Morse Code at 140 WPM
After reading an article in the Wall Street Journal about Chuck Adams, K7QO, who has a fascinating hobby — or two — I decided to contact him and find out the story for myself.
Chuck copies Morse code accurately at 140 words per minute (WPM), making him one of the fastest operators in the world. When contacted about his amazing feat he said the figure of 140 WPM is “probably misleading.” Chuck explained, “There are three code speeds that I think any good CW operator should know and should know how to measure. Plain text with a ‘mil’ or keyboard. This is the way world records are done and [also] code tests, [copying] one minute without error out of five minutes of plain text from the hard copy generated. [C]ode tests started out this way and then went to either a multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank [test] …before being discontinued.
“Code competitions that I [did] as a teenager didn’t allow typewriters, so it was done with pen and paper [where] I used to win at 40-45 WPM. To this day, I still do hard copy of every QSO that I have. At high speeds, I grab a typewriter, an electric one.
“Plain text without hard copy, also known as copying in your head, …is much more difficult to measure as you have to rely on what someone repeats back to you after a session. But this doesn’t have to be 100% copy. There are guys who consistently carry on QSOs at 110-120 WPM, but those QSOs are disappearing from the bands. [The third way is a] computer program from RufzXP which is where the 140.9 WPM comes from for me and the 200 WPM that two individuals did at the IARU competition in the European Union (EU). The program has a database of something like 45,000 radio amateur calls, mostly from contesters. You hear a call and type it into the program. If you get it right, the program sends another call at a faster speed and continues to increase the speed for each correct call. If you miss then the next call is sent at a slower speed. Your score is determined by a number of factors: response time, correct calls or number of characters per call, etc. This program is the most frustrating thing you can do … [and] will drive anyone to drink in a hurry.”
Chuck plays down his achievement, although he learned code in two evenings using an Instructograph paper tape machine. His father, W5NNB, took Chuck to a club meeting in Kermit, TX to find someone to teach him because he didn’t feel his son would listen to him. Two already licensed teenagers Chuck’s age took him under their wings that Wednesday and the following Thursday and Friday evenings Chuck memorized the code. His father dropped him off at Terry and Roy Acuff’s home in Kermit on Saturday. When the dust was settled and the test over, Chuck had done 12 WPM.
He became interested in very high speeds in his senior year in high school. Working on 40 meters with a Heathkit Apache and an NC-300 receiver calling CQ at 45 WPM, he was confident until he received a message at 60 WPM. “I couldn’t get them to QRS, so we didn’t complete a QSO. I was so angry at the time that I told myself no one would ever do that to me again. So far, so good.”
Is High Speed Code Worth It?
As with anything there are always questions and one question that comes to mind is if there is value in sending and receiving code at such high speeds. According to Chuck, “The bands might not hold up for long periods of time so you can get a lot done in a short period of time,” something that would obviously be useful in an emergency situation when time is of the essence. But it seems almost impossible to get more than the gist of a message, much like speed reading where the text is skimmed. Chuck disagrees. “At higher speeds, it is my belief that you are as close as you can get to what I call the ‘Vulcan Mind Meld.’ You hear/see words in your mind instantly that came from another human mind miles away without consciously hearing the sounds from the speaker. When we talk to people we don’t think about the sounds, but the ideas being given.”
While it may sound like science fiction, Chuck’s enthusiasm and stories make high speed code something worth achieving and a lot of fun. “I had one QSO at high speed my senior year in high school with a YL for 3.5 hours. I will never forget that one. I also had a QSO with a B-58 pilot who was in Little Rock, Arkansas and got scrambled on an alert; it was not a drill. Then the Cuban missile crisis was announced.”
For those of you who have struggled with code, Chuck agrees that it’s not easy and that “…you have to work at it to keep it. Use it or lost it.” During World War II when the military trained Morse code operators, they trained for 16 weeks for about 8 hours a day. But Chuck says, “The U.S. government did it wrong. They used the old E — I — S — H sequence,” which, in Chuck’s opinion, is “…the worst thing you can do. It either consciously or subconsciously gets the individuals counting elements.” He urges anyone learning code that way to “…please, please drop any code course that starts this way or uses some gimmick for memorization…especially visual aids. This is a killer for code speed. Your mind learns to go through a couple of steps before getting the conversion done, and then you later have to unlearn the sequence. The only way to make sure code sticks with you is to “[s]tart with a regular daily schedule and stick with it. It’s the only way to succeed in a reasonable time period.” Chuck prefers the A — B — C — D sequence because “…it fairly well mixes up the patterns so that [you] don’t compare them to [similar letters].” It’s the way we all learned the alphabet in order to read.
