Dear future wireless telegraphers,
HecKits Step Attenuator:
I had fun putting together a HecKits 50 Ohm 62dB Step Attenuator. It is easy to solder and assemble. The kit contains 21 metal film resistors (hand-labeled), 7 DPDT toggle switches, 2 BNC connectors, and an aluminum box. The only difficult part is carefully following the directions to ensure all the switches, BNC connectors, and PCB board fit correctly into the enclosure. If you make a mistake, things will not line up correctly with the pre-drilled holes!
This stepped attenuator will come in handy while locating nearby RFI or participating in a fox hunt! It allows selecting any attenuation between 0 to 62 dB in 1 dB steps. I tested out the kit in my apartment, and it works flawlessly.
Darrel Heckendorf (WA7OIB) shipped the kit quickly and included the instructions with the shipping notification. QST Magazine has an in-depth analysis of the attenuator in the October 2020 issue, pages 43 to 46. With 6 dB selected, the SWR is very close to 1:1 through the 2-meter band. And the attenuation is flat through the HF range and rising to about 6.4 dB in the 2-meter band.
Letter and postcards from Paris:
I received a letter and postcards in the mail from Serge (F4HYY) in Paris! He sent me a nice letter thanking me for all my YouTube videos and this website dedicated to learning Morse code. It made my day, and I especially appreciated the handwritten note. It was an awesome surprise to find in the mail.
The Eiffel Tower is iconic. One day I hope to see it in person! Serge notes in his letter that as an antenna, radio saved the Eiffel Tower from being destroyed! I didn't know that.
A bit more research showed that “Since Gustave Eiffel footed 80 percent of the tower’s construction costs, he was permitted to have the structure stand for 20 years in order to recoup his investment before it passed into the hands of the Parisian government, which planned to disassemble it for scrap metal. Seeking a way to prove the structure’s strategic utility in a bid to save it, Eiffel erected an antenna atop the tower and financed experiments with wireless telegraphy that began in 1898. The value of the tower in sending and receiving wireless messages, particularly for the French military, caused the city to renew Eiffel’s concession when it expired in 1909. Today, more than 100 antennae on the tower beam radio and television broadcasts around the world.”
It is awesome to be at the right time and place to give back to the amateur radio community. My YouTube channel averages 200 visitors watching 100 hours of content every day! And those who wish to practice offline download about 300GB/month from my website.
ICOM 7300 Panadaptor:
I am excited to get the RadioAnalog Panadaptor module for the ICOM 7300 radio. It is fantastic to see the entire band at one time in high resolution and easily and quickly control the radio from my computer. The panadaptor module is easy to install, and it provides a significant boost in experience and enjoyment listening to the radio. Watch my 4-minute video for a quick demonstration.
I also discovered that SDRUno version 1.3 is now able to output 192kHz worth of Raw IQ to CW Skimmer! (But it does require cheap virtual audio cables.) The feature allows me to quickly decode everyone on the band at the same time, which is impressive during contest conditions! The only downside is that it taxes my laptop to the limit, almost to the point of being unusable! Perhaps I will have to upgrade my computer sometime this summer. I'd love to build a custom PC that can handle SDR with ease.
Morse Code Revival:
I discovered something exciting! According to Google Search Trends, their data shows a resurgence and growth in the interest of Morse Code in recent years. In the graph, the blue line represents Google searches for "Morse code" by month, while the black line shows a rolling average. This seems to match what many people have noticed in recent years. I am sure that the CW Academy and the Long Island CW Club's online classes have played a large role in making this happen!
Google provides data from 2004 until the present. In the data, you can see the revival starting around 2015 and reaching highs not seen since the beginning of the 2000s. For context, the FCC eliminated any Morse code requirement for licensing at the beginning of 2007. Interest in Morse code sharply fell off around the same time, so it is awesome to see a come back.
It will be interesting to see where interest goes over the next few years. I believe we are in the golden age of Morse code!
Research during WWII:
I spend an afternoon restoring a fascinating research paper on Morse Code from Harvard University released in the Journal of Psychology in July 1943!
