Why I Enjoy Morse Code
-An Attempt at a Balanced and Fair View of my Favorite Operating Mode-
Carl W. Davis – W8WZ
Perhaps my love for CW comes out of my appreciation for simple elegance. I prefer to sail instead of motor. I prefer to cook from scratch using organic ingredients, especially those grown in my garden. I love a good glass of wine, and know the history and wine making philosophy of most of the vineyards represented in my wine rack. I smoke a pipe, and savor the nuances of the various tobaccos I enjoy. So, perhaps CW is the natural mode for me.
But, unlike many CW aficionados, I will be quick to point out what CW is not.
CW is not the best mode for disaster communications, unless of course, it is the only mode available at the time. While I am a fan of CW, and a frequent QRP operator, I do realize that there is a time and a place for everything. And, if there was ever a time for QRO SSB, Disaster/Emergency communications is it. More people can understand and use SSB, and it is generally much faster than CW. Yes, it is theoretically possible that atmospheric conditions will make SSB copy difficult, and yes, it is true that a weak CW signal is easier to copy than a weak SSB signal. However, such circumstances are rare, and while CW, like any other mode may be used as a backup, the primary mode of disaster communications is rightly Single Sideband Telephone. Also, the proper response for a net control of a disaster net that cannot be heard well, is not to change modes from SSB to CW. It is rather to increase power, switch antennas or to allow a better-qualified station to serve as Net Control.
Nor does CW proficiency guarantee good operating practices. Although, I do witness MUCH better operating practices overall among CW operators, than telephone operators, each day I usually hear at least one CW station begin calling CQ without a customary “QRL?.” CW ops do tend to be more willing to answer CQ calls in general, and are more tolerant of weak signal work.
Neither is CW the best mode for traffic handling. In this day and age, if our goal is to get a message transferred from station to station, an error correcting digital mode is best suited to the task. These modes share the small bandwidth and weak signal reception capacity that CW is famous for. However, they also have automatic error correction and since text is being transferred from computer to computer, the likely hood of successful and efficient communication is great. Certainly, if a computer is unavailable, and a station is incapable of phone communications, THEN CW may be the best choice at hand. But it should not be the first choice.
CW is a mode for the purist. It takes skill. It takes time. Like all good things in life, it is not instant. It takes dedication to learn Morse code. And, it takes practice to become proficient in its use. But this investment of time and intellectual application is rewarded greatly with the satisfaction of accomplishment that comes only through hard work.
Let’s face it, Amateur Radio is not a cutting edge technology. Of course, a few among our ranks are using our spectrum and hobby for some high-tech work. But they are the overwhelming minority. The VAST majority of us are using communication techniques at least 50 years old. That is not a complaint, as I do not think there is any thing wrong with that reality. But it is a reality and should be embraced by the Amateur Community. Pretending that Amateur Television, PSK31, or Packet are “new and modern” technologies is downright humorous in this time of Blackberries, I pods, Web-cams, and cellular telephones. So, if Ham Radio no longer offers cutting edge communication technology, then what does it offer? It offers classically simple and elegant technology that takes skill and finesse in order to master. It is NOT user friendly. It takes personal work and an application of knowledge. That is why CW is so appealing to me. In this day of “plug and play” and instant everything, it is refreshing to be involved in something that moves relatively slow and requires work and understanding.
While I certainly respect the rights of other Amateurs to have their own favorite modes of communication within our broad hobby. I prefer CW for the following reasons:
If I wanted to talk to people, I could use the telephone, cellular telephone, or Internet.
If I wanted to use a computer to communicate with others, the Internet is an awesome forum.
If I wanted to trade pictures I would send them through e-mail.
If I wanted to view fast-scan television images, I would use a web-cam.
Ham Radio is not the best forum for those modes of communication.
However, if I want to engage my brain by using Morse code then Ham Radio CW is the best forum. If I want to use an antique transmitter and receiver to communicate, then Ham Radio is the best forum. Therefore, that is what I use ham radio for.
For the sake of total disclosure, while I have disagreed with several of the arguments frequently put forward for maintaining Morse code as a requirement for Amateur Licensing, I do believe that it should be maintained. My rationale however is because it helps prevent ham radio from becoming just another user-friendly “plug and play” medium. We have enough of those. We need a hobby that is different from the other modes of communication available to us. Our hobby needs to be a more challenging one. Even as we embrace the fact that we are not cutting-edge, we should embrace the identity of hardworking appliers of knowledge. And, while CW operation is not necessarily needed for a Ham to have that identity, it does typify the identity. It also shows that hams are willing to push themselves and work hard. I support Morse testing requirements as a way to resist the attitude of instant gratification that I see growing in our world. I also oppose band-plan changes that are likely to cause more non-cw stations to operate in the current “cw-sections” of our bands, as I don’t like competing against non cw-stations for bandwidth. Are those opinions rational? Perhaps not, but frankly, opinions rarely are. Nor, do they need to be rational in order to be valid.
So, if you find yourself tired of talking and typing, then tune on down to the bottom of the band.
Get out the notepad and fountain pen. Put on the headphones and copy some code. Perhaps, you will also enjoy lighting a bowl of MacBaren’s pipe tobacco and sipping a locally grown wine while you decipher the series of beeps that you find being transmitted. Maybe you will also try firing up the old tube rig you have sitting around, so that you can feel the warmth and see the glow of the electron tubes. If so, you will then understand what I enjoy about our hobby.