Morse code (known to Hams as CW) Magic!

Since the 1960’s I’ve listened to Morse code (CW) on various ham radio and shortwave listening bands with various amounts of interest. Mostly I wondered what was being transmitted, who it was going to and what was being said. At some point back in the non-internet age I found a page that described all the dots and dashes that made up the code. Seeing that it was somewhat complex and not having anyone to instruct me I let it pass by.

Over the years I was impressed by those I saw in movies and read about in books that had the ability to transmit and understand Morse code. In those days I was at most a CB radio operator. Morse code is not used in CB radio and so I never really thought much more about it than being impressed by those that new the code. Since I saw no practical use for it in my time I could not imagine spending any amount of time to learn the code.

Roll forward to around 1993 or 1994. I made a new friend that had decided to get his ham radio license. He encouraged me to get mine at the same time and I decided to go ahead and give it a try. In those days there were multiple parts to a ham radio license exam. One was a written test that included regulations, safety, operating practice, theory, etc.. The other part was needing to pass a Morse code examination. I decided to study for the written test first and if I passed that I would study for the Morse code part of the exam. Study I did. And pass I did. Fortunately or unfortunately the need for my time at work really took off – at the time I was a Financial Analyst for a company preparing to be taken public. My son was also in those tender ages that require a Dad to come home and play soccer and Nerf football at night instead of studying Morse code. Therefore I never did complete the Morse code study project and never did take that Morse code test. I did still enjoy listening to shortwave and police scanner radios as time permitted. Our CB radio was stolen from our car late one night when my wife was coming out of a national chain store that she managed. I decided that if an antenna on the car was going to place my wife in danger late at night then there would be no extra antennas on the car. We didn’t replace the CB radio.

Roll forward to 2006. The tuning apparatus on my shortwave radio broke! I took the radio into a local electronics repair shop to see what it would take to have it repaired. I was given a quote of something like $125. I decided that before I spent that kind of money that I should shop around and see just how much a new radio would be. I did some quick internet searches and ended up ordering a paper catalog from Universal Radio. This well-known radio dealer had brand new shortwave radios with modern circuitry for around the $125 – and more – that I had been quoted to repair my decades old shortwave radio. While browsing through the back of the catalog I noticed some audio CDs on how to prepare for your ham radio license exam. To my surprise no Morse code test was required for the lowest of three levels of ham radio exams! I ordered the CDs. At the time I had a 45 or so minute one way commute to work in Neenah, WI from Green Bay, WI. Study I did. And pass I did.

A short time after I passed that exam the Morse code requirement was dropped for ALL levels of ham radio exams. I decided to keep taking exams until I flunked. I never did. In fact I scored a 96 or so on the Extra class exam which I am proud of.

Now that I had no requirement to use Morse code I began to see ads for Morse code decoders. Those little devices really interested me. But they were kind of expensive from the perspective of having to buy a ham radio, antenna, etc. for my first ham radio mobile station, hand held ham radio, etc.. So I never did make the purchase.

Roll forward six years to around 2012. I came to respect the punch that Morse code has on the ham radio bands. I came to respect, more, those that knew the code. But still – one more thing to study for. Sigh… Then I got my second cell phone – a droid. And I discovered apps! And lo and behold – I found an app that said it could decode Morse code. The app was named Morse Decoder by Wolphi LLC. The app promised that if I held my phone up to any radio on which Morse code was being received it would instantly translate the transmission into English text!

In practice the new app works pretty well. It does seem somewhat like magic even though I have an IT Audit background and understand how it works. Watching it work is one of those WOW! experiences of ham radio. It’s not perfect. I did find one thing that made it easier to tune. The app presents what is known in digital radio as a waterfall. The signals of the transmission trace from top to bottom of the screen rather than left to right. There are two vertical red bars and with a movement of your index finger the two red bars can be moved over the top of the signal. Once that is accomplished the software decodes what is being heard there. It does a reasonably good job of it. Doing this with a large finger on a small screen is somewhat problematical. What I finally settled on was just to use the VFO (tuning knob) of the ham radio to move the signal under the two red bars instead of moving the two red bars over the signal with my finger! Either way works but I prefer the VFO method – more precise!

If you want to try a cool ham radio app for your cell phone and have a ham radio, shortwave radio or maybe even a CB radio, give this cool app a try! It was free the last time I checked on it. Good luck!

73’s – stay radio active!

Jon Kreski – AB9NN– Appleton, Wisconsin / Green Bay, Wisconsin / Oshkosh, Wisconsin area

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