Morse Code

Most of my operation is CW.  For you non-hams reading this, “CW” stands for “Continuous Wave.”  I won’t go into the technical details — CW operation means communication using Morse Code — and, yes, some people still do use Morse Code to communicate.   Amateur radio operators are authorized to use many different radio emissions — we can transmit:

  •  Voice — AM, FM, Single Sideband (SSB)
  •  Morse
  •  Radioteletype
  •  Facsimile
  •  Television
  •  Data — Packet, PK-31, and several other types of data transmission

I have voice equipment that will transmit SSB, FM, or AM.  However, I prefer to use CW — Morse code.  In fact, the amateur radio bands are one of the last places where Morse is still used.  In the US, there is no longer any commercial Morse operation.  Years ago, Western Union messages were passed by Morse — railroads relied on telegraph operators at train stations — and “ships at sea” relied heavily on Morse transmissions from coastal stations for weather and shipping information.  Now, in the U. S. , only we amateur radio operators use Morse as a normal communications mode.  In the Navy, visual Morse — flashing lights using Morse code — is still used for some ship-to-ship signaling.

Why use Morse?

In my view, there are two reasons for using CW — Morse code:  technical and personal.

Technical reasons for using Morse.

  •  CW transmissions will get through when nothing else will.  Because a CW transmission consists of turning the transmitted signal on and off in a coded manner — short or long bursts that correspond to the dits and dahs of Morse code — a CW signal will get through static, interference from other stations, fading, and other conditions that render all other forms of transmission unreadable.
  •  CW transmission needs only very simple equipment.  Because CW transmitters and receivers do not need circuitry to process voice or data, CW transmitters and receivers are the most simple, basic type of radio equipment.  Because CW does not require high-powered signals and complex equipment, it is ideally suited for portable or emergency operation and for operation in remote areas where electricity comes from batteries or solar power.

Personal reason for using Morse.

  •  I operate CW because mastering the code and using it regularly gives me a feeling of accomplishing something that’s out of the ordinary — anyone can send a text on a smartphone but not anyone can dig a CW signal out of the noise.
  •  In much of the rest of the world, Morse is still a primary means of communication and, by mastering the code, I can communicate with these people.
  •  Operating Morse requires a discipline that can be applied to other endeavors.
  •  Finally, I like it.

Morse Code — some basics

Morse code consists of dits and dahs  —  NOT dots and dashes, the code sounds like “dit-dah” when it’s sent, so, Morse operators don’t talk about dot and dash, rather, we say “dit” and “dah.”   With a straight key, the operator forms the characters by holding the key down for a short time — dit — or a longer time — dah.

Morse code characters are formed not only by dits and dahs but also by spaces.  The dit (dot) is the basic element of Morse.  There is no specific length for a dit — the faster the code is sent, the shorter the dit and vice versa.  A dah is three times as long as a dit.  Within a character, the spaces between the elements are the length of a dit and the spaces between characters are the length of a dah.

For example, the Morse code character for the letter Y is DAH DIT DAH DAH.  Portrayed graphically the character for Y is _ . _ _     .  So, the space between the dits and dahs is the length of a dit.  The space between the Y and the next character is the length of a dah.

Here’s the word YES:   dah-dit-dah-dah (Y)   dit (E)  dit-dit-dit (S).  The spaces between the dits and dahs that form each letter are the length of a dit.  The spaces between the Y and E, and, between the E and S are the length of a dah.

Now, because Morse code consists of dits and dahs, there must be a way to form these dits and dahs.  And that’s where the telegraph key comes in.

Keys, bugs, paddles, and keyers

Straight key

No doubt you have seen photographs or movies or whatever showing a radio operator with a telegraph key in his hand, moving the key up and down to form Morse code characters.  This type of sending uses a straight key .


