N5ESE Morse Come-Along Project

(click on any picture to see larger version)

In Texas lingo, a "come-along" is a mechanical device for moving large, otherwise immovable objects. To someone who wants to learn morse code, that task can seem similarly insurmountable. The N5ESE Morse Come-Along Project (MCAP) loans compact, portable morse-trainer hardware to prospective radio amateurs (or those trying to upgrade).

Because of inadequate resources in time and material, I am currently limiting issues of morse hardware to individuals only, who are students (middle school, high school, college) under 25 years of age (remember, under age 18 requires a sponsor), and to any individual of any age who resides in the central Texas area (Travis, Williamson, Hays, Bastrop, Blanco counties).
To the remainder of you, my apologies... perhaps when the project matures a little more. Sorry!

If you have any interest in becoming a participant in the project, either as a user or provider, read on!

Table of Contents
BACKGROUND ... or why bother with Morse Code, anyway?
THE MORSE COME-ALONG PROJECT ... a helping hand for the greenhorn
LEARNING MORSE CODE ... or "How do I do that?"
OK, LOAN ME ONE! ... a Morse Code (Tutoring) Device, that is!
FOR MORSE EXPERTS ... how you can participate in the project
INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE MCPU (Codese) Trainer ... how to operate your MCPU.
REFERENCE: THE K5JHF MCD ... how to operate your Morse Code Device
REFERENCE: THE MORSE ALPHABET ... in "dit-DAH" sound-alikes
REFERENCE: ACCESSORY CABLES ... how to build-em-yourself
REFERENCE: MORSE TIMING ... what we shoot for

Background... or Why Morse Code?

Now that the world (and the ARRL/FCC) seem to be sliding down the path towards morse-free testing for Amateur Radio Licenses, there probably won't long be a governmental requirement for hams to learn morse code. In fact, the FCC, in December of 2006, announced that they would be dropping the morse testing requirements, effective sometime in January of 2007. Does this mean the end of radio-telegraphy on the ham bands? I hope not, and to that end, we who love morse code need to encourage its use and help new and potential hams get started with it.

The Morse Come-Along Project (MCAP) is my personal attempt to introduce new hams to morse code (called "CW" by hams), and encourage its use. Why CW, if the government doesn't require it? To the uninitiated, it often seems like the most archaic communication method of all. But I compare it to art, in both its richness and its mistique. Why have an oil painting, when you can have a photograph? In fact why have oil paintings at all? And above all, why waste your time being an artist? Well, those who are artists need no explanation. They know the satisfaction that comes from expressing yourself in that media, and the self-theraputic properties provided by the painting. And those who are lovers of art understand this, too. Some succinct qualities of the human experience can only be expressed in art.

As it is with the artist and the lovers of art, so it is with CW and the radio amateur. Certainly, not everyone thinks so, but to those who send and receive CW, it is well understood. Still, why get started? After all, life is busy, and CW takes time to learn, and requires practice. What's to motivate?

I can only try to express the joy CW has given me in 35 years of ham radio. When I got started at the age of 14, passing an FCC-administered 5 word-per-minute morse code test was a requirement for the entry class of radio amateur license. Furthermore, one was required to upgrade to a moderate speed (13 wpm) within a year or lose your license. And to top it off, you were required to demonstrate your ability to SEND, as well as receive, at those speeds. Let me tell you, having someone evaluate your sending skills is pressure indeed. (Thank goodness that's not the case now). I struggled to learn CW, as almost everyone did in those days, and I used CW during my first year as a ham simply because that was the only mode available to the Novice class (except for a small phone segment on the 2-meter band).

But I was hooked almost immediately. Listening to my homebrew one-tube "regen" receiver to practice copying, I was gratified to catch a snippet here, a callsign there. Morse has been compared to a foreign language, or learning to read, but those are poor comparisons, by my way of thinking. It's much simpler than that. You only have to learn the sounds of 35 or so characters, not a whole vocabulary; you already know almost all of the language, and you already know how to read.

As I sat and listened to my radio, I discovered that radio-telegraphy is a much, much richer experience than I had anticipated. There was something magic about it. Listening to CW is almost like a meditation; it exercises a different part of the brain, and in time it relaxes the other "busy" parts of the brain. Because the method is generally slower than voice communications, you learn to slow your mind, compose your thoughts before sending, conserve words, and read between the lines when receiving. These are actually qualities we could use more of in the real world, aren't they?

