key” from Kent Morse Keys!

Alfred Vail became increasingly frustrated by Samuel Morse’s lack of involvement in the development of the telegraph while publicly taking all the credit. Vail stuck with it for ten years before finally leaving the telegraph behind.

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War of the Worlds, CW Edition

For some time now I’ve been nibbling away at H. G. Wells’ book, War of the Worlds — in CW! It is available along with several other books at the SKCC CW Learning Page. What a blast! It’s an effective way to improve your code speed, and it is so captivating that you want to keep coming back to it to find out what happens next. Somehow the story is all the more gripping as it unfolds slowly, letter by letter, giving you ample time to imagine the scenes that Wells describes.

Each chapter is one word-per-minute faster than the last one. So while it starts at a mere 10 WPM, if you finish the book you’ll be copying 36 WPM!

A couple other features are helpful, too. For one thing it has punctuation marks that I’ve never learned before. It’s not everyday that you hear hyphens on the air, and the first time you hear an apostrophe or quotation-mark it will throw you for a loop. But you learn them quickly enough.

Another thing I like is that Wells uses some expressions that are a bit antiquated. This helps keep you on your toes. On the air, it can be a help to anticipate the next word, but it can also be a hindrance — if you don’t hear what you expect to hear, it can take just enough milliseconds to get over the surprise that the whole word “rushes by like a freight train” (as my friend Keith describes code when it suddenly becomes opaque). By listening to War of the Worlds on CW, with its occasionally unfamiliar turns of phrase, you learn to temper your expectation so that you’re not thrown off.

All in all it’s a great way to hone your skills, and it’s way more enjoyable than the dry practice tapes I listened to ‘way back when!

Thank you to SKCC and especially to John Dunlap, KF7BYU, for making this book available!

Update: One ham has asked me for help on this. Currently the only way to listen to the files at http://www.skccgroup.com/learn/learn.php is to click on them one at a time, either listening to them one at a time online or right-clicking each one and saving them one at a time to put together in a playlist on your computer (That’s what I did, and it was a bit tedious.). If you would like to download a zipped file of the whole book, send me an email at N0IP@arrl.net and I’ll give you the link for as long as I can spare the disk space to keep the zipped file online.

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CW Abbreviations

If you’re just getting started with CW, you need to know that learning Morse Code is only part of the puzzle. You’ll also need to learn basic CW Operating Procedures, and you’ll need to know some commonly used abbreviations, too. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to print out something like this and keep it near your key until sending and receiving these are second-nature:

Abbreviation Meaning Example
ABT About ANT 3 EL BEAM UP ABT 40 FT
AGN Again PSE AGN UR NAME?
ANT Antenna ANT DIPOLE UP ABT 50 FT
BURO QSL Bureau PSE QSL VIA BURO
CPY Copy HW CPY?
CU See you CU AT SKYWARN TRAINING
CU AGN See you again 73 HPE CU AGN
CUL See you later 73 HPE CUL
CQ Calling anyone CQ CQ CQ DE NØIP
DE This is station NØBSY DE NØIP KN
DR Dear FB DR TODD (Often heard from DX stations.)
DX Long-distance CQ CQ CQ DX DE NØIP
EL Element ANT 3 EL BEAM UP ABT 40 FT
ES And 73 JOHN GN ES GB U ES URS
FB Fine business FB OM TNX FER RPT
FER For TNX FER NICE CHAT HPE CU AGN
FT Feet ANT DIPOLE UP 60 FT
GA Good afternoon GA OM UR RST 579
GB God bless 73 ES GB
GD Good day GD OM TNX FER CALL
GE Good evening GE OM ES GB
GL Good luck TNX FER QSO 73 GL
GM Good morning GM DIETER TNX FER RPT FROM BERLIN
GN Good night TIME TO HIT THE SACK GN ES TNX FER QSO
GUD Good UR ANT DOING GUD JOB
HI Laugh XYL NEEDS A NEW RIG HI HI
HPE I hope/I hope to HPE CU THIS FRI
HR Here RIG HR HEATHKIT DX-100 ES HAMMARLUND HQ-170A
HW How HW CPY?
NR Near QTH NR MINNEAPOLIS, MN
OB Old Boy TNX QSO OB
OM Old Man TNX FER CALL OM
OP Operator’s Name OP TODD
PSE Please PSE QSY UP 1
PWR Power RIG HR TS-440S PWR ABT 100 W
R Roger (Copy 100%) NØBSY DE NØIP R R FB TOM
RIG Radio equipment RIG HR HW-8
RPT Report (also RPRT) or Repeat TNX FER RPT/RPRT (Repeat: PSE RPT QTH)
SIG Signal UR SIG VY WEAK
SRI Sorry SRI OM MUST GO
TKS Thanks TKS FER QSO (Same as TNX)
TNX Thanks TNX FER QSO (Same as TKS)
TU Thank you NØIP TU 5NN (Typical rapid-fire DXpedition exchange.)
U You NICE TO MEET U
UR Your/You’re UR RST 599
URS Yours GB U ES URS
VERT Vertical ANT VERT UP 20 FT
VY Very UR SIG VY WEAK
W Watt(s) RIG HW-8 PWR ABT 2 W
WID With BEEN WID XYL 24 YRS
WX Weather WX HR COLD ABT 5 F
YL Young lady FB YL HPE CUL
YR Year CU NEXT YR AT DAYTON
YRS Years BEEN HAM 33 YRS
XYL Wife (Ex-young-lady) XYL CALLING MUST GO
72 Best regards (QRP) UR K2 DOING GUD 72 OM ES GB
73 Best regards TU 73 CUL

