The Art & Skill of Radio-Telegraphy

-Second Revised Edition-
William G. Pierpont N0HFF

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Chapter 2- Principles of Skill Building and Attitudes for Success

Two factors are of primary importance in building a skill efficiently:

  1. right mental attitudes
  2. practice - doing it the right way from the very start.

Neither one alone will maximize success. Here we apply these principles to learning the code.


Skill-building is generating a set of habits. It begins at the highly conscious levels of letter by letter, number by number, etc. Gradually your skill will build up - sometimes by sudden breakthroughs. More and more sub-conscious control takes over and there will be less and less conscious thought about it. As it becomes more and more automatic, your full attention can be given over to the thought content, the ideas expressed while listening, and when copying, you may find yourself thinking of something altogether different.

Telegraphy is a skill somewhat like playing golf, a musical instrument, typewriting, etc. It is learning a set of habits which can be called into operation whenever desired, and which work automatically and without conscious effort when we want them. It has an active and a passive aspect. It is active when we are sending, and passive when receiving. The goal is to become able to receive and send as easily as the expert does - he is comfortable about it - just as if he were carrying on a conversation.

Skill is developed by consistent, repetitive practice of materials which become increasingly familiar (letters, numbers, words, punctuation,etc.). Never practice error! Only correct practice is beneficial. This builds confidence and proficiency.

Our major focus will be on learning to receive (which is listening with understanding or by writing it down). Ultimately conscious thinking of the code must be eliminated, and we respond automatically. Then sending will be easy, too.


  1. that produces tension or
  2. requires thinking

interferes both with the learning process and with using the code.


In the process of learning, minimize tensions by having a clear picture of where you are headed - the goal, what you are going to do and the steps you're going to take to get there. Take little steps, one at a time - small enough that you know you can do each one. Introduce new material little by little, in small enough bites that you don't feel overwhelmed - yet not so slowly that it becomes boring. Provide enough variety to keep it interesting, and introduce new items as soon as you are ready.

Take it easy. Especially in the early learning stages keep things at low key, comfortable and free from strain. Some people learn faster than others, so it is a good idea to avoid all competition (because it tenses us up) while you are learning the new game of the A B Cs in sound - learn at your own rate.

Avoid all unnecessary tensions because they tend to distract our attention. That also means being we need to get rid of all kinds of distractions, worries, duties and anything else that makes us feel concerned so that we canconcentrate on what we are doing. That makes learning easy.

Relaxation and confidence go hand in hand. Each promotes the other. Easy does it. When you know you are doing the right thing in the right way, this promotes confidence, and that makes learning easier.

There are many schemes to learn how to relax. They generally begin by learning to pay attention to specific parts of the body one after another, such as starting with the toes and feet and going upwards, to legs, abdomen, chest, arms, hands, neck, head, face, eyes, etc. As you concentrate on each part, first tense it so that you know what tension feels like, and then deliberately release that tension and recognize what relaxing it feels like. With practice this can be done in a relatively short time, an almost all at once action. Breathing can also be coordinated so that deep inhalation, followed by exhaling easily is thought of as producing relaxation. Try it.


Anticipate success. "Nothing succeeds like success." In order to succeed you must first believe that you can do it. Everything possible must be done to guarantee success at every step, and to prevent any sense of discouragement or failure from developing. Never even suggest that learning it could be hard. - As for errors, ignore them, except that when they are persistent they merely point out where more practice is needed. With the right approach and right practice you can't fail.

Mental attitude is critical: We should approach every aspect of learning with interest, enthusiasm and a positive "can do" outlook. Anyone who really wants to learn the code can learn it. If you have the ambition to learn it you have the ability to do it. A feeling of confidence is vital to achievement, and must be guarded carefully.

"If you think you can, you can."

Don't fight negative attitudes, such as anxiety, fear, worry and doubt. But if you do feel any of them, admit it, and then ignore it and let it die of inattention.

Make learning fun. Enjoy the learning process itself. When I am so eager to learn that I can hardly wait to get going, how receptive I am and what energy surges up! Watch how youngsters play and learn as they play. They are good models: they're relaxed and having fun. They don't pay any attention to mistakes. Imitate them and enjoy learning the code. That makes it even easier, and more enjoyable.


Our first impressions are the strongest and most long-lasting. So be sure your very first exposure to the code signals is right - by hearing it. Otherwise, it may raise a roadblock, a"plateau", somewhere along the path which will require us to go back to line one in order to advance.

To advance rapidly your mind should hear only consistent patterns of sound. This hammers it into the mind, hearing the same character formed exactly the same way each time. Poor quality code will tend to confuse the mind, distract your attention, and slow down your rate of learning.

A recent study by Dr. Henry Holcomb of Johns Hopkins University on learning new skills says that after first learning "how to do it", engage in routine activities of some other kind to allow a five hour time period in which no other new skill learning is attempted. He claims that experiments show that it takes about six hours for to permanently transfer the new learning from the front brain to permanent storage in the rear brain. This is something to try and see if it helps speed up Morse code learning. He also added something we already should know: that it takes lots of practice to learn rapid, complex, and precise handmotor-skills.

Develop a sustained attention. Attention to the thing in hand is the starting point of all learning.

The more interesting the subject is, the easier it will be to concentrate on it. Direct your mind to go where you want it to go by stimulating your interest.

A stop-start technique will help you gain control of your attention span and lengthen it. It works this way: When attention lags, don't fight it, but stop all thoughts and clear the mind, then let your interest and enthusiasm start it up again fresh and naturally. If the distraction is one which you can identify, clear the mind by either settling it at once, or by setting it aside to handle later.