The outbreak of World Word II created a massive demand for the United States to train men in the use of the International Morse Code, perhaps as many as 10,000 men per month! The problem was that 30 to 60% of men entering radiotelegraphy schools failed to become proficient operators. The author, Donald Taylor, carried out experiments to determine aptitude and ways to shorten the length of time necessary to train men to become proficient with Morse code. The results are fascinating! And some of it goes against commonly held beliefs in the amateur radio community even today! The sample size was relatively small, so there is that.
What I found fascinating is the predictive power of The Initial Learning Test for aptitude. It had an adjusted correlation coefficient of .73 between the results of it and the speed test given during the 22nd hour of practice. It was also interesting that the results didn't find any statistical difference in what character speed was used in learning Morse code. That seems to fly in the face of going advice for those who aspire proficiency above 12wpm. However, no matter what speeds they used, the format of instruction helped the students avoid decomposing the sound pattern of characters into dits and dahs. And that might be the most crucial key. But from a practical perspective, it would seem increasingly difficult with slower character speeds to avoid hearing the sound pattern as dits and dahs instead of the sound pattern.
The restoration of this document was more time consuming than I had expected. I used OCR to convert the text. But it required a lot of proofing and formatting to restore the document to its previous glory. It is so much easier to read than the original!
If you have a bit of time, I invite you to give it a read!
Exploring Satellite Radio with SDR:
I had fun exploring Software Defined Radio and Amateur Radio Satellites! On the morning of May 10th, there was a great opportunity to catch a bird. RS-44 (aka DOSAAF-85), a satellite built by students at Siberian State Aerospace University and launched in December 2019, passed nearly overhead and would transit the sky for over 21 minutes from horizon to horizon. The Amateur Radio transponder had been activated only a couple of weeks prior.
The satellite is in orbit at an altitude of 775 miles! For a low earth-orbiting satellite, the satellite has a vast footprint and can be seen across North, Central, and parts of South America at the same time! It is one of the best opportunities to work DX, given the currently available satellites in operation.
After a few minutes, I could see and hear the satellite beacon on my laptop. The doppler shift from the speeding satellite was quite noticeable on the Morse code sidetone. (Think about how a train sounds as it blows its whistle approaching and then passing you.) And almost immediately, I could see that the satellite passband was filled with amateur radio operators contacting each other using SSB voice! (The satellite has a 60kHz inverting transponder. Uplink 145.965 MHz +- 30kHz and Downlink 435.640 Mhz +- 30kHz.)
It was difficult to watch the trajectory on my phone, keep the antenna pointed to where I thought the satellite was, adjust the antenna's polarization by twisting it one way or the other, find a station to listen to, and continuously adjust the frequently for doppler shift! That is a lot of multi-tasking, but I managed to listen to a couple of amateur radio operators working each other!
Finally, at 11:33 am, the satellite passed below the northeastern horizon. But the best part was yet to come! As soon as I got home and got everything put away, I began to re-play the recorded I/Q data. I could tune anywhere within that 2Mhz! So I listened to XE1KK for a while. Then I backed the recording up and listened to W5CBF on a different frequency, and then again to hear other QSOs. I had no idea how useful it could be to record raw RF and play it back later! For example, it was helpful to experiment with different filters while listening to the same station and adjusting for doppler shift. There was no time pressure.
Toward the end of the pass (but not shown in the video), there was some CW traffic. There was also a lot of fading, so I couldn't quite make out any particular calls. It would have been neet to catch a CW QSO! Perhaps one day, I will even work CW on an amateur radio satellite. Until then, I need more automation to track and adjust for the doppler shift before I'd personally attempt to contact a bird with CW! That is just too much multi-tasking for me.
If you would like to hear the pass for yourself, you are welcome to download an 8.4GB Zip file with the I/Q data. You will also need to download and install SDRUno. Once the SDRUno is installed, unpack the Zip file and load the first .wav file into the program. As you listen, SDRUno will automatically move to the following files.
Joy of Hiking with Morse Code:
It was a treat to go out on a hike and listen to a short story in Morse code! The warm, bright, spring afternoon sun made for the perfect opportunity to go on an 8-mile hike along Linear Trail and enjoy listening to How the Grinch Stole Christmas at 30wpm.
