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Before cell phones even before telephones, people communicated through Morse code. Despite being a technology that is over 160 years old, it’s still used today among amateur radio users and on some ships. If you were in Boy Scouts, you might have messed around with Morse code or maybe you had a grandpa who used it on his ham radio. While you might not find any particular use for Morse code in your daily life, learning Morse is a fun and engaging hobby you can share with gramps and an interesting man skill to possess.
The History of Morse Code
Morse code was invented by Samuel F. B. Morse in the 1830s. He began work on the electric telegraph in 1832, developed a practical system in 1844, and patented his technology in 1849. The code that Morse developed for use with his system went through a few transformations before arriving at the code we’re familiar with today. Initially, Morse code only transmitted numbers. The transmission’s receiver would then have to use a dictionary to translate the numbers into words. But that proved to be tedious. Soon the code was expanded to include letters and even punctuation.
In 1844, Morse appeared before Congress to show off his little machine. The first public message was transmitted on May 24, 1844. It was “What God hath wrought.”
The original telegraph system had an apparatus on the receiving end that spat out a string of paper with indentations on it. Short indentations were called “dots” and the longer ones “dashes.” As telegraph users became more proficient with the code, they soon dispensed with the paper tape and deciphered code by year. Self made tycoon Andrew Carnegie worked as a telegraph operator as a boy. He set himself apart by learning to decipher Morse code by ear.
Ten years after the first telegraph line opened in 1844, over 23,000 miles of line crossed the country. The telegraph and Morse code had a profound effect on the development of the American West. Railroad companies used it to communicate between their stations and telegraph companies began to pop up everywhere, shortening the amount of time needed to communicate across the country.
During this period, European countries had developed their own system of Morse code. The code used in America was called American Morse code or often Railroad Morse code. The code used in Europe was called Continental Morse code.
In the 1890′s radio communication was invented and Morse code was used for transmitting messages at sea. As radio frequencies got longer and longer, international communication soon became possible and a need for an international standard code developed. In 1912, the International Morse code was adopted for all international communication. However, many railroads and telegraph companies continued using Railroad Morse code because it could be sent faster. Today, American Morse code is nearly extinct. A few amateur radio users and Civil War re-enactors still keep it alive.
Morse code became extremely important in maritime shipping and aviation. Pilots were required to know how to communicate using Morse code up until the 1990s.
Today Morse code is primarily used among amateur radio users. In fact, up until 2007, if you wanted to get your amateur radio license in America, you had to pass a Morse code proficiency test.
Learning Morse Code
Learning Morse code is like learning any language. You have to practice, practice, practice. We’ve brought together some resources to help you get started on the path to becoming a master telegraph operator. Who knows? Maybe you can start your own telegraph shop.
Get familiar with the code. The first thing you’ll need to do is get familiar with what the alphabet looks like in Morse code. To the right is the International Morse code alphabet. Print it off, carry it around with you, and study it during your free time.
For our Steampunk and Civil War re-enactor friends, we’ve also included the American Rail Road Code.
Start listening to Morse code. You’re going to have to actually listen to Morse code if you ever want to learn it. Head over to learnmorsecode.com and download some MP3s of some code. Listen to it and see if you can decipher any letters.
Use this nifty chart. Print off this dichotomic search tree to help you decipher code. Start off where it says “start.” Every time you hear a dit (or short sound) you move down and to the left. Every time you hear a dah (or long sound) you move down and to the right. Learnmorsecode.com has a dichotomic chart as well, except it’s the reverse of this one. (You go left on dah, right on dit). Use whichever one is comfortable for you.
Practice with this app. This is keen-o-reeno online app that lets you input any text and it will play it back in Morse code. Practice with it for 10 minutes a day and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a Morse code wiz.
Tips to Make Morse Code Memorization Easier
Count the number characters. Knowing the number of characters in each letter can help you narrow down your possibilities when you receive a message.
T, E = 1 character each
A, I, M,N = 2 characters
D, G, K, O, R, S, U, W = 3 characters
B, C, F, H, J, L, P, Q, V, X, Y, Z = 4 characters each
Reverse letters. Some letters are the reverse of each other in Morse code. For example “a” is “._” while “n” is “_.”
Here are the rest of the letters that are the reverse of each other:
a & n d & u g & w b & v f & l q & y
Do you have any experience with Morse code? Drop a line in the comment box and share with us.