It is impossible to try NOT to attend to something, such as a distraction. Attention to it will only make it more distracting.

It has been suggested that the mind resembles a portable built-in computer, but it is far superior. It can do feats of information processing and recall unequaled by the largest computers. First we must debug it and get rid of any old bad attitudes about the code and replace them with a positive "can do" and "enjoy it" outlook. Next, feed it with a "lookup" table of sound-equivalents for the various characters, and we're in business: an automatic motor-response to the audio signals: we hear didah and immediately visualize and write "A". Don't put an artificial limit on your speed of comprehension.


Once the fundamentals are well in hand and our speed is increasing, we need to apply pressure in short bursts in order to advance. At this stage begin with a few minutes of warm-up at a comfortable speed, then use familiar materials to try for a burst of speed for a minute or two at first. Keep it short to minimize the discomfort. Then drop back to a more comfortable speed, and you will find the mind responding faster.

Avoid practicing when too tired, ill, or all upset and distracted - little or nothing will be gained and it may even discourage you.

It takes time for associations to develop. Be patient and learn at your own rate. Some days will be better than others for various reasons. Progress will not be uniform, but that should not bother you because you know about it beforehand. When you feel good and can enjoy it you will advance the fastest. On days when you don't feel very good it is best not to push, but rather to work at a comfortable level which will give you some sense of accomplishment.

As these processes improve, conscious thinking tends to drift away, and we need to keep the mind focussed on what we are doing in order to advance. But ultimately, conscious thinking must be completely eliminated and response become automatic (we no longer even think of the code itself). That's proficiency.


Achieving our best performance in any skill, including telegraphy, is a personal matter. We needto:

  1. observe how we think and act when doing our best, and then
  2. learn to control those attitudes and actions so that we can use them when we want them.

While each of us behaves as an individual, there are definite principles which will greatly speed up our success as we adapt them to ourselves. At first they may seem awkward and unproductive, but if we stick with them - improvement will begin and grow much more rapidly than without them. Attitudes are critical, and for best results we need to individualize them, fit them to our very own needs. We can lay a foundation for positive attitudes if we do the following:

Feel confident, it promotes learning. If you have an opportunity, watch a skilled operator, observe how calmly and quietly he goes aboutit. He is in no rush, and is not concerned about missing anything. He goes about it just as if it were everyday listening and talking. Instead of filling the mind with problems, worries and concerns, occupy the mind with the way things should be done. In learning, build confidence by taking one firm step at a time, telling yourself, "I can do this".

Build a sense of achievement, that good feeling of doing something well. As a guard against frustration be sure to provide periodic successes, with simple little rewards for each. Keep a record of the goals and your progress: as you see your progress it will help build positive attitudes. Give yourself some little reward after each practice session.


Mentally Practice the thoughts, feelings and actions necessary for good performance and you will greatly speed up achievement - a valuable tool to accelerate learning. How can it be done? In a general over-all way you may picture yourself quietly and without strain listening to the incoming signals and easily recognizing them as the printed or spoken letters and words they represent, and as sending well-formed characters without hurry or strain. Picture yourself doing it, and doing it well, like an expert. It helps to have a real model in mind. Watch or imagine a skilled performer (a telegrapher if you can find one) at work. He isn't in any hurry. He isn't flustered or concerned, he just does it and enjoys it. Repeat and rehearse this picture often in your mind.

There are at least two ways to use this tool. One is to sit back and relax and deliberately form the picture. To get started, set up a general over-all picture first. As you continue practicing the mental picture of how you want to do, add details, making it more and more realistic until you have a solid lifelike picture in mind. See yourself doing it, how you will do it step by step. The more vividly you can mentally see, hear, and feel it as you rehearse the picture, the better the results will be, how doing it right looks, and how it feels. This is not mere wishful thinking, it is building up a working pattern to become realized in time as you continue actual receiving and sending practice. This kind of mental picturing can have much the same effect as real practice. It creates memories, models of the behavior as you want it to be - but it is, of course, no substitute for real practice doing.

Another way is now and then to "see" brief "snapshots" of yourself receiving and sending while you are doing other things (such as driving, walking, working, etc.), not making any particular effort to fill in details.

You may want to try it right after you have learned the sounds of the first group of letters. Sit quietly in a chair, close your eyes, relax, and imagine you are hearing each letter sound (just as you heard it), taking them one at a time, and immediately recognizing it or writing it down with a pencil. Make the picture as realistic and vivid as you can, even to imagining the "feeling" the pencil writing on the paper. Feel a sense of satisfaction of doing it right. Three to five minutes practice this way at any one time is probably enough. You can then repeat this kind of mental practice with each new group of characters as you learn them, and it will greatly strengthen the habit you are trying to build.

When you know the whole alphabet and have a clear mental picture of how each character should sound, you can mentally practice visualizing short printed words and then imagine "hearing" them spelled out in code. Feel it in your mind as if it were actual - a mental "sending" practice.

Mental picturing practice may be extended to prepare you to minimize distractions, such as static, interfering signals, noisy people in the vicinity milling around, being watched closely, etc. Prepare for these by picturing yourself calmly receiving and sending while extraneous noises - talking, shouting, crashes - are all around you Think of what a war-front operator would have to contend with! It may also be used to help learn to copy on a "mill" (typewriter or keyboard), and other aspects you may need to meet.

All this is preparatory and supportive of real practice, not a substitute for actual practice by doing. The goal we seek is for the use of the code to be as natural and easy as talking, reading, writing. These mental images take some real effort and practice. Don't expect instant results, give it time to grow.

The Art and Skill of Radio-Telegraphy-Second Revised Edition-
©William G. Pierpont N0HFF