Foundations of Amateur Radio #169:
September 1, 2018
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Nothing like the standard of Morse Code
Morse Code is a way of communicating with
people across the globe using dits and dahs
and the spaces between them to convey a
message. It's no longer required to get an
Amateur License, but that doesn't mean that
it's not useful, in fact, far from it, Morse
is still heavily used in this hobby.
I've been attempting to learn Morse code for
quite some time.
To do this I was told, time and time again,
over and over, ad nauseam, that Morse is an
Auditory Language. I was told that the way to
success was to listen before sending, to be
able to decode before ever touching a key and
to learn with tapes.
I also was told that if I learned it slowly,
I'd run into trouble later on when I wanted
to hear a beacon, which identifies itself
with much faster Morse Code.
Morse is an interesting phenomenon. We
describe it in words in day-to-day
terminology as having dots and dashes, which
is how the International Telecommunications
Union, the ITU defines it, but I have been
assured that I should think of it in terms of
dits and dahs, because that more closely
mimics the sound of the language, and from my
current experience, I have to agree.
This is an audio language and it's defined in
terms of how long a dit takes to transmit. A
dit is one time unit. A dah is three dits.
The space between a dit and a dah within one
letter is one dit. The space between two
letters is three dits and the space between
two words is seven dits.
I'm not expecting you to learn that right
here and now, just pointing out that there is
a definition of how this is supposed to work.
If you make a dit last longer, everything
else lasts longer, so determining how fast
you're sending something is not simple to do,
unless there's a standard. Of course there's
The way that the speed in Morse is defined,
is by counting how many times a standard word
can be sent per minute. The Paris standard
uses the word PARIS, because it is precisely
50 dits in terms of timing. There's another
word, CODEX, which has 60 dits, so the two
Words Per Minute are different depending on
which standard you use. And to make things
even more interesting, some people measure
with 5 dits between words where the ITU
specifies 7 dits between words.
So, speed is variable, depending on who's
measuring. The ITU doesn't specify which is
right, but it gets better.
As I said, this is an audio language, so you
need to listen to it to learn it. Over the
years it's been hammered into me, don't write
Morse, don't use dits and dahs, listen,
At 25 Words per Minute, at what ever standard
that was calculated, I can now hear Morse,
that is, I can detect the gaps between
letters and words and I can hear the rhythm
of the code. Great, so I'm done, right?
Not so fast.
While I can hear the individual letters, I
still don't actually know what a G sounds
like, or what makes the letter X, or an Open
Parenthesis, or a Question Mark. Easy, look
them up, learn the sound, done.
Morse Code is standard, right? Right?
Seriously, Morse Code is standard, right?
Not so much, not even a little bit. If you
search the globe for Morse Code Charts so you
can look up a Question Mark you'll end up
with hundreds of different charts. Everyone
agrees the letter A or Alpha is dit-dah, but
they cannot even agree that N, November, is
dah-dit. Some show the difference between an
open and a close parenthesis, others use the
There's charts that put dits-and-dahs inside
the letters of the alphabet, but don't
specify in which order the parts are heard.
The Wireless Institute of Australia doesn't
even appear to bother specifying, the FISTS
Down Under Morse Preservation Society doesn't
show a copy, the ARRL has an abomination on
their website that you cannot even link to,
the ACMA defines the end of transmission as a
cross and then there are the special ones,
survival charts and power point slides and
using words to describe a symbol, so you can
know that a fraction bar is a dah-dit-dit-
dah-dit, but you don't actually know what it
You'll be pleased to learn that the ITU
actually publishes a document, ITU-R M.1677-
1, last updated in October of 2009, that
specifies the International Morse Code. It
goes into great detail on what characters are
defined, how to start and stop transmissions,
how to transmit things like percentages, what
to do if you need to send a multiplication
symbol, inverted commas, minutes and second
signs, fractions and as a bonus it has the
phrase that this document and I quote:
""should be used to define the Morse code
characters and their applications in the
radiocommunication services"". Nothing quite
like a standard that should be adopted,
rather than must be adopted.
The ITU also tells us that ""the code needs
to be updated from time-to-time to meet the
needs of the radiocommunication services"".
The French word ""arobase"", which in English
is pronounced ""at"" and looks like the
letter a with a circle, used today in an
email address was added to Morse Code in 2002
by the French General Committee on
Terminology, quick off the mark for a symbol
that appeared on a typewriter in 1889 and
first used in an email address in 1971, but
if you look for an Exclamation Mark, an
Ampersand, a Dollar Symbol, a Semi-Colon or
an Underscore, you won't find anything about
it in the ITU standard.
Oh, here's a fun fact. The ITU document says:
""No part of this publication may be
reproduced, by any means whatsoever, without
written permission of ITU."" - so apparently
I can't actually tell you that a dit-dit-dit-
dah-dit-dah means that this is the end of my
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