And then there's the aspect of weak-signal work. There, in the midst of all the static crashes and heterodynes, I discovered I could pick out a weak signal by ear, and decode it. Eventually, when I finally got my ticket, I could even have a two-way conversation all the way across the country with my 10-watt transmitter and my old WW-II surplus receiver, both borrowed from an "old-timer". This truly was magic, and I could feel it.

40 years later, I'm still using mostly low power (called "QRP" by hams), and still get a thrill from digging a weak CW signal out of the noise. In fact, QRP operation is currently on a rampant rise, with the proliferation of inexpensive build-it-yourself transceivers, almost all of which are exclusively CW. And thousands of new hams are discovering the joy and the magic of operating with low power and using morse code. In fact, I see no signs that "CW is dead"... quite the contrary, I see a resurgence of interest.

The bottom line for participating in any phase of Amateur Radio (and maybe even life...) is this: is it rewarding, satisfying, contributory, and maybe even FUN? For many thousands hams who have overcome the initial resistance to learning a new skill, CW has provided a resounding "C" (morse for "yes") to that query.

Birth of a Project, or Making Learning a little easier

Learning CW was hard work back when I got started, and stilll requires a substantial effort, though the introduction and proliferation of the microprocessor and PC have made it somewhat easier. One of the most convenient ways to practice involves the use of a computer program called a "morse tutor". There are some freeware programs available for use with your PC, and I'll provide a list of links at the bottom of this page. But it's not always convenient to sit down at your computer for a half hour a day, and those who try often discover that a year later, they've made very little progress. Such is the way of "busy-ness" that accosts many of us relentlessly every day.

A few years ago, my friend John Fisher, K5JHF developed a device (called, appropriately, the "Morse Code Device", or MCD), based on the Motorola MC68HC908 microcontroller. He provided a low-cost printed-circuit-board kit, with a small speaker and a connector for a 9-volt battery. A version of that may still be available, assembled, and with some updated features. Check his MCD web site to see.

Wanting something a little more elegant, I packaged it into a plastic box. Lightweight, and a little larger than a pack of cigarettes, it fits conveniently in your shirt or pants pocket, or your purse. Here are two versions, similarly packaged:

(click on any picture to see larger version)

While I don't suggest this when you're first learning the morse alphabet (for safety reasons), I keep one on the front seat of my car, and listen to the "random word" practice on my way to and from work. (yes, I still practice after 40 years... what can I say?... I'm a junkie...). John takes his on his daily walk, using a pair of walkman-style earphones to listen. What a perfect way to learn or practice, without impacting your busy day-to-day activities.

More recently, John released the firmware to the public domain, and I've taken the opportunity to repackage the hardware again to consolidate the original DIP switches (which I find most useful) and the batteries into an integrated unit which requires only a pair of earbuds (provided) to implement the complete morse trainer. That version looks like the picture at the very top of the web page, and does not normally come with a case. But it's quite possible to package that in an Altoids tin, as I did below:

(click on any picture to see larger version)

Based on that hardware (the MCD & MCPU "Codese"), and with the aforementioned goals in mind, I've started the "Morse Come-Along Poject (MCAP). Naturally, we're starting small, mainly because I can't afford more units, and I dont know how much participation we'll get. We'll start with only 20 units to loan out, but eventually (if there's a demand and to the extent I have the resources), we'll add more.

How can you participate? Two ways, possibly. First and foremost, if you want to learn CW, or are trying to upgrade your existing CW skills, you may check-out (borrow) one of the available units on "indefinite loan". What does that mean? That means we give you one, for FREE, and you return it when it's served its purpose, or loan it to someone else for the same purpose (for free). We'll talk about the logistics of how to do that in a moment. Secondly, if you already know CW, and want to support the project, you might purchase and/or build your own morse code device (or maybe you already own one), and make it available to the project pool. We'll talk about that in a little bit, too.

Lastly, for those who just have to "own their own", you can purchase a kit outright. We'll cover that later.

I think I want to learn CW... How do I do that?

So you think you want to see what all the fuss is about... terrific! How do you go about learning CW? Some of the old, traditional approaches aren't particularly applicable to modern lifestyles, but there are a few approaches I believe are viable:

We'll focus on the latter, since that's the basis of our project.