I hadn't had an opportunity to listen to it since creating the audiobook last December. It turned out to be surprisingly tricky to head-copy in certain parts of the story. Dr. Suess makes use of uncommon words in some passages! And I heard many words for the first time in Morse code, such as Who-ville and clucked.
It was great to get out into the fresh air and enjoy the warm springtime temperatures. I was a bit tired by the end of the hike. But it was good for the soul, and I am looking forward to the landscape turning green again.
Discover the joy of hiking with Morse code too! Autumn and springtime are some of the most temperate in Kansas, even if they don't last long. Perhaps they are too in your part of the world? Be sure to use earbuds. Wind and other nearby sounds can make it challenging to hear Morse code clearly and easily outdoors.
DX: The Easy Way:
How to Chase, Work, and Confirm DX The Easy Way by Craig Buck (K4IA) was a great short read. Rarely do I read a whole book in a single day! It is chalked full of practical advice and tips for working DX. It was exciting reading about OQRS (Online QSL Request System) and GlobalQSL as options for getting QSOs confirmed. I wasn't familiar with either. I was already familiar with other options — direct, QSL managers, QSL Bureau system, and LOTW (Logbook of the World).
I also learned about the NCDXF/IARU Beacon Network, which has 18 worldwide beacons that broadcast on a rotating schedule across 14.100, 18.110, 21.150, 24.930, and 28.200Mhz. I tuned into the 20m beacon frequency and heard nothing. So I checked a remote station on the east coast and was only able to hear LU4AA. I guess propagation wasn't that great this afternoon on 20m!
It was an awesome opportunity to be interviewed for Episode #29 on the DitDit.fm podcast, the most popular podcast dedicated to amateur radio operators using and learning CW. Bruce (N9WKE) is a wonderful guy and a lot of fun to talk to! It was a joy talking to him about my love and passion for Morse code. We talked about my Morse code journey, my Morse code Ninja website, and tips for learning Morse code.
If you listen to the episode, I hope that you enjoy my excitement, enthusiasm, and hope for a brighter future. We live in the Golden Age of CW! There are so many resources and opportunities available to anyone willing to learn and use Morse code.
Two Year Anniversary:
Over the last two years, I have had a wondrous adventure learning Morse code, making my first CW contact, making many friends along the way, and giving back! It all started with a desire to fulfill a dream when I was a teenager of learning Morse code.
Many years ago, in 1996, I received a $2,000 scholarship from the Dayton Amateur Radio Association. At the time, I was looking forward to studying electrical engineering at Kansas State University. I had high hopes of becoming an RF engineering and designing cool new radios.
That didn't happen, but I hope that whoever made the scholarship possible would be proud to know that I graduated cum laude from the College of Engineering at Kansas State University with a B.S in Information Systems, a degree closely related to computer science. And proud I would later go on to pay it forward and give back to the amateur radio community by using my expertise as a software developer and my passion for Morse code.
After becoming proficient at 25wpm, I was nominated and accepted into CWops. And then, I became an associate advisor for two CW Academy classes — Level 2 class with Mark Tyler (K5GQ) Spring 2019 and now a Level 1 class with George Burger (W0PHX) Winter 2020. Both have been remarkable experiences. Meeting students online, seeing their excitement and progress, and being a small part of their success is a delight.
In the summer of 2019, I created this website, a Morse code course, and a vast repository of practice content from 15 to 50wpm! At the beginning of 2020, I now have 979 YouTube videos and 2,000 hours of content! I also made this content available for download at no cost, but donations are always appreciated to offset hosting expenses.
Where did the inventive spark come from to create all this content? It started with reading Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel. The book lays out many ideas for improving learning outcomes, both from the perspective of students and instructors. The authors do not merely present good advice. Instead, they present practical approaches to learning that are backed by evidence and decades of peer-reviewed research. A good portion of the book is dedicated to summarizing all of the references! If you have the time and are a life long learner, I highly recommend it. I wish that I had read it much earlier in life!
Important ideas from the book
- Spaced retrieval practice, of at least one day, halts forgetting, strengthens retrieval routes, and is essential for hanging onto the knowledge and skills you want to gain.