Editor-in-Chief’s Note: This post was written by Brett McKay and originally ran on The Art of Manliness. The Art of Manliness is a fantastic website dedicated to uncovering the lost art of being a man. It features articles on helping men be better husbands, better fathers, and better men. Check them out and be sure to subscribe!
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I listen to Morse code every day. It is part of my life. I enjoy the challenge of listening to books that are produced in Morse code. The challenge is not only speed but comprehension. Oh, I am speaking about comprehending without writing things down. I listen in my car, especially.
I am a ham operator and love CW (Morse Code), but enjoy working at it by myself just as much.
I think many people would enjoy it if they even knew about it.
Give it a whirl!
As an old brass pounder I agree with what many already said. There aren't any way to gain speed if you think about dits and dahs. Learn the rythm of every sign. "Simple" as that. It's a struggle and if you don't have the rythm in you, you might never pass 40 or 60 signs a minute. You'll have to repeat every sign until, when you hear the sign, your hand automatically writes the sign. It can also be learned with a keyboard. With a such, the message will also be readable...
The major benefit with that old morse code is that it is very hard to jam. All it requires is an alteration of noise to get a message conveyed.
I rarely use morse code today and I learned it 35 years ago but every 5 years or so I try it out and after a few minutes it all comes back. Not at 150 signs per minute but 60 is no problem after an hour of practise. It's like riding a bicycle.
If you think about dits and dahs you will probably never do more than 20-30 signs a minute. It's a shame that it isn't teached anymore. Well it isn't, at least not here in Sweden.
In a situation, often the simpler the means, the better the result.
I have to agree with InklingBooks on hams and powerful rigs. The challenge these days is to with as simple equipment as possible get the most exotic contacts. Anything else, money can buy. A small rig, any kind of metal wire, a battery and two ends of wire is enough to connect half around the globe.
Don't forget ol' Morse
Good app for learning Morse code:) https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=mu.zz.zagen.morse
MoFork's remarks about the Special Forces training was most interesting but ending training in International Morse probably isn't a good idea. This spell-binding documentary, "Falklands War: Last Raid of the Nuclear Vulcans" has a good illustration.
To take out the main Argentinan-controlled air field on the Falklands, the British had to mount an highly complex mission operating at extreme range. Over a dozen aircraft, operating as tankers, were required to allow one Vulcan to bomb the field from Ascension Island. Unfortunately, fuel consumption was higher than expected and, while the last tanker gave that final bomber all the fuel it could spare, it had no way to explain why it was breaking off refueling early. The Brits had decided on complete radio silence.
Radio silence, yes, But even a flashlight on the tanker could have been used with International Morse to explain why. Fortunately, the bomber crew and captain voted to go on even though the most likely scenario was ditching in the cold South Atlantic.
There's probably no reason that Special Forces code training needed to be as extensive as you describe. Getting up to 10 wpm with reasonable accuracy should be enough. And the training in code should include using lights as well as the tap code that Vietnam War prisoners used:
Morse code doesn't work well with something that can't be on for varying lengths of time.
In the last few years, many radio hams have lost interest in big, powerful gear and turned turn to low-power and often CW (morse code) gear that takes up, antenna and all, no more space than a cigar box. They often hike out into the wilderness or to the tops of mountains and communicate with someone thousands of miles away. Here's one program:
There are also quite a few Youtube videos on the topic.
Keep in mind we're talking about compact, battery-powered high-frequency radios. It means that you and someone comparably equipped can get in touch even if you're half a world apart and without depending on any complex infrastructure or the approval of any government. Handheld VHF radios can let you talk perhaps 20-30 miles from a good location, again without any other infrastructure.
--Michael W. Perry, KE7NV/4
I was a Special Forces commo sergeant in Army Special Forces in the 80s. We learned IMC, Intl Morse Code, in what was called "Code Lab" as part of our comma training. We had to test out at a certain send and receive speed before we could go to "Selection" and then had to test out at certain speeds to pass Phase 2, to move fwd toward passing the course.
We often were doing IMC 6 hours a days, sitting in a cubical with headphones one, listening, or sending on a key table key. IMC is like any other language in that one only gets fast when one can hear it and not think about it.
Rhythm is another key ingredient to IMC. Having a good rhythm is sending is crucial for both operator receiving and the guy sending.
