Morse Code

For quite some time now I’ve been thinking of getting into using International Morse Code with my ham radio hobby. I’ve even been “practicing” by tapping on my leg or other surface, trying to memorize the patterns of various letters, prosigns, numbers, punctuation, etc. but not really making an effort to do so.

Recently I came across a mention that apparently many of the newer radios have built-in keyers. Curious, I did some research into “keyers” as such. What I read has me very interested in actually getting on the air using Morse.

I have three straight keys, similar to this one. It’s what most people think of when they think of someone sending Morse. However, I’d been practicing in a way that is more consistent with the use of paddles than a straight key. Not only that, but apparently also I’d been doing it “backwards” compared to the way most are set up. I’d been using my thumb for the dahs, and my finger for the dits. Most paddle setups seem typically the other way around: thumb for the dits, finger for the dahs.

It’s not that big a deal, it’s just a matter of how you wire up the device. It does comes into play if you go to another ham’s shack and use his system, though. This is a situation where, I think, I will conform to the norm. It’s not that hard to switch around, especially if I do so now, but it’s hard to break the habit of thinking of a dah when I tap my thumb against my leg in practice. But it’ll be easier for me to participate in Field Day and other such events using another ham’s gear.

So, why Morse?

Admittedly, I’ve performed no formal research nor spent countless evenings/nights scanning the bands, but it seems that more people regularly run Morse than PSK-31 or the other digital modes for simple QSOs, or chats. When I see discussions of QSOs, usually they’re QRP (low power) Morse contacts. That may just be because Morse users are more fanatical and vocal. 😉

Originally I got into ham radio because I wanted a way to chat with people all over the world. Ironically, I couldn’t wait for the code requirement for a ham ticket (license) to be dropped so that I could get my license and get on the air. My plan was to use the computer to generate and read Morse. Nobody’d know I was “cheating,” right?

Yet here I am, seriously probing what I need to get going with Morse. The appeal to me is the chatting component prevalent in Morse. The other digital modes don’t seem to quite have that level of just chatting about things. I could easily be wrong, but there’s also the simplicity of the system: no computer required, just the radio, key, power, and an antenna.

So, knowing my Yaesu FT-857D has a built-in keyer, I asked around for a single or double paddle to try out. I was able to borrow one from a fellow ham and plan to do a little experimenting with it this weekend. My goal is to find out just what the keyer does and how the output sounds. Does this keyer allow me to select a dit or dah and the keyer generates the proper size output to produce the actual dit vs. dah? Do I need to create the dit and dah lengths by holding the paddle in contact similarly to a straight key? Most of what I see on YouTube and elsewhere imply not…the keyer will generate the dits and dahs but I want to verify that for myself. And see what my crude sending will sound like. I’ll have two people listen to my sending on the other radio and let me know how bad I am. 😉

I’ve also seen various comments about starting with a straight key so that you “learn to properly send a dit and dah” but I’m ambivalent about that. I see the point of both sides but being lazy, I like the idea of the keyer itself generating the proper dit and dah. Besides, I’d have to generate my timing by guess until I learn the correct rhythm and habits. Since I can’t hear my own sending…using a keyer if I have it simply makes sense. Eventually I might switch to a straight key when I’m more comfortable using Morse, but at the moment I’m more curious about the keyer itself. What does it do? How touchy is it? What can I set up?

Once I learn just what the keyer in my FT-857D does and does not do, the next step, obviously, will be to concentrate on receiving. I’m confident that by the time I have that worked out to my satisfaction, I’ll have the necessary skills to get on the air using Morse.

At the moment, my biggest problem with pursuing Morse is still simply being able to identify it when I encounter it on the air. Being deaf, I can’t rely on my hearing to identify it or to judge my sending on the fly and I simply haven’t yet found something that works reliably for me. People have suggested various transducers, LEDs, etc. but none of these have worked out where I am willing to trust them. Of course, part of the problem is that I’ve not stuck with any one method long enough to give it an honest test under actual operating conditions. Part of that is due to me having no true feedback other than that transducer as to whether or not what I am feeling is actually Morse or just static that is very similar.

Let me give you an example…

Using a vibrating transducer, I plug it into the earphone/headphone jack. I adjust the radio to where it’s quiet, i.e. not vibrating. Now I begin to tune the radio and I hit something that feels regular. Not having enough experience, I can’t tell if it’s actually Morse or if it’s some kind of cyclic noise. Since there’s no-one around to ask to listen to it and tell me, should I remain there and see if I can actually detect any letters? Will the letters I detect actually be Morse, or will it be my imagination and desire to find some code to listen to? With no actual feedback, how do I know if I’m actually learning code or just think I am? Should I stay on that frequency or should I move on and hope to find something better (or real)?

That’s my typical experience when scanning the bands by myself. Sometimes I’ll hook up the oscilloscope and look at the waveforms, but mostly I am just playing around and when I’m mobile I don’t have the oscilloscope to play with anyway.

We’ll see how all this works out. I’ll provide an update next week.

Until then, 73.

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