CW Introduction

CW Introduction

by Walt Fair, Jr., W5ALT

Some History - From a Personal Viewpoint

When I was a youngster, I was intrigued by radio communications and often saw my dad operating his amateur radio equipment. I wanted to get a license, but I decided at the ripe old age of 10 years old that Morse code was outdated and useless and no one should be forced to learn it in order to get a ham radio license. The excuses I came up with include everything I have ever heard from the no-code proponents in the last 30 years. I knew it all. So I engaged in shortwave listening and had great fun.

And I was wrong!

Finally in 1970 at the age of 20 I decided I wanted a ham license bad enough to learn the code. I got a book out of a library, copied down the Morse alphabet and memorized it. (Yes I now know that was a mistake!) Then I turned on my SW receiver and searched for slow CW stations and tried to copy them. The first day I recognized a "dit" and "dah" or two. The next day I recognized a couple letters, etc. After 2 weeks, I was copying the slower stations! I had learned Morse code, but I was determined to take the tests, get my license, and never use Morse code again. After 3 weeks I found a local ham who gave me the Novice test and I passed.

The problem now was I had a license, but no equipment. And Novices only had CW privileges on the HF bands. So I pulled together a transmitter (Knight Kit T-60) to go with my SW receiver and I was on the air.

It took awhile before I actually got up the courage to send a tentative CQ - and then nearly collapsed in horror when someone actually answered! I apologize to that first ham who called me, but I was so nervous I never got his call. However, after my heart beat slowed down a little, I tried it again - and that time I did copy the call sign!

I had made my first CW contact! But worse ... I was hooked on CW. What a thrill it turned out to be to take a dinky little tube transmitter, a roll of wire and actually chat with someone in some far off place. I worked DX, did rag chewing, exchanged QSL cards, even played in some contests here and there. And after a few hundred CW QSOs, my code speed was magically up to the level where I could pass the 13 WPM General class exam. As a matter of fact, I had my General and also my Advanced license before I actually bought a microphone.

In fact I had come to love and appreciate CW - a 180 degree about face from my prior attitude. And the worst part was I had wasted 10 years of fun complaining about a subject I knew nothing about.

The Magic of CW

In talking with other hams, I found out my story isn't that unique. When someone hears the jumble of tones for the first time, it sounds impossible to understand. But with relatively little practice, most people can indeed learn to copy CW. And for many hams, once they learn the skill, they love to operate CW. Instead of seeming old, outdated and archaic, it is a challenge and a pleasure to exercise a skill.

But what is the magic of CW? Why does it cause such a disparity of emotions from various people - some who absolutely love CW, others who absolutely hate CW, and very few who have no opinion?

I, of course can't speak for everyone, but my opinion is that CW has some advantages that some of us appreciate. Everyone knows the standard arguments that, compared with most other modes, CW is more efficient in the face of noise and poor band conditions, needs less power to communicate, requires simpler equipment, etc. I won't rehash any of those things.

But, as most people know, it does take some effort to learn. Many of us feel a personal pride in the accomplishment, especially when, like me, we realize we actually acquired a skill we didn't think we could. In addition, being able to operate CW effectively puts one on firm ground for other activities. I say that because there are still some of us around who think that it is indeed better to learn to walk before you run. Since CW is the simplest radio communications mode, it just seems foolish to me to say one is an accomplished radio amateur, but that they cannot operate the simplest possible mode. Maybe that's OK to some people, but to me it sounds more like heresy.

So, in honor of CW and Morse code, the following pages present a range of information on that oldest, most outdated operating mode of all: CW. If you are already a CW aficionado, you probably already know most of the stuff. If you hate CW, you've probably not read this far. For the rest, it is my hope that you find the information useful and I hope to see you on the CW bands one of these days.

Walt, W5ALT


First, I humbly acknowledge the input of lots of people, from personal and on-line discussions, to magazine articles to textbooks. I've drawn extensively from things I've read in both QST and QEX. You can be assured that there is nothing much here that I have invented or have any claim of originality.

However, if you find some errors, mistakes or blunders, I must accept full responsibility. Any comments on these notes should be addressed to me at