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Basic CW Operating Procedures

Back when I first got on the air in 1978, CW QSO’s had a pretty standard format. That format didn’t change much until the last few years. But today there’s quite a hodgepodge of operating procedures out there. Most of the time it works, but it’s not uncommon to hear a downright jumbled mess — even from a CW operator who has been on the air long enough to send and receive at 10 wpm or more.

It’s important to learn good operating procedure, not just because it sounds polished but because it serves a practical purpose. You can get away with sloppy operating procedure under perfect conditions, but not if your signal is weak or if there’s much QRM, QRN, and/or QSB. Even under perfect conditions, you’re making the person at the other end work harder if you’re constantly surprising him with your own odd way of operating. Under poor conditions, he may miss some of what you’re trying to say. And even if he succeeds at copying what you’re saying he may well be relieved when the ordeal is over.

I’m not going to get into all of the details of good operating procedure here, but I would like to discuss some basics.

General structure
There is a general structure to a CW QSO that most operators expect. After establishing contact, the first transmission should stick to the basics — RST, QTH, and name. You don’t know yet how well the other fellow is copying you; if you’re a 329, you’re going to torture him if you go on and on about your rig, your power, your antenna, the weather, etc. Furthermore, you might lose the opportunity to hear even the basics from the other fellow if band conditions deteriorate while you’re sending all this on the first transmission. So stick to the basics — and do send them. Here’s the way we all used to do it years ago:

NØART DE NØIP R TNX FER CALL OM BT UR RST RST 579 579 BT QTH QTH GRANITE FALLS, MN GRANITE FALLS, MN BT NAME NAME TODD TODD BT SO HW CPY? AR NØART DE NØIP KN

Note the use of BT. That seems to have fallen out of favor, but once upon a time it was the standard way of changing the subject. The most important thing I want to point out here is to preface each of the three major elements of this first transmission with their labels: RST, QTH, and NAME. It takes a few seconds longer than sending something like, “UR 579 IN GRANITE FALLS, MN OP TODD,” but it is worth it. As the FISTS club puts it, “Accuracy transcends speed.” Update: I have noticed that OP is often used instead of NAME, especially with DX stations. Since it is widely recognized it’s perfectly acceptable.

The operator replying to this first transmission sends the same three basics in the same way. If he’s inclined (and if he’s received a reasonably good RST) he will probably go on to talk about his station, the weather, etc. As it turns into a ragchewing session you can pretty much send whatever you want.

Procedure signals
Just as the use of BT has fallen out of favor, so have other procedure signals fallen on hard times. I often hear them sent incorrectly and used improperly. Remember what these are — they are procedure signals. Learn to send them well and to use them well, and your operating procedure will improve substantially. The ones most commonly used are AR, AS, BK, BT, K, KN and SK.

Notice the line that appears over each one of the two-letter procedure signals. That means you send the two letters as if they are one character. For instance, KN isn’t sent as dah-di-dah dah-dit (KN) but dah-di-dah-dah-dit (KN).

  • AR End of message: Send this after you are completely done sending everything — everything, that is, but call signs and KN. If it’s your last transmission, use SK instead.
  • AS Wait:You might hear this if you’re working an experienced operator. If you hear this, the next thing you hear will probably be silence — maybe he has to answer the phone or something. Or maybe you’ll hear him hold his key down while he fiddles with his antenna tuner. Don’t start sending — he’ll start sending when he’s ready. This is a handy procedure sign to know, if you ever need to take a break yourself.
  • BK Break: This might be used by a station who wants to enter an ongoing QSO — he’ll send BK between transmissions to see if they’ll let him in and turn their QSO into a “roundtable.” With the advent of full QSK keying, this also became popular among experienced CW operators who could interrupt one another right in the middle of a transmission (perhaps to answer a question or clarify something). But most commonly BK is used to rapidly turn the conversation over to the other station without sending any call signs. For instance, an operator might send something like “HOW CPY? BK” and then cease his transmission. If this happens to you, reply by simply sending BK and answer his question. You can go back and forth in this manner for as long as you want, but don’t forget to obey the law by identifying yourself with your call sign at least every 10 minutes.
  • BT Separator: Usually used to change the subject, even if it’s just to go from sending RST to sending QTH. (If you hear the other fellow sending BT several times, it’s because he’s trying to think of what he wants to say next!)
  • K Over: This invites anybody listening to reply. Send this after you’re done calling CQ. But if you’re in a QSO, you almost always want to use KN, not K.
  • KN Over (to specific station): Send this after signing over to the other station in a QSO, e.g. NØART DE NØIP KN. KN tells other listeners that they’re not welcome to call you yet — you just want the station you’ve named to reply. Don’t send this after calling CQ — send K instead.
  • SK End of contact: This lets the other operator know that you want to end this QSO, and this is your last transmission. Usually sent in place of AR right before signing over to the other station.