- If you're going to become an expert, utilize deliberate practice, which entails self-discipline, grit, and persistence. Realize that it often takes 10,000 hours or ten years of training with high-quality and immediate feedback from coaches and experts.
- Strive towards learning goals as opposed to performance goals. If your goal is to increase your ability, you pick ever-increasing challenges, and you interpret setbacks as useful information that helps you to sharpen your focus, get more creative, and work harder.
- Making mistakes is part of learning. Recognize that mistakes are not a sign of failure, but of effort.
- If you think you can, or you think you can't, you are right. — Henry Ford
After reading the book and using RufzXP and Morse Camp for an extended time, I realized first hand just how useful and vital it is to practice every day and get immediate feedback. Immediately knowing whether you got something right or wrong and seeing the answer is a crucial aspect of learning efficiently and effectively.
The second insight came in response to a disaster at my workplace. May 2018, the roof on K-State's central library caught on fire, and local firefighters poured thousands of gallons of water into the building to douse the blaze. This disaster compromised our datacenter, which was located in the basement! And it has forced us to migrate our applications to the cloud.
In preparing for this migration, I studied for the AWS Cloud Practitioner Certification and stumbled across a cool service called AWS Polly. This service turns text into lifelike speech, and it is the technology that powers Alexa. It allows any developer to create voice-powered applications inexpensively.
So putting this all together, reading Make It Stick, using RufzXP and Morse Camp, and discovering AWS Polly led to my signature format of 1) Sent in Morse code, 2) Spoken, 3) Repeated in Morse code, and 4) a courtesy tone. On a side note, I am very thankful for the generous free-tier provided by AWS. I have yet to pay anything for my usage of AWS Polly. However, I have had significant expenses creating many 100s of hours of video to post to YouTube. I use ten large servers at a time, to render in a day what would take my iMac an entire month!
After going through CW Academy Levels 2 and 3 as a student, I was proficient enough to be nominated and accepted into CWops. But it wasn't because of my ability to head-copy. Instead, I typed everything as I heard it. And it took monumental effort to maintain speeds close to 30wpm despite being able to type at over 60wpm! I practiced hard and frequently, but my ability remained capped at 30wpm. This finally convinced me to take up head-copying wholly and enthusiastically. Joe KK5NA, my CW Academy advisor, was right after all! Hmm. I hate being wrong!
I changed the way I practiced and left my hands off the keyboard. I had early success learning to head-copy individual words, but I struggled to string those words together to form ideas, phrases, and complete thoughts. This was a problem to overcome, and this necessity became the mother of invention!
To ease the cognitive load of remembering a string of words, I recalled an idea from computer science and located a source of the Top 500 n-grams containing the most frequent 2, 3, 4, and 5-word combinations used in contemporary English. N-Grams in this context are sequential words found in a sentence where n is the number of words found in the sequence. For example, "on top of the" and "I was going to" are common four-grams.
On my practice page, you will find these labeled as Sets of X Words, where X is a number between 2 through 5. For each practice set, I randomly selected each entry twice for a total of 1,000 practice opportunities creating many hours of practice content!
I then used the n-gram practice sets extensively and was able to get up to 40wpm with consistent practice. That was great! But...
Sentences from a limited vocabulary
The second source of innovation came from my difficulty in stringing a larger number of words together to form a complete sentence and thought. I knew there had to be an intermediate step between the short common phrases that I created from n-grams and complete sentences. The key was to remove the cognitive difficulty of encountering a lot of new words while acquiring this skill.
So I came up with creating practice sets with sentences made up of the Top 100, 200, 300, 400, and 500 words. Each sentence would be between three and twelve words long and of limited complexity. This practice would be useful for anyone, including myself, who had acquired ICR (Instant Character Recognition) and could easily copy the Top 100 Words or more. This also lets students quickly transition to practicing with entire sentences! It doesn't take long to get familiar with the Top 100 words once proficiency is reached with ICR.