A common part of many (but not all) of the training approaches is the "Koch Method". This widely acclaimed method suggests that morse code be learned and practiced starting with just two of the most simple morse letters. When those two can be identified readily (and more or less consistently) by ear, then another letter is added to the mix... then another, then another, with the more complex patterns last, until all are commited to memory. Mind you, this is not a one-session process; in fact, learning will be enhanced by keeping practice sessions short (15-20 minutes), and reviewing earlier patterns first with each session. For a thorough discussion on the Koch method (and other aspects of learning CW), see William Pierpont's online book "The Art and Skill of Radiotelegraphy"

One never learns morse code by memorizing dots and dashes (stop this before you even think about it...). Morse is an aural skill, not a visual one, and not a mental one. The Koch method recognizes and encourages this.

The ideal way to learn morse code is to listen entirely to the sound of the code. But somebody at some point has to show you or tell you what that sound is, so you know what you're hearing. Lacking a mentor, the next best thing is the "dah" (long dah) and "dit" (short dit) sound. For example, in morse, the letter "K" is a long tone followed by a short tone followed by a long tone. If we say this aloud, we say "DAH-dit-DAH". I will provide a link below to a list of morse letters using DAHs and DITs. It is most important that you use this only for remembering the letter initially, and not for ongoing practice. In fact, the DAH and DIT sounds only resemble morse slightly, and are no substitute for the real (tonal) sounds, and it is those tonal sounds which you will eventually use on-the-air.

Though not everyone will agree, I highly recommend "copying" morse code with a pencil and paper (or typing). You see, this helps the brain integrate what it already knows (about forming words from letters), with the aural experience of morse code. I believe this to be an extremely important accelerator to early learning. Later, when you get really speedy (really speedy), it will be a natural progression to put the pencil down and learn to copy fully "by ear".

The general steps we recommend for learning CW using an MCD/MCPU (Morse Code Practice Unit or "Codese") follow. We break this up into three stages: Learning the Morse alphabet; building your speed to 10 wpm; and building your confidence. [Specific instructions on setting the MCPU "Codese" hardware can be found -here-]. Let's get started:

Learning the Morse Alphabet
  1. Obtain the MCPU, a fresh battery, and a pair of comfortable stereo earphones. (because the MCD has a speaker, earphones are optional, but far less annoying to your companions)
  2. Using the DIP switches on the MCPU, set the device for "KOCH 18-5" mode (first three DIP switches to "100"). In addition to selecting the KOCH method, this sets the speed of the morse characters to 18 wpm (words-per-minute), and their interval to 5 wpm, the lowest recommended learning speed. By the way, this is called "Farnsworth" spacing, and is a learning aid
  3. Set the Koch pattern to the simplest pattern ("K" and "R"). This is done by setting the last five DIP switchs to "00000".
  4. If you do not have a mentor to identify the sounds for you, memorize the "DAH-DIT" patterns for the letters you are about to practice ("DAH-dit-DAH" for "K"; "dit-DAH-dit" for "R")
  5. Grab you pencil and paper, and put your earphones on. [if you do not have a pencil and paper, say aloud, or think emphatically, the letters as they occur]
  6. Turn your MCPU "on", and "copy" (write) the letters as they occur. Even though you may know these letters within a minute or so, continue practicing for 10-15 minutes (but no longer)
  7. Rest (from morse practice) at least 30 minutes before practicing again.
  8. On your next practice session, spend at least 2 or 3 minutes at your previous practice level before adding new characters to the Koch pattern. Don't feel badly if you need to spend the entire 10-15 minute session practicing previous patterns. This is a normal part of the learning process, as is regression... you will retain longer and learn more easily and quickly when you resist the temptation to learn too much at once.
  9. When you feel you are comfortable with the characters you have learned, advance to the next Koch pattern, by adjusting the last five MCPU DIP switch settings. Don't do this more than once per session. Again, keep your practice sessions to 10-15 minutes.
  10. Try not to set rigid goals for your progression. Always keep it relaxed, and take a break if you find yourself getting frustrated. These are new skills... neural pathways have to be formed anew, and this takes repetition and time. The ability to learn morse code quickly is not a measure of intelligence, nor is intelligence generally a factor, so avoid trying to "think" your way through it, which invariably ends in frustration. Depending on individual factors, which vary widely, it will take you between one and six weeks to learn the Morse alphabet, and from one to six months to build you speed to a comfortable 5-8 wpm. Anything in that range is "normal", given more-or-less daily practice.
  11. Try to practice once or twice daily. (twice is better). You can practice more, if you feel relaxed and comfortable with it. Back off on the duration and frequency, if you feel frustrated. Always leave at least 30 minutes between practice sessions. Skip a day now and then, but don't skip too many in-a-row, or you'll regress considerably.