This is a straight key — this is a J-38, originally introduced by the military during WW II, the J-38 may be the most well-known straight key ever.  To operate the J-38, grip the round black knob on the right between your thumb and middle finger with index finger resting on top of the knob.  Using the index finger, push the knob down — this closes an electrical contact and causes the transmitter to transmit a signal as long as the knob is depressed.  Morse code is sent by pressing the key down and letting it up — it’s spring-loaded — to form Morse code characters.  All the little knobs on the key are adjustments to make the key tight or loose to fit the individual operator’s preferences.

As you might imagine, each person sending Morse code on a straight key uses a slightly different technique, thus, one operator’s dits may be as long as another operator’s dahs.  These individual  variations in sending technique are known as an operator’s fist.  Regular Morse operators could identify other operators just by listening to their sending, or, their fist.

I have an old J-38 in excellent condition that I use from time to time.  Here’s another straight key that I use — the KK-1 straight key from American Morse Equipment.  The base is machined from a block of aluminum and the movable arm of the key is machined from brass.   On the end of the brass arm is a plastic finger block.  Here’s a picture of my hand as I use the key.

KK1 fist

Notice the paper the key is sitting on.  When I have a conversation with another station using Morse code, I write down what he is sending — copy is the term, you “copy code” — on paper, using a pencil and block letters.  Some Morse operators sit at a typewriter to copy the code, others copy in their head, and others use a word processor.

The semi-automatic key, or, the “bug”

As Morse usage spread, operators were constantly on the lookout for sending devices — keys — that made sending easier, mainly to reduce hand and arm fatigue from sending for hours on end.  One of the earliest such devices was the semi-automatic key, generally called the “bug.”  Here’s a photo of the Vibroplex Original Semi-Automatic Key manufactured by the Vibroplex Corporation.


While it looks complicated, the bug really is a simple device.  It is SEMI-automatic — that is, it automatically forms dits but the operator forms dahs manually.  Notice that there’s a long shaft running horizontally through the center of the bug — at the far end (left end in this photo) are some weights.  Dits and dahs are formed by pressing the key lever to the right or left, not up and down as with a straight key.  When the operator presses the lever to the left (with the thumb), a spring mechanism is activated that causes a series of dits to be formed.  Pressing the lever to the right manually forms a dah, or, several dahs with repeated presses.

Here are some videos of operators using a bug:


I won’t go into all the discussions about the history of the bug, who invented it, who makes the best bugs, etc., etc.  If you are interested in that, here are some links that will get you started:

Electronic keyers and paddles

Today, most Morse operators use electronic keyers.  These devices use integrated circuits to form precise dits and dahs with equally precise spaces between dits, dahs, characters, and words.  A keyer requires a key that is basically two keys — press one key to form dits, press the other key to form dahs.  If you hold down the dit key, the keyer will send a string of dits.  Same for the dah key.  Now — here’s the best part about an electronic keyer:  If you hold down either the dit or dah key, then, press the other key momentarily, the keyer will insert one dit or dah depending on which key is pressed momentarily.

For example, to send the letter Y — DAH DIT DAH DAH — the operator would hold down the dah key and when the keyer sends the first dah, press and release the dit key while continuing to hold down the dah key.   The keyer will send a dah, insert a dit, then send more dahs until the dah key is released.

The key used with an electronic keyer is called a paddle — because it’s operated using thumb and forefinger to press and release two little paddle arms.

And here’s a picture of my  American Morse Equipment paddle.  The paddle is mounted on their companion base (the white piece on which the paddle sits).  The base is heavy machined and powder-coated steel ( 1-1/3 pounds — it keeps the paddle from moving while you’re using it).

mini paddle

Pressing the paddle with my thumb causes the electronic keyer (not in the picture) to send dits; pressing the other paddle with the index finger sends dahs.  Look in the upper left corner of the photo and you’ll see a second paddle.  I use that one for my ICOM IC-729 rig that runs 100 watts.  The key in the center of this photo is attached to one of my QRP rigs.

Here’s a photo of one of the most popular paddles, the Bencher paddle — Benchers are really fine pieces of equipment.


