Jack Regan
San Francisco
37° 45' 41" N, 122° 28' 49" W
San Francisco
Time Zone:
General Radiotelephone Operators License:
ARRL CE Courses:
Emergency Communications Levels I, II, & III
Certificate Of Code Profiency:
10, 15 and 20 WPM


Why Study Morse Code?

"Gold Is Where You Find It"

(An Old California Expression)

"Of Cabbages and Kings and Unexpected Things"

   In an age in which Morse code is no longer required by the Military, Aviation or the Maritime services, to say nothing of the advent of the internet and cell phones, there is little need to learn Morse code. Nevertheless, I, and many others, continue to learn and use Morse code. The reasons are many and varied and I will talk about some of those reasons later. What I want to present to you first, is an amazing fact that I discovered on the journey to code proficiency. This discovery is of interest not only to those who might be studying the code but can also cast a light on an epistemological (Theory of Knowledge) fact that can change your life! That fact is that the brain/body has capabilities that our intellect is quite often unaware of AND THUS IGNORES. Because of this fact, when studying Morse code, as well as many other human endeavors such as sports, martial arts, dancing, chess and music, it is often best to start at the end rather than the beginning!

   Morse code, as it is usually presented to beginners, starts slow, builds skill and accuracy, and then repeats the process at a slightly faster speed. This process is repeated again and again until the target speed of at least 20 wpm (words per minute) is reached. Since each word has an average of five letters, and the letters in the words have an average of 14 dots and dashes, at 20 words per minute there are 280 elements a minute to be processed. MOST people, using the walk before you run method of learning, never achieve the standard of 20 words per minute. It should be pointed out that 20 words per minute is considered the beginning level of skill among professional telegraphers. The fact of the matter is, that by starting at the higher speeds first, and the higher the better, progress is made faster and easier. I started at the 5 words per minute speed and quickly got to the point where I could pass the 5 wpm code test but also quickly found that I not only had trouble making further progress but was not able to use my slow speed to communicate effectively. At first I thought that I was just a slow learner and so I kept plugging away with frequent practice sessions but progress was slow and useful speed increases were not coming. I then heard about an article entitled "The Art and Skill of Radio Telegraphy." In this article the idea of starting at fast speeds, as high as 50 wpm, was presented. To make a long story short, I tried it and liked it!

   Here is what I discovered. The obstacle to progress was not my slowness, but my speed! The slow speed of the code at 5 wpm left my mind so bored waiting for the next dot or dash that it would either be thinking of all the possible combos that could be coming or concluding that the letter was complete. This mental activity distracted me from hearing what actually came next. In addition, I found that listening carefully for the difference between 3, 4 or 5 dots was tedious, to say nothing of the boredom of listening to 3, 4 or 5 dashes. The problem was that I was counting the dots and dashes as I went along and then translating the result to the correct character. This filled my mind with wasted processes that prevented any chance of getting faster. These two errors, superfluous thoughts, and counting and translating, were the limiting factors in attaining higher speeds. The speed limitations of this process were set because the process was happening in "thinking time" or "real time" and so was limited to how fast one could "talk." When I switched to 20 or 25 words per minute I had no time to be bored, and I had no time to count the dots and dashes. THIS WAS THE ANSWER! By cutting the thinking mind out of the loop I was easily able to distinguish s, h and 5 (3, 4 and 5 dots respectively) as s, h and 5 directly, just as a child is able to distinguish words before he can spell. The brain was able to easily recognize the different "sound" of the letters without my having to consciously count dots and dashes. It is only when we slow down the code to the point that we can actually count the dots and dashes that we have trouble. This is exactly like the situation of children learning a language. The do not start with letters or even smaller units like phonemes but learn whole words with out any knowledge of the constituent parts.

   In short, the answer to learning code and many other things in life is to start with the end, not the beginning. This was not a new revelation to me, but only a new example. Here are several examples from my own life that illustrate the point.

   When studying Chinese I had reached a crossroad after completing my lower division requirements. I had excellent grades and was easily qualified to go on to the upper division and major in Chinese. The problem was that the upper division courses would require proficiency in writing and reading in Chinese! It seemed to me, that the number of characters one had to learn was greater than my ability to memorize them. I asked my advisor whether I should go on to take the major in Chinese given my trepidation. She told me not to worry about, that it would take care of itself! I went home and began preparing for my final exams, all to be given in written Chinese and requiring written Chinese in response. I was devastated. I could not memorize all the characters I needed. Late at night, while still studying in bed for the morning's exam I GAVE UP in despair, put the book aside, turned out the light, and laid back to go to sleep. My mind was still thinking about the vocabulary I had been studying, and to my amazement, THE CHARACTERS BEGAN TO FLOAT UP INTO MY MIND'S EYE AS I MENTALLY SPOKE THE WORDS. It seems that I already had internalized all the characters, and when I "gave up" my brain was able to do what my mind could not. I went on to complete the major with success!