The Handshake
It has long been customary to send “dit dit” at the very end of a QSO, like a final handshake. On the very last transmisssion, the sending station sends “dit dit” and then the other station replies “dit dit,” and that’s the end. Or (like we did in the old days) you’ll hear the first station send “dit di-di-dit dit” and wait for the second station to send “dit dit” (“shave and a haircut, two bits!”).

But this is often fumbled. Here’s how it usually goes wrong. The first station to send his final farewell, e.g. TNX FER QSO HPE CU AGN 73 73 SK NØART DE NØIP KN, knowing full well that the other station still plans on bidding him farewell in the same manner, goes ahead and sends “dit dit” at the end of his transmission. Naturally, the other station ignores this faux pas, goes on to send his last transmission, and only when he is done does he finally offer “dit dit” for the other operator to send his own “dit dit” again.

Now, this is obviously not the most important point of operating procedure, but why not do it right? No need to be socially awkward at the end of a good QSO!

I’ve only covered a few basics here. For more on CW operating procedures, it’s worth checking out something like http://www.fists.org/basiccw.html. But the best way to learn good operating procedures is simply to pay attention to what proficient operators are doing — especially as you get into more advanced operation, like handling DX pileups. The more listening you do before you wade in, the better operator you will be.

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Teaching Morse Code: The Importance of Perfect Dits and Dahs

My son and I had another lesson this evening before bedtime. This time I dug out my paddles and my electronic keyer, since I was afraid that my imperfect fist at the straight key could do him damage.

My fears were well placed!

It turns out that in our first lesson I made my “dahs” much too long. This caused him some grief when I started using my electronic keyer since the “dahs” and the “dits” sounded too much alike to him, accustomed as he was to my goofy fist (which shall now be rectified ASAP!).

So we spent most of this lesson just fixing my mistake, getting my son to discern between perfectly proportioned “dits” and “dahs.”

I’m glad we caught my mistake on this second lesson and not several months from now! But I still feel bad for exasperating my son.

So to all you would-be Morse Elmers out there, learn from my mistake! Whatever quirks you may have in your fist may be exacerbated at low speed. So unless you have a perfect fist with a straight key, use your electronic keyer right from the beginning when teaching Morse Code.

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Teaching and Learning Morse Code: The Personal Method

There are all sorts of ways to teach Morse Code. There’s the old Army way (check out these youtube clips: part 1, part 2). Then there’s the way the ARRL taught me back in 1978 — with cassette tapes. And today, students can download software that will teach them Morse Code with the Farnsworth Method and the Koch Method. It all works, so long as the student sticks with it.

How do you get a student to stick with it? First and foremost, by cultivating within him an affection for Morse Code. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery purportedly said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”1 But since so many things can thwart this affection (from discouragement to competing interests), sometimes you simply need to come alongside the student and encourage him. This is where cassette tapes and computer programs usually fall short. There’s nothing like The Personal Method — a real, live Elmer teaching you Morse Code.

Just ask my son! A few days ago I purchased a nifty Nye Viking Speed-X straight key and code practice oscillator to begin teaching him Morse Code. I hooked up my own Speed-X to it so that we could both key the oscillator — him on one side of the table with his new practice set, and me on the other side of the table with my own key. Thus equipped, we had our first lesson before bedtime Wednesday night.

I was surprised by how hard the bug bit him. At first he wasn’t so sure about the whole thing, but by the end of the lesson he was so excited he said he wouldn’t be able to get to sleep. He even told me that he wouldn’t enjoy his classical guitar lesson and horse-riding lesson quite as much the next day because he just wanted to have the next Morse Code lesson! The next morning, he woke me up by sending “GM” outside my door with this practice set. And later in the day, he started sending me code as went down the road, saying “dit” and “dah” like a true CW operator.

So to my fellow CW operators who know somebody that wants to learn Morse Code, I say let’s try The Personal Method. And to those of you who do want to learn Morse Code, try to find an Elmer who is willing to spend some time with you. If you can’t find one who can meet with you, hang in there with your cassette tapes or your computer program until you know enough code to work with an Elmer on the air. As the SKCC website says, “If you can only key at 3 words per minute, so be it.” There are SKCC Elmers who are eager to work with you (http://www.skccgroup.com/elmers.php). You’ll be amazed at how quickly you build up your speed, and you’ll enjoy the experience a thousand times more than by trying to learn all by yourself.

1 This quote is all over the Internet, but I’ve yet to see any citation for it. If you know where Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote this, please let me know!

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