Building Your Speed to 10 WPM
  1. When you find you have learned the Morse alphabet (including numerals and recommended punctuation), and can comfortably copy the most complete Koch pattern (DIP switch "11111") with 90-100% copy for two or more consecutive practice sessions, move the MCPU mode to "KOCH 18-10" (first three DIP switches to "101"). In addition to selecting the KOCH method, this sets the speed of the morse characters to 18 wpm (words-per-minute), and their interval to 10 wpm, the lowest recommended on-the-air speed.
  2. Just as you did when learning the Morse alphabet, begin with the simplest Koch pattern, and progress to the more complete patterns (in order). This time, advance to the next pattern as required until you find you are losing characters or getting frustrated (more than once per practice session until you find that point)
  3. Once you find that pattern (where you begin losing copy), advance no more than one Koch pattern per session. This will generally go faster than when you were learning the alphabet, but the jump from 5 wpm to 10 wpm is still a significant task, and you may find that you regress somewhat at first when confronted with these speeds. This is all part of the normal learning process... don't let it discourage you.
  4. Alternate sessions between the Koch 18-5 complete pattern (DIP switch "10011111", at 5 wpm) and the current Koch 18-10 pattern (DIP switch "101xxxxx"). This will help make sure you don't forget the more complex characters.
  5. Persevere. By now your brain is already forming new and lasting neural pathways, but more repetition is required to make those permanent. Hopefully, you're beginning to find yourself more comfortable with morse code, and can "laugh off" the occasional frustrations.

Building Your Confidence
  1. In this phase of our learning process, we'll hone our copy skills by listening to morse at normal speed and interval (rather than Farnsworth spacing), and learn to send using a hand key.
  2. When you find you have learned the Morse alphabet (including numerals and recommended punctuation), and can comfortably copy the most complete Koch pattern (DIP switch "10111111") with 90-100% copy for two or more consecutive practice sessions, even at 10 wpm, you're ready to progress to other practice modes.
  3. For the practice modes other than the Koch patterns, we'll focus on getting comfortable with "copying" morse by ear, and learning to send. In fact, we suggest alternating the "copy" and "send" practice sessions.
  4. To practice sending using the MCPU, you'll need a hand key and a cable to plug into the "key" jack on the MCPU. Wire it as shown -here-. Also, see "Tips for Comfortable Sending"
  5. Set mode to "Random Character Practice"; Set speed to 10 wpm (DIP switch "00001001"). In this mode, random characters (from the complete morse alphabet) will be generated in five-letter code groups, making nonsense words.
  6. Notice character spacing is different (no longer Farnsworth). In the Farnsworth modes we used earlier, the individual morse characters were sent at 18 wpm, and the spacing between characters was varied as necessary to provide the respective practice speed, i.e., 5 wpm or 10 wpm. But CW (on the ham bands) is usually (and properly) sent at "normal" spacing, where the space between letters is the same as the length of a "DAH", and the space between words is yet a little longer. When you first hear this (after having used Farnsworth spacing), you might be a little disconcerted: the letters seem slower, but they seem to come at you just as fast. Actually, that's exactly right, and you'll quickly find it as easy or easier than Farnsworth spacing.
  7. Continue to copy for 10-15 minutes, writing down your copy if possible. Save your copy for your next practice session, where you'll use it for sending practice. (don't worry if you don't copy 100%).
  8. In your next practice session, send what you copied last session. Plug your hand key into the "KEY IN" jack on the MCPU, and set the MCPU Mode to "Straight Key" (DIP switch 011xxxxx). If all is well, when you press on the key, a tone will sound through the MCPU's speaker or earphones. If it sounds continuously, you've either mis-wired the key or the key's "shorting switch" is closed. When you have the key working, grab the copy you received during the last session, and try to send it so that it sounds just like you've been receiving. Obviously, you'll be seeing the letters you want to send, remembering their sound, and moving your hand operate the key so as to reproduce the sound of the letter. That's a lot to do, at first. Focus primarily on the character sounds (correct ratio and spacing of the DITS and DAHS), and not on speed. During our sending practice, speed just isn't important. Don't get frustrated at not being able to do it cleanly at first - you have both new motor skills and brain-to-hand coordination to learn and practice. Here's another hint: if you have a small recorder, record your sending. It will give you a better idea of what you need to do to make your sending sound "perfect". Keep in mind, however, that very few real operators send perfectly by hand (not even the experienced ones), so striving to send perfectly (and not quite getting there) is a typical lifelong ambition of the CW operator.
  9. For your next practice session, set the MCPU mode to "Random Word Practice"; set speed to 10 wpm (DIP switch "00101001"). This time, you'll be copying real-life words, selected to improve your copy and provide confidence. Some words are long, some short. Some are common ham-radio CW abbreviations and "Q-signals".
  10. Copy in "random word" mode for 10-15 minutes, saving your copy for sending practice during your next session
  11. Next session: send what you copied last session.
  12. Continue this practice pattern (random character copy - sending - random word copy - sending) until you can comfortably copy and send at 10 wpm with 90-100% accuracy.
  13. When you're comfortable and getting 90-100% copy, bump up the speed by 1 wpm, and start again with "Random Character Practice"; On the MCPU, the last five DIP switches determine the practice speed. (see the MCPU instructions)
  14. Don't be too concerned if you have trouble sending over 15 wpm; this is plenty fast enough for a hand key and real-world ham radio contacts.
  15. When you reach 12-15 wpm, consider interspersing your MCPU practice sessions with real-world CW copy on the ham bands (this will require a shortwave receiver with CW or SSB capability, or a ham-band receiver). However, DON'T send on the air without an FCC-issued Amateur Radio License.