   Here is another example. When my wife and I started studying Argentine Tango we had no dance background at all. We had seen Forever Tango, and while watching the show for the first of many times I found that learning to Tango was a life-long dream of hers, so I whispered to her "That looks like a piece of cake, lets do it." We'll, to make a long story short, we had our first lessons with the lead dancers of the show! They set us on the right path from the beginning. It was not about learning steps, it was about style and elegance and choreographing to the music. This freed us to be ourselves from the very beginning. As we are both artists in our own right, we of course found no difficulty in attempting to dance to any kind of music, making the dance the creative effort it is meant to be! Of course we stumbled along the way. Just as I was later to do with the code study, we tried to improve by learning the basics by rote. We would stand apart so we could look at our feet and analyze the moves we had seen on tape or in live lessons. This of course created bad practice and allowed our thinking minds to interfere. By bad practice I mean that since the dance is done without looking at your feet, any practice done while looking wires the brain incorrectly. This is not a trivial error. It turns out that the brain is an electrical machine. What it has learned during the day opens up new pathways that electrical impulses now can move along. Since stand apart moves are not the end goal, they are not building pathways that ever can be used. The error is compounded by the fact that in sleep, the brain does not shut off. Current flows randomly along the brains pathways, including the new paths created by the days activities. With each passage of electricity down those pathways, they are strengthened, making them easier to recall and more difficult to erase. It turns out that after you have analyzed your moves using the stand apart and look at you feet method, you will have incredible difficulty making the moves correctly because you have already wired in incorrect moves and your brain takes the path of least electrical resistance, that is to say, the incorrect path that you wired in thru bad practice and sleep! It gets worse. As you try to overcome your previous wiring, you create more false moves that are reinforced in your sleep making more practice more difficult and counter productive. Finally, we stopped looking at our feet and started dancing for fun and ourselves, as our master teachers had taught us, and one day it happened. We became one physical unit, with one center of gravity and a natural biological sense of how to move. We could improvise without having to memorize steps, because all the good steps arise out of the natural grace of our physical selves.

   Chess is another excellent example. John Donaldson, an International Master, renowned chess author and Director of the Mechanics' Institute Chess Club, has said repeatedly that the best way to study chess is to study master games. I think this is a case of "wiring" your brain with good examples as opposed to "wiring" your brain with bad or irrelevant information.

   The examples of this type of learning abound in the sports world. The martial arts (Kung Fu, Judo, Tai Ji, etc.), wrestling, and boxing are all sports that immediately come to mind. Golf is another good example. Take your first lesson with the best, oldest pro you can find. Best is self explanatory but why oldest? Because it is important that he have the experience needed to teach you. Students come in many body types and many personalities. You do not want to get a lesson from a young/new teacher because he will teach you theory but not necessarily what you need. The old, experienced, expensive pro will be able to set you up MECHANICALLY so that you can hit some great shots without having to "remember" any techniques. He will then tell you to stop, take the good swing home and then, after making it routine, come back for the next lesson. If you teach your self you will wire yourself up all wrong, creating bad habits that you will sooner or later have to break. And all coaches will tell of the dangers of over practicing, especially if you are practicing incorrectly. Even if you are practicing correctly, the point is to stop when you have performed the action correctly. When you go to sleep , the correct pattern will be reinforced. If you keep practicing a new move, you will get tired, make mistakes and thus will create a negative pattern that will be reinforced in your sleep.

   Enough of "Unexpected Things." Now lets talk "of Cabbages and Kings." Why would any one study Morse code? Of course there is the fact that passing a 5 wpm test is required for full access to the HF (high frequency) bands. These are the bands that allow long distance contacts. There is also that fact that code is able to make contacts under conditions that shut down the voice modes. There is another reason that especially appealed to me. Listing to the code activity on the HF bands was like listening to a flock of birds all talking to each other at once. Having been a life long bird watcher, I earned my Bird Watching merit badge as a boy scout, I was amazed how the sound of all that code bouncing back and forth was like the musical calls of a flock of birds. I was determined to learn to speak that language. And yet another reason is that many of my boyhood heroes were telegraphers. Whether it was Edison or all the secret service agents I had heard or read about, these were people that I wanted to emulate. It is not that learning code was a big part of what made them heroes, but that it was NOT a big part that made me think that of course I could do it.

   So, there it is. Food for thought for those who will never listen to, let alone study Morse code, and encouragement for those who would like to try, but are intimidated by the "blazing speed" of the big guns. In closing I will leave you with two of my favorite quotes.


"What one fool can do, so can another."

An Ancient Simian Proverb
(From An Old Calculus Book)

"They all put their boots on one leg at a time."

(From a childhood book about the Old West)

73 es DX de AE6GC

In English - Best Wishes and Long Distances,