Special Forces stopped training SF Commo students in IMC in about the mid 90s. It was decided to be to archaic in view of all the available technologies. Everything is done now by software. Many people disagreed, and still disagree, with that action, for many reasons.
Most Commo guys going thru SF training struggled with the IMC, and remember it as being one of the hardest struggles. All the rucking and other PT and land nav and small unit tactics and wpns and demo and medical and Unconventional Warfare theory and guidelines were also being taught and tested. But getting up to SF standards on IMC made commo one of the highest fail rates. That and medics.
I was taking the practical for an instrument rating and tuned in a VOR. Listened a moment to its morse identifier and proceeded to navigate. Examiner commented that I didn't compare the dots and dash sounds to those depicted on the chart. I laughed and sounded out "di dah, dah dah, di dah. AMA you dolt. Don't you know Morse?" Some time later in the exam the examiner gave me great grief for wandering around on the protected side of VOR on a missed. I promptly flipped up the hood, executed a 180 and to the utter amazement of the examiner landed at the nearby airport. You just failed, he clamored. I remarked as Pilot in Command I had just made a command decision. Taxied up to the FBO, opened the door, and invited the examiner to exit. It was a hundred miles back to the airport we had initially departed from and I knew this airport had no rental cars. He knew it too and hesitantly exited. I tied down and went into the FBO and bought the jerk a coke. He calmed down and reconsidered his approach to the exam. We went back up and I passed with flying colors.
Quote: "My dad was a radio operator in the US Marine Corp in WW II -- he received morse code and translated it on board a ship during the Battle of Iwo Jima.... He is now 88 years old and can still recite morse code like it was yesterday."
That brings up a pet peeve of mine. I recently saw a news story that a school district was thinking of no longer teaching 'cursive' writing. Kids would only get the slow, block-letter writing. That's disgusting, I thought. They've got these kids all day, five days a week for twelve years and they can only teach one way of writing.
Were I a school principal, those kids would learn block and cursive writing, keyboarding, Morse code, and the basic elements of sign language--all by the end of the sixth grade. That and at least one useful foreign language such as Spanish. The kids can certainly do that and would enjoy the process. It's the adults who're the problem. Someone has called it the 'bigotry of low expectations.'
Excuse the rant....
My dad was a radio operator in the US Marine Corp in WW II -- he received morse code and translated it on board a ship during the Battle of Iwo Jima. After three days they sent him to the beach head with his radio where he promptly was blown out of his fox hole by a mortar shell when Japanese soldiers came up behind them out of a secret tunnel. His radio pack was blown off his back and he was evacuated back to the ship with shrapnel wounds and then went to Hawaii to fully recover. He is now 88 years old and can still recite morse code like it was yesterday.
Keep in mind that there's an awesome power that comes with being a radio amateur. You're no longer dependent on any of our society's complex infrastructures. On HF you can literally talk to directly with any similarly equipped ham on the planet. You can do that whatever happens and with gear that you can easily add to backpack or install in your car. Unlike the Internet or cell-phone systems, no one can cut that off. If you've got friends or family hundreds of even thousands of miles away, you can stay in touch come what may.
Many HF transceivers also tune the entire shortwave spectrum with highly sensitive receivers. I regularly listen to the cryptic, letter-code messages being sent our nuclear command aircraft on 8.992 MHz and to Gander talking to trans-Atlantic aircraft on 8.906 MHz. I understand little or nothing that is being said in either case, but it does leave me feeling connected in a way that vegetating in front of a TV does not. During the Cold War, I even heard the infamous Woodpecker, the USSR's over-the-horizon radar, pecking away. That drove home the reality of the conflict home to me in a way no newscast can.
There are also broader issues. One of the core cultural clashes we're in is between those who would reduce us all to a state of helpless dependency so they can better control us and those of us who want to be free people cooperating with other free people to control our destinies. Amateur radio is one way to retain that control. It puts the vital ability to communicate in our hands and only our hands.
