Prepping: SKN – Ham Radio’s Golden Time

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’)


9 thoughts on “Prepping: SKN – Ham Radio’s Golden Time”

  1. Can’t spell and never could learn how to spell. Something just doesn’t work correctly. No problem with reading and comprehension, tho. Any alternates to morse code? Singe sideband?

  2. I grew up with the tube gear around. The local fire chief got me hooked when he showed my friend and I his Drake 4-line and made a contact to Finland. I proceeded to get my novice license in 1969. While I love the ‘warm’ nostalgia of tube gear, I spent a 40 year career as a television broadcast engineer, constantly learning new, solid state and digital technology, culminating in HDTV. Bit slicing chips now operate in the multi-gigahertz speeds so it is easy to directly digitize incoming RF signals into a digital bitstream. There are several high end ‘Software Defined Radios’ available now, but your friends at ICOM scored a real hit with the ICOM IC-7300 now under a $grand. It is the first new radio I have bought in 20 years, and I love it.

    Of course I’m jealous of your ‘Morse Mind’. I’m stuck somewhere around 5 WPM… intermittently… because I never used or practiced it in all these years. Still wondering if I can teach this old dog some higher-speed tricks.

    • Hank, you’re exactly the kind of op the SKCC group is looking for. Code is an art form but, just like ultramarathons, it’s the ongoing practice you’re not applying.
      The best way to learn code is to…”just do it.”
      Like learning to fly an airplane, though, there is a normal “human absorption rate” to the process.
      IOW when learning to fly an aircraft, not on a sim with unlimited do-overs…we’re talking the REAl kind where you write checks… Seems like the best is an intense 90-minute session every OTHER day.
      I expect that getting back into code would be that way for you, as well.
      Spend an intense hour…once every other day…and on in-between days? About 10-minutes of really “lite” practice. Trying to pick out a call sign from a 13-15 wpm qso (convo to the non-digital minds)…
      Let me know when you hit 13 and we can hook up on 40 cw in the late night/early morning..

      • Yup… use it or lose it. Practice makes perfect. I’m going to have to start carrying around a code practice oscillator.

  3. I operated a BC610 xmitter with R388 rcvr sled train mobile in Greenland in 1960, up to about 20 wpm with a leg mounted straight key. When I finally got around to getting my ticket in 1989 I was copying another guy’s 20 wpm test behind me while taking my General written.

  4. I have recently re-started the code learning process. I feel that in the future it may become indespensible, given a grid down situation ( or whatever else the future holds) Also, it’s amazing how 5 watts of CW can punch through the “eather” when 100 watts of side band voice is just mush.

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