The development and significance of Morse telegraphy in historical retrospect
What was the significance of Morse telegraphy in the past?
Wired telegraphy via land and sea cables in the 19th century was replaced by the teleprinter in the next stage. Morse telegraphy was the simplest technical solution for the first applications of radio technology at the beginning of the 20th century, as a transmitter was switched on and off in time with the Morse code. At the receiving station, a strip chart recorder recorded the Morse code or the recording was made by listening to the radio operator and writing it down directly in plain text. The latter method had the benefit that even very weak signals could still be heard and analysed. Even the later introduced radiotelephony could not achieve this, as speech intelligibility tends to end at the same signal strength. The numerous operating abbreviations and the so-called Q-groups made it possible to communicate within the framework of operations without any knowledge of foreign languages.
The benefits of these inventions were plausibly first recognised for maritime shipping. After the sinking of the Titanic in 1914 at the latest, the realisation that every seagoing vessel should be equipped with a radio telegraph station in addition to public telecommunications, primarily for communication in the event of an emergency at sea, had become generally accepted.
These characteristics of radiotelegraphy meant that this mode of operation remained in use in maritime radio well into the second half of the 20th century, albeit with decreasing importance.
What is the significance of Morse code today?
When it comes to transmitting messages securely, error-free and quickly, there are other digital operating modes today. They make it possible to correct errors and automate the transmission of messages. Today's professional communication would no longer be possible without these technologies, if only because of the volume of data involved. It is therefore no wonder that Morse telegraphy has lost its importance in "professional radio".
Morse telegraphy in amateur radio
Morse telegraphy has only survived in amateur radio and is maintained by a loyal fan community. Around 2300 members are organised in the largest European telegraphy club, the Arbeitsgemeinschaft Telegrafie (AGCW-DL e. V.). In cooperation with the German Amateur Radio Club (DARC e. V.), it was recognised as a national cultural heritage and an application was submitted to UNESCO to have Morse telegraphy recognised as a world cultural heritage.
Radio amateurs practise Morse telegraphy partly out of tradition and because this mode of operation involves a certain "sporting aspect" of constantly improving their listening and transmitting skills. This ranges from confident CW QSOs to high-speed competitions. Numerous amateur radio diplomas can also be obtained exclusively in CW alongside other operating modes or are only advertised as telegraphy diplomas from the outset.
The argument that a QSO in CW is still possible where voice radio has long since failed does not necessarily have to be used. In times when digital operating modes still make signals audible and visible below the noise level, this is no longer true. But this comparison is not appropriate either - because with CW QSO, the challenge lies in the personal performance and ability of the operator, comparable to a musician who has mastered his instrument.
From hand keys to CW decoders: the variety of Morse keys and their areas of application
The hand key, formerly also known as the knock key, is the original type of Morse key. In the early days of wired land telegraphy, there were keys that were actually tapped. This may initially have been the practice for low transmission speeds. With the higher speeds in radio telegraphy at the latest, it is no longer possible to form the Morse code characters accurately with this hand position, as this makes key bouncing unavoidable. The index finger and middle finger must be positioned at the upper edge of the button, the thumb slightly below, at the lower edge. This ensures that the vertical movement of the touch stroke is guided safely. The palpation movement should not be performed with the entire forearm, but only from the wrist. The idea that the tactile contact is not in the Morse key but under the wrist helps here. It is also advantageous if the entire forearm rests on the station table up to the elbow and does not follow the movements. This also makes it possible to achieve a clean beat tempo of up to 100, 120 bpm over longer periods of time. Do you still have ambitions for a hand button? Once learnt, it is fun to use a hand key, the hand movements correspond 1:1 to the rhythm of the Morse code.
Efforts were made early on to automate the generation of Morse code, even before the technology was ready to solve this task electronically. This led to the so-called semi-automatic bug keys, of which the Vibroplex Standard is the most prominent representative, which have been built almost unchanged from 1905 to the present day. The mechanism consists of a single paddle that is operated with the thumb (dots on the right) and index finger (strokes on the left). The dots are generated automatically by a mechanical pendulum device, the strokes are still made individually with the index finger. The horizontal hand movement is less tiring and allows for higher stroke speeds.
The term "bug key" requires some explanation: radio operators with poor handwriting were referred to as "bugs" at the time. It took a long period of training to produce halfway legible characters. Even with practised use of these keys, the "handwriting" still took some getting used to because it did not correspond to the usual 1:3 dot/dash ratio, but rather to a ratio of 1:2 with the shortened sequence of dots. As a result, the term "bug" also stuck to these keys. Nevertheless, there are OMs who traditionally use bug keys and can be recognised immediately by their characteristic handwriting.
Keyer - electronic Morse keys
If you find giving with a manual key or a semi-automatic, mechanical key too sporty and you are absolutely not comfortable with it, then resort to an electronic keyer (Elbug or Wabbler). The term "keyer" is used both for the pure mechanics of the encoder and for the entire unit consisting of mechanics and electronics. There is no reason why such keys should not be used! Handling them also needs to be learnt. Dot and dash lengths are generated automatically; you control the number of dots and dashes, their sequence and the character spacing. If you master it properly, this is a considerable relief. Very high keying speeds up to the high-speed range far beyond 200 bpm are possible. Keyers with a one-armed paddle have now become rather rare. Squeeze technology with a two-arm paddle has become widely accepted. Together with a dot-stroke memory, this technology significantly reduces the number of hand movements still required.
