No, you don’t need to know Morse Code to be an effective ham radio operator.

SKN comes on New Years Eve.  It’s “Straight Key Night.”  We’ll get into that, in a second.

First a pitch for learning Morse code.  Light signaling (silently), having another way to communicate in event of a stroke or voice stifling injury.  Even without the joys of Morse ops on the air, there are some damn good reasons to learn it.   SOS?

There’s a lot to be said about being one us “digital-direct” humans.  Because although the baud rates may be a quarter to half of what an old Model 19 teleprinter will throughput, Morse is all between the ears  where there’s little to go wrong or “break.”

Let’s start with what a typical “modern” ham shack looks like.  Here’s Operating Postion #1 in my office:

There’s a 43″ monitor for Mr. Old eyes to log contacts and for digital ham modes.  In answer to the unasked question (go with me on this), yes, hams send pictures (via slow-scan TV) often heard as a warbling sound on 14.230 MHz (USB).

And we use PSK-31 – a kind of Internet chat workalike, except we use radio instead of ISP’s.  No internet needed. And for more exotica, try other modes like JT-65 or FT-8.

The radios in my #1 position?  Left is an old Icom 761, a classic.  Long ago, I was the “corporate voice” of Icom and one of my “product intro” voiceovers was for the 761 when it was fresh off the boat from Japan.  It’s one of the best radios ever built.

A rare class that includes the Collins  (later Rockwell-Collins) “S-Line” and the R.L. Drake Company’s “4-Line” (The R-4C receiver with the Sherwood Engineering mods (site) and the Collins 75-S3/B are some of the best receivers ever built and sans all the DSP bells and whistles they still kick “technical ass” today.

What’s SKCC?

Straighgt Key Century Club.  A story, first.

It was a real honor yesterday to turn off the work and slide over to this pile of equipment for a quick Morse conversation with a fellow having lunch outside of Kansas City.  Rob was his name, and about 30-miles from his home on the way back from the holidays.

Yes, there are people who can copy in excess of 30-words per minute in their head and do other things (like fly or drive) because I happen to be one of ’em, too.  So’s Rob. That, dear reader, is a mark of extreme competence.

Morse code ops use Q-signals to abbreviate operating notes. I got a thank-tou for being QRQ – a go-fast operator.  When time is not of the essence, though, there’s no problem going QRS (slow down mode).  But for chit-chat, 30-35 words a minute is great.

Lately, there’s been a revival in Morse Code thanks to the efforts of the Straight Key Century Club.  Their website is My member number is #19433 and my FISTS (The International Morse Preservation grou) member number is 13106.   A “Fist” is your particular style of sending.  When you’re in a high speed (over 25 WPM) round-table discussion, you can tell who’s sending just by how their “fist sounds.”

SKCC has a neat ongoing “gold-mining” angle to it.  Interested operators can “collect member numbers” and achieve elevated status for talking to more people (using a straight key, cootie, or bug).

Say what???  As I explained in another ham radio sidebar, some time back, there are four basic key types.  The classic (J-38 style) hand key of movies.  The “Cootie” key – I had one of these custom-made.  You rock your fist back and forth to use it.  The classic is the “brass pounder” with your fist.

The Bug (Horace Martin, was it who invented it?) originated as the Martin Flash Key and morphed into Vibroplex.

The fourth and final key is the fully automatic “keyer.”  Most noteworthy was the Hallicrafters “T.O. Keyer” named in honor of W9TO who perfected ;m.  The schematic can be downloaded from here if you have some 12AU7 tubes and a small transformer laying around.  Better if you have a Potter & Brumfield mercury whetted relay, too.

I built my only one when in high school – circa 1965.  Since then, quicker to buy one, lol.

So much for the background.

The Magic of Tube Radio Gear

This is really what SKN is about.  Turning on tube type gear is an emotionally connecting event.

There’s a certain “We lived SteamPunk” to it.  Here’s Operating Position #2 in my office.  The centerpiece is a well-preserved and gingerly updated Drake 2B and matching Q-Multiplier:

This is still a competitive receiver today.  Because in the hands of a skilled operator, you can do as much (and sometimes  more) with that “antiquated Q-Multiplier” than you can with the high-end modern DSP-based radios.

Transmitters?  This year I’ll be using the Gonset GSB-100.  Arguably the best thing Gonset ever built:

It’s a heavyweight but puts out only 50-watts peak envelope power (90 PEP in).   To fix that, here’s the Johnson Thunderbolt amplifier that will kick the 50-watts up to about 800 key-down out:

Sitting on top of the Amplifier is a Radio Manufacturing Engineers 6900 waiting its turn for me to finish up all the other projects ahead of refurbing it.  The 6900 is another American-made radio from the early 1960’s.  It’s notable for use of selectable injection levels of the beat frequency oscillator.  Simply, it digs down into the noise better than even the Drake 2B under a very few specific weak-signal conditions.

Oh, and that “thing” in the lower right?  That’s my Vibroplex Champion…the same model I used for a couple of years in high school, and before I traded some gear into a broken keyer which was subsequently what built my Morse speed into the 40 word per minute range.

OK!  You probably won’t get all motivated and be able to get a technican class license in time for THIS New Year’s Eve SKN…but next year? Maybe you could have a general class or extra class ticket by then.  Depending on motivation, and effort, and noise of daily life, of course.

For those who are hams?  I will be on the low end of 80 meters and 40 meters.  Planning to have the straight key at the ready, but with a keyer paralleled in, so we can do high-speed for the “house-keeping” part of a contact, but also since I will be using the straight key for part….

(Who me, bend the rules?)

Until you have been “out there” (outside of a house or office) and “pulled in something interesting” from the air, this will sound like so much old-man delusion bullshit, but it’s not.

When you meet someone who really is QRQ , like Rob, nod in deference. They operate at mental speeds most mortals won’t even attempt to tackle.

But when you “break the code barrier” – somewhere above 20-25 words per minute, you can jump to 40 or 45 with relatively less effort.  Because in your mind’s eye, you begin to “see” full words and even phrases.  And when you become QRQ, you’ll pitty those slower people who haven’t pushed hard enough – yet – to move out of  “letter-by-letter” land.

Yeah, there’s a reason the FCC Telegrapher ticket maxes out a 25 WPM for a First Class ticket.  Not everyone is QRQ rcapable.  (See a gauntlet just thrown?)

See you on the air!

73 de (Morse for  best regards & ‘this is’)