CW — Simple, Inexpensive and Efficient
One of the good things about Morse code is that the equipment is so easy to build. “That’s the way we did it in the 50s and 60s. We were all poor and a single-tube transmitter crystal-controlled rig (crystal-controlled rigs were a requirement for one-year Novices) was cheap and easy to build. [Even today,] you can buy a kit for a single band CW transceiver for $55 and add an additional $30 for case, etc. Use a wire antenna and a simple key and keyer and you are going like gangbusters. Those who say life is too short for QRP haven’t got a clue and don’t want the ranks to grow if they keep that attitude.
“Because Morse takes very little…it is a good use of bandwidth and it takes less power to be heard. I have been QRP for all my ham years, but will go to QRO power for the QRQ QSOs I’m about to take up. You can’t do high speeds at QRP levels … unless it’s line of sight.”
Chuck says it’s difficult to say whether Morse code will fall completely out of use. It is much more expensive to do the digital modes when you add in the cost of computer and software, but they are popular because you can sit down at the keyboard and have a mini-Internet on the air and no real concentration is required for long periods of time. However, since most young hams can’t afford that kind of ham shack, starting out with a QRP (low power) CW rig gives them a chance to become active quickly. It’s also something to think about for those hams on a budget or fixed income.
A Daily Measure of Morse Keeps the Mind Sharp
Morse code is a regular part of Chuck’s life and not just in terms of going on the air. He also puts out a series of books on CD at different Morse code speeds. He started the books almost twenty years ago to get plain text code for his daily practice when the AP and UPI wire services discontinued daily news transmissions via Morse to ships at sea. “I missed the practice and wanted something to work on to keep up my code speed. I had too much time and energy invested to let it slip away.” Chuck uses a computer to translate books in the public domain to code because it gave him perfect spacing and was error free and could be done any time of the day. “It was QRM/QRN/QSB free and a pleasure to do and I had lengthy sessions of continuous material. A complete book, such as War of the Worlds, is really a joy to work through [and you don’t have to] worry about time of day and sunspot counts for a Morse practice session.” He added that smaller MP3 players and iPods make it possible to carry practice with you. Chuck walks 10 km a day, getting in 2 hours of practice and there are side benefits to the concentration that comes with building code speed.
Chuck plays poker tournaments professionally that require intense concentration for 14-15 hours a day. “I really, really believe practicing Morse, which forces you to concentrate continually, helps keep the memory working well and might, just might, help keep one sharp. I have yet to run into any CW operator at any age who couldn’t concentrate and seemed to hold onto information for a long time.” Considering the current scientific data coming out about Alzheimer’s disease, using Morse code on a daily basis might just be one way to combat the disease. This may be one case where more is better.
Get Ready for 2010
Although the FCC took out the code requirement in licensing, the story of Morse code is far from over. One US group is attempting to set a new world record in the International Amateur Radio Union (IARU) high speed competition in 2010 and is looking for a place to hold the competition. Chuck hopes it will be held at Pacificon because it’s near San Francisco International Airport and holding the competition in Dayton will increase the costs for attendees from the EU and other countries. A venue near an international airport would be best for overseas contestants. The undertaking will be expensive and sponsors with connections, enthusiasm and/or financial clout are needed. With the current exchange rate, it is more expensive for US competitors to go to Europe, so an American contest would be an asset. If you’d like to get more information, please contact Ilya Kleyman, KE7OPG, 12510 109th Ct. NE -302, Kirkland WA 98034.
Whatever the reason for getting into high speed Morse code, one thing is certain; code is not going to go away any time soon. It’s not easy for some people to master code, but, like anything worth doing, it is worth the effort. In the end, it’s all about practice, time and more practice, but above all, “Patience, Grasshopper.”
J. M. Cornwell, AC0CA, is a nationally syndicated freelance journalist, editor, book reviewer and award winning author whose recent work has been included in Cup of Comfort for Single Mothers and Chicken Soup for the Adopted Soul. She is also a Volunteer Examiner and newsletter editor for the Pikes Peak Radio Amateur Association (PPRAA) and holds an Extra class license.
J. M. Cornwell, ACA