The Art & Skill of Radio-Telegraphy

-Second Revised Edition-
William G. Pierpont N0HFF

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Chapter 3 - Part I: Laying the Foundation

LET'S BEGIN WITH THE A-B-C'S - Laying the Foundation

Many good ways have been developed through the years for learning the telegraph code easily and efficiently. Our purpose here is to present the very best ways to learn it efficiently and to compress the learning time to a minimum. It is too bad that so many hams have learned poorly and as a result have not been able to enjoy it as they should. The trouble often began by imagining that code would be hard to learn, or by learning it in an inefficient, or round-about way, such as visually, by sight, rather than by sound or by "sound alikes" .

Everything depends on how you set about learning it. It is much more difficult to go back and unlearn something which was learned wrong, than it is to learn the right way from the very start. Trying to learn by oneself without any guidance as to how to do it can make things all the more difficult later. Most learning trouble is due to: one's attitude, the method, or the teacher. One expert wrote: The most difficult students at Harvard were those who had learned the code by themselves by practicing alone without guidance.

The Telegraph Code is an Alphabet of Sound. It is Learned by Hearing it. When we learned to read our language, it was, or should have begun by first learning to recognize the ABC's by sight. Telegraphy begins by learning to hear and recognize the ABC's by sound. This difference is important. Code is learned by hearing it. Recognition of the sound patterns is the name of the game. For example, when you hear "didah" as"A," without translating, you are thinking in code. The sound is the letter. There is no reason ever to see the code in written form. So throw away those code charts-- all of them. Burn them!

Saying the letter immediately, or writing it down immediately, each time the ear hears it is one of ways to build the code habit quickly. We need direct association between sound and letter. Anyone who is stuck on a "plateau" because of having learned it visually or some other inefficient way will have to learn it all over again by sound. It is unfortunate that some still try to learn it this way. To teach it this way today is inexcusable.

It is Easier Than You Think Someone wrote: "Mastering the art of code communication is ten times easier than learning to talk -- which you did by about the age of two." You aren'tlearning a new language, a whole dictionary full of strange words, and sentences where the words are all scrambled up. You are just learning how to "read" your own language BY EAR instead of by eye. It's no big job.

Almost anyone who can learn to read can learn the code. There is no such thing as a normal person who wanted to learn the code and couldn't. "I can't learn the code" nearly always translates into "I won't commit myself to the time necessary to learn it," or that a person doesn't really want to, even though he may think he does. Age, whether young or old, and intelligence, bright or dull, are no barriers. Youngsters of four or five can learn quickly, and oldsters of 90 have succeeded,too. You wouldn't want to admit that a four-year old or a 90-year-old could outdo you, would you? It doesn't require superior intelligence, just right application.

Most handicaps, such as blindness or even deafness, have not stopped those who want to learn. Deaf people have been able to learn and receive using their fingers on the driver of a speaker at 30 wpm or on the knob of an electromagnetically driven "key knob" bouncing up and down at 20 wpm. (Even some people with dislexia have been able to learn to a useful extent.) It is easy if you really want to learn it and then go about learning it in the right way. Any person of reasonable intelligence can learn the Morse code and become a very good operator, able to copy it with a pencil at 25 wpm and send it clearly, smoothly and readably.

There is no real justification for the statement that "some people just can't learn the code." (They don't want to.) It's a matter of motivation, the secret of learning any skill. If you are one of those who tried in the past and somehow didn't make it, or got stuck at 8 or 10 or 12 wpm, take heart. Forget what you previously "learned", and start over with the principles set forth here, and you will succeed.