--Mike Perry, KE7NV/4
I agree with a lot of my other fellow Hams have mentioned. Using charts and trying to count dits and dahs is just going to slow you down. You want to get to a point where you are just hearing whole sounds, instead of individual dits and dahs. The best way I found to learn was to use a free piece of software from http://www.justlearnmorsecode.com/ . Basically you want to learn the individual letters at the speed you plan on using. However, what you do is space the letters out as you learn them so you can hear each individual letter at a high speed, thus hearing it as a complete pattern. As you learn the first two letters, the software adds another and another. If you practice with that software for a little every day, within a very short few weeks you'll be incredibly profecient in listening to morse code (CW).
The huge upside with CW is its incredible efficiency for transmission over long distances. I moved from using voice to mostly CW because of this. CW 'cuts' through the background noise very well, so even if you don't have the strongest incoming signal you can still make it trough. CW also doesn't take a lot of bandwidth and there are some great filters out there that cut out the adjacent noise. With a 100 watt transceiver I have been able to communicate with people all over the globe, including as far as New Zealand and some pretty remote DX spots in the middle of the pacific. Heck, you can communicate with Europe on 40m at night with just 5watts and just a good antenna. Ham radio is great, all you need is two radios and requires essentially no infrastructure, just some knowledge.
I disagree with your "tips for memorization". I was a U.S. Coast Guard Radioman First Class 1979 - 1985. I was a high speed sender and receiver, and still hold an amateur license. The best way to learn code is to memorize what the letter sounds like. You don't have time to be counting the dits and dahs, and you won't have a printed chart to help you. Code is an audio skill.
For example, back in the day there was a marine radio station in Mexico. Their call sign was X F E. If you tried to count the dits and dahs, you get lost. But if you hear it, you will always remember.
X = _.._ (dah-dit-dit-dah)
F = ..-. (dit-dit-dah-dit)
E = . (dit)
Or.. said out loud in a fast cadence - dah-dit-dit-dah dit-dit-dah-dit dit
Morse is great because almost anything that has two-states can be used: Light on/off. Tone on/off. Arm up or down. Mike keyed or not. Puffs of smoke. Squeezing a hand. Inexpensive, low-power CW (Morse code) transceivers are also great in emergencies. EBay has some on sale here:
Here's a brief slice of how it's used in the movie Independence Day. Apparently, the aliens did not know how to read Morse. Also, we humans can go direct with one another with HF/shortwave. No need for satellites. When conditions are right, a few watts will let you talk anywhere on the planet. No other infrastructure needed.
Where there aren't two states, such as tapping on metal. The tap code works better.
It can also be explained to someone in just a few seconds. Here's one historical use:
"In Vietnam, the tap code became a very successful way for otherwise isolated prisoners to communicate. POWs would use the tap code in order to communicate to each other between cells in a way which the guards would be unable to pick up on. They used it to communicate everything from what questions interrogators were asking (in order for everyone to stay consistent with a deceptive or bogus story), to who was hurt and needed others to donate meager food rations. It was easy to teach and newly arrived prisoners became fluent in it within a few days. It was even used when prisoners were sitting next to each other but not allowed to talk, by tapping on anothers' thigh. By overcoming isolation with the tap code, prisoners were able to maintain a chain of command and keep up morale."
--Mike Perry, KE7NV/4
One of the most important tips is -- DON"T learn the letters as combinations of dits and dahs. If you have to go through the mental exercise to decode it, you will likely never achieve a rate greater than 10-12 words per minute. Try to hold a conversation at that rate -- it can be done but it is soooooo boring. Instead, learn to associate the sound of the whole character with the letter. A is didah. B is dadididit. To learn this way, use auditory methods, not visual ones. Also, use the Koch Method: hear the letters at full speed, even as the words are sent more slowly. This will encourage you to learn the letter sound instead of individual dits and dahs.
@ArtBrucks Whoa that's an incredible story! I'm happy to hear your dad is going strong and still keeping up with Morse code!
I completely agree with Howard. If you learn visually instead of "by ear," your brain has to perform two translations as you're communicating. Koch method is the only way to go: it does little good slowing the dits and dahs, just space out the letters. Digital communications has more "punch" through noise and interference than voice, and morse code is the only digital mode that's human readable - no computer necessary.
@Howard AE0Z As a current learner myself, I agree with Howard. Just like with words, you don't process every single letter, you process the whole thing as one unit. Unless your brain's wired differently, then we're talking something else entirely. But for most folks this method does work as long as you put in the effort.
A common and useful example is SOS ...---... ditditdit dahdahdah ditditdit. You learn to associate the entire sound with the message.