Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Morse Code... is Only Mostly Dead

Morse Code is getting Old--er

As a new CW operator I find questions concerning CW-Morse Code operators and learning Morse Code interesting. In particular the AGE of CW-Morse Code operators interested me. When I completed my 100th CW QSO as a new operator I decided to gather some statistics on age of  Morse Code operator with whom I had QSOs.

I took my log and wrote a program to query QRZ database.  I used the python-hamtools library as the basis of parsing my ADIF log and performing the QRZ database lookups.  In order to query QRZ you need a subscription.  QRZ doesn't have the birth year for all operators but it had it for 58 of the original 100 CW mode contacts.

Here is the birth year summary for CW operators in my log:

Average Age: 68 
Min Age: 35 
Max Age: 99 (yes, 99 he's a ham in TX)

I am in my 50s and just learned the code. I find the average age of 68 pretty indicative that there don't seem to be a lot of young CW operators.  As CW operators die off who will replace them? 

I recognize that these statistics aren't too meaningful without knowing the average age of all licensed hams in the QRZ database. If I knew that then I could make more meaningful comparisons.

Where will new Morse Code Operators come from?

So based on the statistical age from my CW QSO logs; Morse Code doesn't seem to be considered relevant by most folks under half a century old. 

A Google Search of "Morse Code Alive" returns 286,000 hits. Conversely, a Google Search of "Morse Code Dead" returns 733,000 hits

So statistically, Morse Code is considered mostly dead... Yes I like this movie...

My kids consider me nuts for taking the time to learn and use Morse Code. I haven't been able to convince them of its relevance or even the relevance of ham radio. They point out to me that they can communicate with all their friends just fine via Google Chat or Texting. Even my lovely wife, who is a licensed Ham, doesn't see the point in learning Morse Code.

So... my question is; can we bring relevance back to Morse Code to a younger generation?  Yes it's fun, yes it's a challenge, yes it uses the least amount of radio spectrum for communication, yes it allows the furthest communication on the least amount of power... 

Will Morse Code die with the generation(s) that use it today?

And on that somber question, I'll await some comments (hopefully constructive).

So lower your power and raise your expectations



  1. Hi Richard, I wanted to learn the cw before I got the license, but I had no enough of selfdiscipline. Having no elmer, I am living without cw, but as I am getting older I think about the cw more often. I have decided that I want to know it, so I have just started to learn again. 73!

    1. That's great to hear. Just practice a little every day so you don't burn out. If you're like me there will be a few days in there where you don't feel like you're getting better but keep at it because it's working it's way into your subconscious. A little practice every day and you'll be copying and sending Morse Code before you know it.

      If you're looking for a local Elmer ask on one of your local 2m repeater nets. They will likely be able to direct you to an operator who will help you practice your code.

  2. Richard, I am scratching my head on your question. The relevance of morse code to the younger generation. One may be that if you are interested in technology then eventually you will be interested in the history of technology. Integral to that is the history of electricity, telegraphy and radio of which Morse code was a key part. Deeply embedded right up to the sixties.
    Another might be the fact that although our machines of today are digital, we always have to interface with the analog world. If you want to learn about analog radio then there is no better and simpler way to explore and understand it than to build simple more code transmitters and receivers. Even an SDR radio is analog on the front end.

    1. Those are excellent points and I agree that those interested in Radio technology should eventually be drawn to its history and thus Morse code and CW as a mode of operation. My concern posted in the blog is that the youth of the past who were interested in technology had few avenues to explore (up until the 1980s). Amateur radio was an obvious choice back then and the entrance requirement was learning Morse Code, so they did just that thus the heavy biasing of CW operators who where in their youth prior to the 1980s.

      But when the age of personal computers blossomed in the late 70's and early 80's I think the kids that had an interest in technology went that route because it was new and in the news. I know that I did. It required me to learning to program back then but I didn't have to learn to program before I was allowed to operate a computer.

      Now, in the past decade, technology completely pervades the youth. They are surrounded by it and it all has easy entry akin to fast food. No learning curve is required and most things that are hard to learn, or do are shunned unless their peers are doing it.

      In my case I originally learned Morse Code for my Ham General license before those licenses went no-code because I wanted access to the HF spectrum but I did not make much use of CW at the time because I only learned it at 5 wpm and had no Elmer to urge me on. I recently re-learned Morse Code properly because at this stage in my life I just like a good challenge and to me it's very challenging so it's great fun. I figure it will take the remainder of my life to get up to 35 wpm so I've got a life long hobby now.

