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The Essence of Amateur Radio is not Morse Code

Digital Modes, Operating, Technology

I read a blog posting (archive of that blog post) recently that was discussing the relevance of Morse Code / CW in modern amateur radio. The gist of it was that Morse code is relevant because it is felt by many to be the “essence of amateur radio”.

While I don’t doubt that many old-timers actually feel that Morse code is the essence of amateur radio, I am forced to suggest that those same people are selling amateur radio short with that feeling. In fact, they’re denying the whole POINT of why amateur radio came into existence, and what amateur radio needs to continue forward. That is why Morse code is still relevant, but not nearly as relevant as some people believe.

It is my understanding (feel free to correct me in comments) that amateur radio came about through experimentation and learning. That is to say that people so inclined to learn about the then-new-fangled radio medium for communication started making projects on their own. Eventually, the government stepped in to control it and what we now know as amateur radio was born.

The people who started amateur radio DID NOT sit around thinking “wow, this Morse code is really cool, I’ve done it with a light, and I’ve done it on a wire, I wonder if I can do it some other way?” No, they wanted to experiment with the new wireless communication technology and Morse code was close to the only efficient way to use radio at the time. Morse was a tool that fit the job requirements of the era. The essence of amateur radio was the gaining of knowledge, the advancement and exploitation of new technology and communication. It is my belief that this definition of the essence of amateur radio still applies today.

Today, the modern amateur radio enthusiast has a much larger box of communications tools to choose from. Advances in technology have given us voice and image modes. Computer advancement has given us digital modes. And, of course, there is also the venerable Morse code. Every mode has its unique advantages and disadvantages that make it appropriate for some situations and conditions, and inappropriate for others… and that includes Morse code.

The radio amateur who gets stuck on Morse code is like the old buggy driver after the advent of the automobile: sure, he can still do a job, but by not embracing the new technology he’s missing out on the richness of the activity and the expansion of his horizons that come with advancement. I’m sure that buggy driver got annoyed by all those young’ns and their fancy horseless carriages too… but that didn’t change the fact that time was marching on and the buggy driver was a quaint reminder of the past and not embracing the modern reality of transportation technology. Like that buggy driver, the radio amateur who overstates the importance of morse code misses out on the learning and new experience of other communications methods. That learning and new experience IS the essence of amateur radio.

It works the other way as well. The amateur that doesn’t pick up at least rudimentary Morse code skills is choosing the short-end of a stick – unable to operate effectively with simplistic equipment in bad conditions as Morse code permits better than almost any other mode, the completely code-free amateur’s communications toolbox is left wanting (but not empty!). On the flip side, the amateur who sticks to Morse code is left communicating in a mode that is, at common speeds of experienced operators, painfully slow for communication, requires a great amount of practice to use at those speeds, and which, in a non-disaster situation, is easily equalled in power density and propagation by inexpensive and readily available digital equipment. [edit: 3 jan 2015]  Realistically, digital equipment is available in a disaster too.  With computers becoming small and portable, there should be a laptop in any go-pack, and if if there isn’t, computers will be around and available in anything short of a nuclear blast.

If Morse code is your favourite thing in amateur radio, that’s fine. But to tell others that it is the essence of amateur radio is hubris in the extreme, and it’s living in the past. History is a great thing to learn from, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. Morse code is not what defines a real radio amateur now, nor has it ever been. The ability to employ communication technology in an effective and appropriate manner under an assortment of conditions, and to be driven to learn constantly is what defines a radio amateur for the 21st century.

Let’s put Morse code in the communications tool box where it belongs and leave it there, to be used when required, and not used when there are better ways. And let’s embrace the essence of amateur radio and learn something new. If you’re a Morse enthusiast, how about learning and using a different digital mode like PSK or RTTY? If you’re a digital enthusiast, how about learning to send your Morse by hand or picking up a microphone? If you’re a phone enthusiast, how about hanging up the mic for a while and trying something different? Experimenting and learning new things, that is the essence of amateur radio.

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Darin Cowan - VE3OIJ
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