The Art & Skill of Radio-Telegraphy

-Second Revised Edition-
William G. Pierpont N0HFF

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Chapter 3 - Part II: Laying the Foundation


There is one obvious difference between reading by eye and reading by ear. While a printed letter is to be instantly recognized at a glance, a code character cannot be recognized until the whole pattern has been heard -- at the end of the short time it takes to send it. We must "hear it out".

Two important factors are involved here:

This is why the so-called Farnsworth method is used: making the spaces between characters quite wide at first and then gradually reducing them to the standard. Combining these two ways we soon recognize that, while we know that the sound patterns are formed of "dits" and "dahs", we never allow ourselves to try to analyze or count them.

We must first consciously listen to each letter until the mind accepts it as a complete letter without there being any kind of conscious thinking about it involved. We forget the dits and dahs and just listen to the patterns, the rhythms.  So, the ear's "glance" is a little longer than the eye's -- it hears each sound pattern separately because of the wider spaces which separate it from the preceding and following sound patterns.

These spaces are very important -- they make the sound pattern stand out. That pattern or rhythm of the letter is to be heard as a whole over a short period of time, and cannot be recognized until the whole pattern has been heard as a complete pattern. We must "hear it out" before we can identify it.  When we get the sound patterns well fixed in mind it is good to listen to faster and slower speeds and hear the letters roll out.


In the early stages it is very important to listen only to the most perfectly formed code you can find. The ear and mind need to get intimately familiar with the rhythm pattern, consistently formed. Poorly sent code gives a sloppy, irregular rhythm which tends to confuse the mind and slow down learning. Don't expect to develop any real speed listening to hash. Listening to poor sending on the radio has sometimes discouraged learners because it distracts the mind by compelling us to think consciously about the details instead of the wholeness. We have to slow down. Listening to poorly sent code defeats the learning process. (Later, with improved skill, you will probably be able to understand most of the poorly sent code. But for now avoid it.) This is also why you should not try to send code yourself until you have a good sense of timing.


There are several ways to introduce the student to the code. One highly effective way to create the right impressions for the beginner is to dictate a sentence or two, spelling each word out in ordinary letters at about a 20 wpm rate for him to write down, like this:

Y O U  A R E  G O I N G  T O  F I N D  I T  I S  E A S Y  T O  L E A R N  T H E  M O R S E  C O D E.

The teacher then assures the students that they will do equally well as they learn the code. "All we are going to do is to change the names of the letters:-- instead of 'Y', that letter is going to sound 'dahdidahdah'," and so on. Now the student is ready to learn the first few letters by sound.

Another good way, because nearly everybody can quickly recognize the difference between a few words sent at about 20 wpm, to begin the first session, is word recognition:-- send a simple word or greeting such as "Hi" and a good-Bye, such as "73." Send each one at say 20 wpm half a dozen times until everyone gets familiar with its sound, then send them randomly and have them say the words. Then stick in a different word like "the" and see if they protest. Tell them what it is and send it few more times. This can whet their appetite and show that them that it isn't hard those sound patterns really mean something.

For people who are afraid that they can't learn to identify sound patterns, some have suggested that "V" and "B" be compared by sound initially by sending them alternately.


Teachers disagree on this. Some suggest that taking the simplest characters first (such as E I S H 5, and then E T I M, etc.) helps to build up a feeling of confidence. Others point out that this may lead some students to try to analyze the longer characters, so they recommend beginning with longer characters (such as (Q 7 Z G, 0 9 8 J P, or the numbers 1 2 3...). This has the advantage of compelling the student to wait until the whole character is completed before identifying it. Perhaps a good way would be to start with a couple of short letters first, and then go to the longer ones and meet both goals. No matter what order is used in teaching, each character must "stand on its own feet," and not depend on comparing it with some other character in order to learn and identify it.

The important thing, of course, is to hear the characters at speeds high enough that they are heard as complete unified patterns, and preferably at first to present in the same lesson characters which have quite different patterns of sound so that there will be no attempt to compare them.


There are at least two ways to start out:

  1. listening only at first, and
  2. listening and writing it down.

For those who learn by themselves, one experienced old time teacher wrote: "The beginner should listen to the sounds until he becomes sound conscious. He should not write anything down for a week or two , but concentrate his efforts on recognizing the sounds. He can already write, but he cannot write with any degree of ease, if at the same time he is trying to do something else which he is not familiar with [recognizing code characters].

As a beginner, he would hear a letter, take a short interval of time to decide what it is; with the result that when it comes to him, he quickly tries to write it down and misses the next letter. Wait on learning to write it down until you can recognize the letters as letters, and this confusion will vanish. Learning to read code is recognizing the sounds immediately, that is, the letters." This is wise advice if you are studying by yourself.

Probably most teachers prefer the second approach in a class situation. Such might be, for example, the following (taken from actual teaching procedures):-

  1. The teacher says: "This is F" and then F is sent. Then he says: "Now here it is again. Write it down with your pencil each time you hear it." He repeats it several seconds apart quite a few times before taking up the next letter, which ought to have a quite different rhythm pattern, such as G, introduced in the same way. Then he sends these letters in random order until the students get them right about 95% of the time. Next, he introduces a third letter followed by random letters learned, and so on for a half dozen or so at a session, however many the students can do without confusion or becoming fatigued or bored.  Note: Each one should write or print the way he usually does.
  2. The teacher sends a dit and says: "This is a dit. It is the letter 'E.' Now here it is again: write it down each time you hear it. Forget that it is a dit -- it is the letter 'E'." Then he simply sends "E" a number of times as the students almost automatically write it down. Then: "Now we will hear the letter 'I'. Listen." He sends 'T.' and says "This is a 'I'. Now here it is again. Write it down when you hear it." And so on through the group for that lesson. After each new letter has been drilled in, there is random letter practice, using all the letters previously learned.  Finally, because even for the first lesson he has chosen letters that can be used to construct small words, he sends these words with the instructions: "Now here is a word. Write down the letters just as you did before." He waits a few moments while the class writes it down and says: "Now then, you have copied the word . . ." And so on to the end of the first lesson of 30 - 45 minutes. Subsequent lessons follow this general pattern until the alphabet is completed, etc.

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