Tom Bruzan, author of the blog The Radiotelegrapher posted a great piece yesterday in which he talked about the current state of affairs in amateur radio and specifically CW (Morse Code radiotelegraphy). One statement really hit home with me:
"CW gives the operator not just the chance to buy something, but the chance to be something. CW is the mode of craftsmanship."
CW is the mode of craftsmanship. I love that expression and I hope Tom doesn't mind my borrowing it as it reflects so much better what I wanted to say in this post than anything I could come up with. Radiotelegraphy is really a two part skill set. Copying or deciphering the received code either in ones head or by transcribing it to words onto a piece of paper is one part and sending the code via a telegraph key is the other.
It's the sending part of the equation that I want to talk about in this post. A telegraph key in it's most basic form is nothing more than a simple switch. It is also an instrument and a tool. As a woodworking enthusiast, guitar player and bike mechanic I have a deep appreciation for tools and those skilled in their use.
In the past three years I have spent countless hours practicing the sending aspect of Morse Code. Amateur radio transceivers have a feature called "side tone" when the rig is placed in CW mode. Side tone allows the operator to press the key or paddle causing the radio to emit an audible beep while not actually transmitting a CW signal to the antenna system. I like the side tone feature and always spend a few minutes "warming up" before going on the air to make contacts. Often I don't plan on transmitting but simply enjoy practicing my sending skills with my various keys. I flip through a magazine and send the article titles or text from advertisements or simply key the random thoughts off the top of my head. I find these drills relaxing and even fun. Herein lies the parallel to the musician or mechanic. The more one practices with one's tools the greater the proficiency achieved.
Developing a CW fist.
The term "fist" originated back in the days of land line telegraphy over a hundred years ago. In those days the straight key was king and each component of each character (dots and dashes) had to be formed by hand. Over time it was found that operators developed distinct sending styles that were unique to the individual. This signature sound became known as one's fist. At first I took this notion with a grain of salt. The CW bands sounded like a cacophony of random senseless beeping but now after a few years of experience I can easily pick out the individual fists as I scan across the band. It is said that back in the day an astute operator could identify another before he sent his call sign just by the sound of his fist.
Today paddles and electronic keyers are widely used in amateur radio. An electronic keyer forms perfect dots and dashes which removes much of the "slop factor" out of sending and has somewhat diminished the uniqueness of fists encountered on the airwaves. At my station I use and practice with straight keys, semi-automatic bug and paddle/keyer configurations simply because I love them all. Using the paddles and keyer on side tone allows me to hear the characters as they are supposed to sound. This reinforces the proper character sound into my head so once I'm on the straight key or bug I can more accurately emulate proper code into my sending.
CW skill cannot be bought at the ham radio store. Practice and use are the only way. To me CW is like a hobby within a hobby and I am immensely proud of my accomplishments so far with radio's original mode.
Following is a scan of a transcription of copy I received while in radio contact with amateur station N2OH. I've highlighted in orange some unsolicited positive feedback from Larry I was pleased to hear. The text shown is all from the other station as my part of the conversation was direct from my brain to the key.
Larry "tail-ended" the QSO I was having with another station on that particular evening. This means he waited until I had signed off with the other station and then quickly called me by my call sign. I've developed a theory as to why stations tail-end. While "copying the mail" or eavesdropping party line style the listening op hears that one of the stations has a pleasant fist or a strong signal or both and initiates a contact. So unless I have some dire emergency to attend to I always welcome QSOs with tail-enders. Almost always a nice contact will ensue.