      But when I attended a local repeater club meeting recently and mention operating in CW most hams eyes just glazed over. One told me they had heard it's too hard to learn or it's something they'd like to do someday, maybe, after they've tried everything else. A few others said they'd tried to learn it and couldn't. So even for new hams it doesn't seem to be that relevant. That is one of the main reasons I started this blog was to show other operators old dogs can learn new tricks and not injure themselves.

      My own teenage boys have zero interest and think talking in, what they term, a "dead language" is pointless. Even though they will spend hours / days / weeks to master a video game. But they do that because they think it's fun and their peers do it as well.

      Maybe if we could work with video game writers to find a way to incorporate learning Morse Code into a video game that is both challenging and rewarding for the player we might see a new crop of potential CW operators over the next few years.

      Thank you for your comments.

    2. First of all, Richard, I'd like to say thanks for doing the research. We so often discuss problems within the hobby that are based only on anecdotal evidence, that it's refreshing to have actual figures to work with. Your comment about the validity of the figures only highlights the broader problem we have of the gradual ageing of amateur radio operators across the board. (I should add that I am bang on the average age at 68.)

      Last year, our local club (Dundee Amateur Radio Club in Scotland) participated in a World War I event run by the BBC, which was held over two days in our city centre. We were asked to provide morse operators who could demonstrate how much of the war comms were conducted using this mode. We were overwhelmed by the numbers of people of all ages who sat down at an operating position, donned headphones, listened while we explained the code, demonstrated it to them, then showed real excitement when given the opportunity to decode a message sent to them.

      Now, I realise this does not necessarily mean that the same people would actually learn the code, let alone acquire an amateur radio licence to use it, but it did show that enthusiasm for the mode is not dead. How we could tap that enthusiasm is another matter, I realise, but it's there to be harnessed. Needless to say, we are guilty of not having followed up on the event, although we have noticed an upswing over the last year in people joining the hobby and taking our Foundation classes, so all is not lost. However, the average age of these people (all male but one, the XYL of one of our members) is around 60, so even if they do learn and use the code it's not going to be the breath of life to it!

      I'm sure I haven't contributed to the solution in writing this, but I wanted you to know you have an interested audience out there and that we may come up one day with that golden idea to save the code if we kick ideas around enough.

      73 and hope to work you on HF!

      GM4JPZ (N6OET)
      PS: Apologies for the user name. I must have chosen it a few years ago after a beer or two.

  3. It was Morse Code that led me to Ham Radio. Years ago I met a Marine from WWII who was a signal man on Guam who in the course of conversation thought I was interested in ham radio, and gave me the introductory materials and the code tapes. These existed in household belongings through several moves until I noticed them about 8 yrs ago. Currently operate almost exclusively CW and have interest in home building. Didn't start learning code until my mid 50's. Still try to practice every day.

  4. While CW does have its detractors, frequently arguing that it's an ancient technology with no relevance to today, I disagree. It has an 11-17 db advantage over SSB in communications effectiveness. That's the difference between 1500 watts on SSB and 30-120 watts on CW. Look at the stats on the VP8STI/VP8SGI dx'peditions, and you'll see a 3:00 - 1 differential in qso's, in favor of CW. It's more efficient. Do I care if CW ops dwindle out eventually? No! That's your problem, not mine!

  5. To learn and use Morse Code was the only reason I got into amateur radio and I specifically went for the Tech Plus as my first license as it had CW privileges (in 1998 at the age of 37). I still rarely use any other mode.

  6. I started out in ham radio as a novice and struggled to get my code speed up to 15wpm to pass the Advanced test (with a bit of breathing room). I haven't used CW in over 30 years, but I'm amazed that I still sorta remember enough of it to perhaps be able to resurrect the skill.

    The code is a language, truly proficient operators don't copy letters they copy words. Kindled by an interest in Anime, I've developed a desire to learn Japanese. I've heard that language skills are good for keeping the gray matter working, if I can manage to master the weirdness of an Asian language, (sentence structure logic in Japanese compared to English is like an RPN calculator is to an algebraic one), maybe I can also become prolific in CW.

  7. I got started in ham radio from morse code in high school. Got my first license in 10th grade, in 1995. Got to Advanced class license, then joined the military as a morse code operator because it was something I already knew. When I found out the FCC was getting rid of code requirements for a ham license, I went ahead and took the 20wpm test and got my Extra.

    Been out of practice these days, but there was a point I could copy into the low 30s but now have an interest in getting back into it. I have some qrp radios and want to put a portable station together to get active again.
    Now, at 37, I'm still keeping the interest in CW alive.