An encoder with two levers also allows so-called "squeeze keying" if the electronics are set up accordingly. The ability to output an alternating character sequence when both paddles are pressed simultaneously is known as iambic. In Mode A, dots and dashes are automatically added to the full length as the last character, even if the corresponding paddle is released prematurely. In Mode B, a final opposing character element (dot or dash) is also always used if the respective paddle is released a little too late. Mode A has largely prevailed. It is very difficult to switch from Mode A to Mode B. For this reason, a versatile keyer should always have a choice between the two iambic modes.
During the transition from the mechanical bug keys to the electronic keyers, the sides, dots on the left and dashes on the right, were retained. Otherwise you would have had to get used to it. Today, however, there is nothing to stop the whole thing being reversed. Some OMs find it easier to operate the strokes with the thumb and the dots with the index finger. Some electronic keyers now at least have an internal switching option for this.
Keyer electronics in the radio or external?
If the keying electronics are already integrated in the transceiver, only one encoder needs to be connected. On the one hand, this is practical and reduces the "cable clutter" on the station table that quickly arises with external equipment. On the other hand, the internal button electronics can quickly prove to be extremely impractical in radio practice if access to the settings, in particular the transmit speed, is only accessible via the transceiver menu. If the transmit speed has to be adjusted during a QSO because the other station has QRM or a newcomer cannot fully read the speed that is too high, it is not possible to react quickly. You simply wish there was a separate rotary knob for this setting. Unfortunately, there are hardly any transceivers that have this function "detached" from the menu. External key electronics with a quick setting option (rotary knob or at least up/down buttons) is more suited to radio practice and is the better solution. For this purpose, the internal keyer function of the transceiver is deactivated and the keying output of the external electronic key is connected to the input for the manual key.
Contest keyer and CW decoder
Contest keyers are a useful accessory for contest operation. The content of the contest QSO is limited to the bare essentials anyway, so that radio operation can be largely automated with numerous memory functions and special functions such as consecutive, automatically generated QSO and contest numbers.
Morse code was not originally designed and optimised for machine readability. Nevertheless, you can go one step further with a CW decoder. It decodes the Morse code characters and makes them visible in plain text as scrolling text on an LC display or an external screen. Such decoders are available as external add-on devices or with CwGet, for example, as a pure software solution. A CW encoder enables text input via a keyboard and output as Morse code.
Variety in the world of Morse keys: Overview of WiMo's selection of Morse devices and accessories
Over 30 products are currently available in the WiMo category "Morse keys, keyers and accessories". The Vibroplex brand is present with numerous versions of its semi-automatic, traditional bow key. Vibroplex also produces twin-paddle and single-paddle keys as well as conventional hand keys. For the latter, brass is used for the mechanism and either wood or steel for the base plates for some models modelled on the former land telegraphy. Not forgetting the legendary Bencher, whose chrome-plated squeeze mechanism is available in three different versions on either a black or chrome-plated base plate. The counterpart to this comes with a similarly designed twin paddle from MFJ, also in chrome or on a black base plate. VGC uses an all-chrome hand button with a ball-bearing lever.
Regardless of which single or twin paddle button you use, if your transceiver does not have integrated button electronics or you do not want to use them, you will need an external solution. For this task, you will find CW memory keyers and CW keyers with integrated Morse decoders in the MFJ and CG-Antenna product ranges.
Optimise Icom transceivers:
WiMo offers special keypad and various connection solutions for Morse keys
WiMo offers a keypad especially for the Icom transceivers IC-705 and -7610 for recalling the internal memory keys.
Ready-made connection cables are available for connecting the Morse keys. The range extends from simple connection cables (2-wire, shielded) to special CAT connection cables from microHAM. To learn Morse code, you can choose from several electronic Morse trainers and Morse tutors from MFJ.
QRP transceiver with CW decoder and encoder: Experience Morse code actively with PreppComm's innovative solutions
If you don't want to learn Morse code, but still want to decode Morse code and actively participate in telegraphy, you can use a CW decoder to follow the QSOs as a ticker on the LC display. With an additional integrated encoder, texts can be entered via a keypad and sent out as Morse code. PreppComm goes one step further and offers two QRP transceivers, each with an integrated CW decoder and encoder. The 3-band version has 80, 40 and 20 m on board, the monoband version the 40 m band.
Effective methods for learning Morse code:
The tried and tested Koch method and practical implementation in the Morse course
Among several different concepts for learning Morse code, the "Koch method" published by Ludwig Koch in 1936 has proven itself. It is based on practising the audio recording with Morse code characters that are composed as differently as possible, which are given at a higher speed with increased character spacing. Based on this, the method that begins with the letters "e t v kp" has also become established. Only when you have halfway mastered the Morse alphabet by listening to it does it make sense to start transmitting.
With the help of a Morse code course, preferably in the presence of a local DARC or VFDB organisation, with the help of a Morse tutor or Morse trainer, as well as by radio or using a storage medium at home, learning is possible for everyone. Anyone can achieve the target of "60 bpm" (letters per minute), the former examination requirement for licence class A. This means that you can already venture onto the bands and participate in telegraph radio traffic at a moderate speed.
Future prospects for Morse in amateur radio: Why Morse telegraphy retains a loyal fan base despite digitalisation
At least in amateur radio, Morse code is still relevant in the age of digitalisation. Morse telegraphy will retain a firm fan base for the time being.
Real tactile radio is given when a mental process of the human operators involved that directly affects the code is required to generate and/or receive the code (quote from the CW manual © 1982 DARC-Verlag, Baunatal)
This is precisely the fascination that still motivates some OMs to reach for the Morse key!