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Foundations of Amateur Radio #169:

from Onno VK6FLAB on 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 a standard.

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, listen, listen.

I did.

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 same character.

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 looks like.

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 transmission.

I'm Onno VK6FLAB

To listen to the podcast, visit the website: and scroll to the bottom for the latest episode. You can also use your podcast tool of choice and search for my callsign, VK6FLAB, or you can read the book, look for my callsign on your local Amazon store, or visit my author page:

If you'd like to participate in discussion about the podcast or about amateur radio, you can visit the Facebook group:

Feel free to get in touch directly via email:, or follow on twitter: @vk6flab (

If you'd like to join the weekly net for new and returning amateurs, check out the details at, the net runs every week on Saturday, from 00:00 to 01:00 UTC on Echolink, IRLP, AllStar Link and 2m FM via various repeaters.

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