The paddle has two handles — the triangular plastic things on the right.  Press one with your thumb, the other with the index finger.  Pressing a paddle closes a circuit.  One paddle is connected to the DIT input of the keyer, the other is connected to the DAH input.  The keyer electronically forms perfect dits and dahs with perfect spacing between them.

Here’s a video of a keyer with paddle in action.  In this video, the guy is using a transmitter-receiver with a built-in keyer.  Notice the hand movements and corresponding code transmission:

So — what do I use?

Most of my CW operation is done with a 1950 Vibroplex Lightning Bug that I purchased on eBay and that came from the estate of a Southern Pacific Railroad telegrapher.

If I had to quantify my key use, I’d say I use the Bug about 60 percent, the straight key (J-38 mainly) about 35 percent, and the keyer rarely — only about 5 percent of the time.

A note about using my electronic keyer

A note about using my electronic keyer — I have an excellent electronic keyer — a WinKey WKUSB Keyer from K1EL.   This keyer can be controlled using either a paddle or the computer keyboard.

One aspect of amateur radio operation is operating contests in which the object is to make as many contacts as possible during a specified time period.  Each contest has an EXCHANGE that each station must exchange with stations contacted.  For example, in the annual Sweepstakes contest sponsored by the American Radio Relay League, the exchange consists of:  the other station’s call sign; an identifier indicating your station’s power (I use Q for low power); a serial number (the first station contacted in the contest is #1, then #2, #3, etc.); your call sign;  the last two digits of the year in which you were licensed; and, your section (basically, your state).  For example, if I were to contact W1ABC in the contest and he is my one-hundredth contact, I would send to him, using CW:     W1ABC  Q  100   W4HH   58   VA

Now, if you think about it for a minute, you’ll realize that a computer is the perfect way to operate such a contest — simply develop an application into which you enter all the data that does not change — my call (W4HH), my section (VA),  my station designator, and the year I was licensed (58).  Then, have the application keep track of the serial number — first contact is #1, second is #2, . . . #200, etc.  Have the application read his call sign as you type it into the computer.  Finally, have the application key your transmitter, sending the exchange automatically.

There are a number of ham radio applications that will do exactly as I described for both contest and normal operation.  I operate a few CW contests each year and I use my computer with a contesting program keying my rig through the electronic keyer during the contest.  When using the keyer not in a contest, I use a paddle to manually send CW through the keyer — but I use the keyer very little.

More about Morse

Here’s where to find more information about:

  •  Various telegraph codes  — Morse Code is not the only telegraph code
  •  Telegraph keys
  •  Learning the code
  •  Operating using telegraphy
  •  Wireless and wired telegraphy
  •  History of telegraphy

Start with this page:  The Telegraph Office — it’s a GREAT website dealing with all things telegraph.

Here’s another source with LOTS of articles and links about Morse telegraphy — W1TP Telegraph & Scientific Instrument Museum..

History of Morse code and telegraphy:

The railroad clickety-clack code

Watch this video:

First, the video demonstrates Morse sent using a railroad landline sounder.  Railroads had wires connecting their stations and Morse code was sent over these wires.  A Morse position at a railroad station consisted of a key and a SOUNDER.  When the key was pressed, the sounder clicked and clicked again when the key was released.  Thus, railroad landline Morse sounded like click — click — clickclick — clickclick.   The dits and dahs were NOT the sound, but the SILENCE between the clicks.  Next, the video demonstrates radio Morse using dits and dahs — dits are short bursts of sound, dahs are long bursts of sound.  By watching this video, you can see (hear) the differences between the railroad code and radio code.

Here’s another video of the clickety-clack code in action:

I don’t even pretend to be able to copy this code.  When I was a little kid growing up in Centreville, MS, I used to go down to the train station and watch Mr. ?????, the stationmaster in action.  He could go to the counter and sell tickets or do some other business while the sounder was clicking out code.  Then, he’d sit down and write out what was sent — he was copying the code in his head while doing another task !!!!!!