Check it out!... The Morse Code Device, of course!

The whole purpose of the Come-Along Project is to make it easy for a newcomer to get started up the learning curve, or to help the veteran build his speed to "real-world" on-the-air speeds.To this end, we'll do our best to make this TOO EASY to resist. Provided we have one available, we'll send you a completely assembled, ready to rumble, MCD or MCPU (our choice)

FREE !!!
for the asking, if you qualify (which is impossibly easy). To qualify, simply agree that: Terms? Ugh!

No, we're not going to make you sign a paper, nor hold you legally responsible for anything if you fail to uphold your intentions. We might revise that policy later, but for now, we'll operate entirely on the "honor" system, with little or no enforcement. So, that having been said, what are the terms of the "indefinite loan"?

Additionally, we'll require that you be at least 17 years of age. It's not that I'm trying to discourage younger folks; in fact I'd be extremely pleased to have lots of kids involved. I just want to be certain that they have a responsible adult that understands the terms and the purpose of the project, and who can provide encouragement during the learning process, and guidance on the proper handling of the hardware. So, if you're 16 and younger, and wanting to explore morse code, ask a parent, grandparent, teacher, or mentor to sponsor the request on your behalf.

Special Note:
Because of inadequate resources in time and material, I am currently limiting issues of morse hardware to individuals only, who are students (middle school, high school, college) under 25 years of age (remember, under age 18 requires a sponsor), and to any individual of any age who resides in the central Texas area (Travis, Williamson, Hays, Bastrop, Blanco counties).   To the remainder of you, my apologies... perhaps when the project matures a little more. Sorry!

OK, so you qualify, and you think you want to play? Click below to:

Request an MCPU

Dive in!... Sponsoring the Come-Along pool

We welcome donations and support. You can contribute as follows:

References!... links to morse code info you need

REFERENCE: Instructions for Using the MCPU "Codese" Morse Trainer
REFERENCE: USING THE K5JHF MCD ... specs and info on your Morse Code Device (K5JHF original version)
REFERENCE: BUILDING THE K5JHF MCD ... original version (discontinued)
REFERENCE: THE MORSE ALPHABET ... in "dit-DAH" sound-alikes
REFERENCE: ACCESSORY CABLES ... how to build-em-yourself
REFERENCE: MORSE TIMING ... what we shoot for
REFERENCE: SENDING CW ... my tips for learning to send good morse code by hand
REFERENCE: CW ABBREVIATIONS ... commonly used on-the-air
REFERENCE: Q-SIGNALS ... internationally recorgnized morse shorthand
ARRL ... a non-profit national organization for Radio Amateurs and information
FCC ... the government organization that regulates the Amateur Radio Service
VOLUNTEER EXAMINERS ... when you're ready for your test
"The Art and Skill of Radiotelegraphy" ... an online book, by William Pierpont
"A Beginner's Guide to Making CW Contacts" ... hints for on-the-air use by Jack Wagoner WB8FSV
HISTORY: "Modern Practice of the Electric Telegraph" ... online book, circa 1881; land morse before radio
BOOK REVIEW: "How To Achieve 20 WPM CW" ... book by Ron Stark, KU7V; review by N5ESE

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