Some Naturally Learn Faster than Others Just as some people have a knackfor learning to play golf or tennis more quickly than others, so some have a special knack for learning the code. They catch on more quickly, but most of us take a bit longer. Kids tend to pick out the sound patterns easily and naturally without straining so they learn very fast


Nothing beats enthusiasm to learn. Stir it up - eagerness. Couple that with determination,and failure is impossible. If you want to so badly that you can almost taste it, you can do it. If you are teaching it, take advantage of any latent fascination with the idea of a special skill, secret code for communicating: many youngsters have it and maybe some older people, too. One lady who later became a code teacher said she got started because "the code sounded like fun." One man found that the very idea of communicating his mind to another by intermittent tones is most fascinating.

A sense of achievement and the intimacy found in code communication make the effort a lot of fun. CW is fun if you take the time to learn and to be comfortable with it. Be motivated. Fix it in your mind that you can do it. Then relax, be willing to learn at your own rate, refusing to compare yourself with others, and take time to enjoy the learning process. Make it fun. (Trying too hard or trying to hurry, can create a kind of tension which impedes progress.) Take it easy. Keep it leisurely. The more you expose yourself to it and the less hard you "try" the better and faster you'll become good at it. You can't help succeeding. Enthusiasm and determination will win out

The sudden beginning of WWII required a lot of operators in a hurry. Many Amateurs volunteered and served directly as operators or by teaching new recruits. However, the attitude of some recruits was often indifferent or poor: many of the draftees had no desire to learn it, and some even disliked the idea of learning it at all. No wonder it took them so long to learn and a good many failed! --Telegraphy is a skill whose success depends greatly upon the right attitude.

One school teacher demonstrated the code, both sending and receiving. The class got so fascinated that they managed to learn 14 characters in that one class period. No-code students, no longer under pressure to certify code ability, who have been given "a taste of the way it used to be" by listening, have often gotten interested and want to learn at least a few letters to start with. Quite a few no-code licensees, after having had some fun operating, are looking for more ways to enjoy ham radio: the Morse code doesn't look so abstract to them as it did before.


Learning the Morse code is much like to learning to read by eye. Learning to read print has several stages of skill level.

This gives us a clue as to how to go about learning and improving Morse code skill. The essence of code learning, like language learning, is familiarity -- that means overlearning. That is, learning to the point where it has become automatic, without thinking about what you are doing: the dits and dahs, or even the words. The highest skill comes when you just seem to be hearing words and sentences and you are consciousonly of the ideas being expressed -- that makes communicating: amost worthwhile and gratifying goal. But it doesn't mean you haveto become a speed demon.


The Best Beginning is by Listening Phase One is LEARNING TO RECOGNIZE EACH LETTER AND NUMBER AS SOON AS WE HEAR IT: the"A-B-C's" of the alphabet of sound. This is the goal of stage one of code learning, building the foundation. The code must be thought of as sound patterns.

If you have been having trouble, the moment you begin to think of code solely in terms of sound patterns, yo will have made much progress. A printed letter is a combination of lines which form a shape. But children are not taught to recognize the letters of the alphabet by pointing out the various lines which make it up, they are taught to recognize each letter as a whole, at a glance. The same principle applies to learning code: each letter and number is a unit of sound, a unique sound pattern, a rhythm, different from every other letter or number. Each code character has its own unique sound pattern, just like spoken vowels and consonants do.

Morse code is SOUND PATTERNS, to be heard by the ear. Any method of learning the code which uses the eyes (such as charts for "memorizing the code", or some other scheme (such as rhymes or "sound-alikes", etc.) will prove to be a serious handicap to later progress. This is because it makes us "translate", something we must do consciously. If you have been doing it by thinking: "dit dah stands for 'A', " you have been thinking in terms of separate "dits" and "dahs". That makes it hard. So forget that there are such things as "dits" and "dahs" and learn to think in code sound-patterns. Start training yourself like this: every time the ear hears the sound pattern "didah" you think "A", and if you are copying, the hand writes "A". With some practice, like a good operator,you will find that the character just seems to come to mind from nowhere. Proceed directly from sound pattern to letter, with no intermediate interpretation of any kind. It may help if you whistle or hum the sound patterns.

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