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by James W. Nash, K4HMS/V31AW

OK, a lot of us old guys have had crotchety, vaguely reactionary things to say about the fact that new generation hams donít work CW. Why should I be any different? Not long ago, during the CW All Asian (JA) contest, the one in which you use your age as your contest number, I took a survey. Unscientific, but cogent. You can guess the resultsómost of the US stations were in their mid-50ís or older. Most of the JAís were in their forties. Interestingly, the Russian Siberians tended to be in their thirties. The message there was pretty clear.

A week or so ago I started thinking about the CW issue yet again: a well known DX station sent word through the various DX bulletins that he would be operating in the near future without his "interface." Consequently, his CW would be very slow. I contemplated that strange statement for a few minutes until it hit me. This man does not actually work CW, except at very slow speeds. He has a CW-reader or something. A keyboard.

I wasnít even sure that was legal. I will tell you that when I worked the guy back last year he was super-fast, but slow picking up callers. Now I understand why.

When the new licensing rules went into effect last year, clearly the FCC made it official that CW was no longer important. Was it possible that sending and receiving Morse code had been declared a meaningless exercise, just as incentive licensing had in essence once again been eliminated? Obviously, the powers believed that to be the case. All you have to do is get an "interface."

The five word per minutes requirement is almost meaningless. The truth is, you can teach a nine year-old five words-per-minute. Iíve done it. Five words a minute, folks, especially with a multiple choice code exam, is almost a non-requirement. Not to mention the serious reduction in the size of the question pool for the written exam. Everybody can now be Amateur Extra Class. So in effect, thereís no attainment involved. Itís no accident I seem to read all the time about eleven year-olds receiving an Extra Class license.

I came up with the great 1950ís novice wave. I was licensed in 1955 and found plenty of other normal, healthy, not necessarily nerdy, teenagers (all boys, alas) who were licensed and enthusiastic about radio. We had to learn 13 WPM to get the General or face the "death penalty." We learned by operating CW, not phone. We had no novice phone bands except two meters, which didnít count. Our parents were almost always never hams. We had to scrounge our own equipment and put up our own antennas.

Now we seem to have a generation of mature hams who have never operated CW. I knew a young ham in the late 80ís who passed the Extra code test (multiple choice, of course) strictly by studying tapes, and who had never had a CW contact in his life. He probably never will. Now, with minimal effort a sideband DXer can use a programmed keyer to send and answer during a pileup or contest and never touch even a paddle.

It seems that most people, if they donít have to learn CW, wonít. This is kind of like the Army. When I was in the Army, there was a draft. Without the draft, I doubt if Iíd been in the Army, especially not 1965-1967. So I went the ROTC route. Well, even if it was under semi-compulsion, Iíve always been extremely proud of my military service. My generation of compelled and semi-compelled soldiers served our nation well under difficult circumstances. CW is kind of that way.

However, my main point is that CW is still an essential mode of communications, and should be required of everyone who wants to be called a communicator. That is, seriously required, as in 13-WPM.

I have my own arguments about the reasons for the vitality of CW, and hereís a summary:

  • It is the consummate great mode for actual difficult communications. When conditions are terrible, when you only have a hundred watt transceiver, when all of your equipment will fit in your backpack, when your antennas are on the balcony (Iíve been there), when you have just got to get through to somebody, when things are going wrong, CW is most likely to work.
  • CW is pleasing to the ear. Thatís right, you ham-licensed cultural and aesthetic illiterates. It sounds absolutely great. I love to listen to all the varying tones and inflections on different DX signals at night. I love to listen to far-off pileups on 20 CW about one a.m. This is especially true during times of ionospheric disturbance. Doubling. Echoes. Auroral flutter. Learning about what causes these sounds and listening to them are a major part of the avocation to me.
  • CW is a source of pride, just for its own sake. I submit this makes as much sense as any other non-paying avocational pleasure. Itís a skill that allows human communication. What could be better?
  • For me, and a lot of others, itís the only way to work the real DX with 100 watts and a G5RV. After all many of us live in deed-restricted, TVI-prone, regulated neighborhoods. Without doubt, CW is the last resort, down and dirty, best, cheapest, and most satisfying means of radio communications known to man.

As is well known, the use of CW has been severely crippled by past licensing liberalization. First, novices were given ten meter phone. Second, novices were given permanent licenses. Now, incentive licensing has in effect been eliminated. No further real incentives to learn CW seem to exist.

Yes, we have thrown away incentive licensing again, and have thrown CW out totally at the same time. Being perfectly modern as the culture would dictate, we are not forcing people to learn code or much else. A few 50-question exams and you are an expert. Those who never have to operate CW will never learn the joy of ringing tones and frantic, fluttery signals from beyond the North Pole.

However, CW may turn out to be very important to the future of this avocation. Itís all in the matter of technique. What techniques do we have that canít be surpassed in the future by people driving SUVís and, eyes glazed, talking on cell phones? I think you know.

No certification program will cure the continuing malaise which will result from the present cheap-license situation. Sooner or later, as happened in the thirties and again in the sixties, we will realize again the true value of incentive licensing. We will also realize that what makes a radio operator is facility with CW, not just the push-to-talk button. And we will start the whole cycle again.

So, folks, get that Extra license now while itís cheap. The cycle will recur Incentive licensing will be back once more. CW will live again.


*Jim Nash, K4HMS,, first licensed in 1955, has published articles in QST and the DX Magazine. He is a practicing attorney in Houston. Comments on the above are welcomed by the author.