But how would I find these sentences matching this criteria? I am creative, but not that creative! So first, I downloaded two dozen public domain books, such as War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy. Then I wrote a script to parse the books into sentences, located sentences between 3 and 12 words, identified the least frequent word in each sentence, and then filtered and ordered the sentences for review. Finally, I carefully went through the list and picked out sentences that were easy to understand in isolation.
For each practice set, I identified around 275 unique sentences. But for the sentences made up of the Top 100 Words, I was only able to come up with 190 sentences. So, in that case, I provided plenty of material to work with by randomly selecting each sentence twice.
I have enjoyed practicing with these sentences made from the Top 100 to Top 500 words, and I have had much more success in head-copying entire ideas and sentences!
I don't know what the future holds, but I know that the future is bright and full of opportunity. I have a lot of optimism. I will leave you with a short story and video that will hopefully bring a smile from me to you.
At the end of 2019, I have made a lot of progress, but I am still a ways away from being able to reach my long term goal of head-copying a book easily at 40wpm. I know with continued practice, I will get there one day.
While I don't have a goal to head-copy at extremely high speed, I have made significant strides towards it in recent months. This became obvious when I noticed that five-gram practice seemed unusually easy at 40wpm. So, of course, I had to put myself to the test.
In this video, you see me for the first time copying three-grams in Morse code at 50wpm!! I could clearly and easily hear the separation between the characters for the first time! My excitement was genuine. I was astonished because I had been focused on head-copying sentences and on building up my vocabulary of sound patterns to recognize words. This latter part of that is known as ICW (Instant Word Recognition).
Perhaps more astonishingly, since then, I have continued to test myself on occasion. And I have even had some limited success head-copying three-grams at 70wpm! Morse code sounds a lot different beyond 60wpm. It loses much of its tone and takes on more of a pulsating sound.
If I have any immediate advice to give, it is to practice, practice, and practice some more. I keep detailed logs of my practice. If you can believe it, I have practiced 19,022 minutes over two years, which works out to be an average of 26min/day.
I wish you all the best on your Morse code journey! If there is anything I can do to help you, please do not hesitate to reach out and contact me.
Walking up to Pete's 28-foot dish is awe-inspiring! It is mounted on a battleship gun turret, which is positioned above the shack! The station sits atop a hill looking down on the treeless countryside, and the dish has an unobstructed view of the sky.
Seeing such an EME station reminded me of a humorous incident when I was a teenager and just getting into amateur radio in 1995. My uncle, N0ZHE, came out to our farm to work the June VHF QSO Party. It was hot that summer weekend, but a lot of fun. Right before we tore down the station, I noticed that the moon was rising over the eastern horizon. I had heard of EME and thought we should give it a try! My uncle laughed and said, "No, that will never work!" We had a single 13 element 2-meter beam up 15ft and 100watt out. I was undeterred and kept pestering him. And finally, he relented and said okay, let's do it.
We carefully lined up the beam and called out CQ over 2m SSB. And of course, we heard nothing but static. Not even a hint of an echo! My uncle just smiled. Little did I know how difficult it is to bounce a radio signal off of the moon and hear yourself on SSB. However, I still have an inkling to do it! But perhaps with CW!
Hike with The Cat in the Hat:
Worked All States CW Goal:
My goal for 2019 is to work every state using CW. It is a celebration for all the progress I made last year to learn Morse code. Ideally, QSO's will be confirmed through LoTW so I can get an official award. Any method of confirmation is appreciated!
I plan on regularly getting on the air and participating in contests. This spring and summer I will go portable and activate several state parks with POTA. (Parks on the Air is an excellent opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors and amateur radio!)
I am anticipating that Alaska and North Dakota will be my most challenging states. It took quite a while to work and get them confirmed using JT65 and FT8!
As I make progress, I will periodically update the graphic. If you would like to help me, I am always up for a scheduled contact. Feel free to email me!
First Book in Morse code:
Patience finally paid off! And now I have a full-length book to listen to in Morse code over the coming months! After an expansive seven month journey, I listened to the first hour of it today.
Last fall I had success listening to The Cat in the Hat. It was a delightful experience. Afterward, I made a long term goal of being able to read a full-length book in Morse code at 40wpm. Since that time, I have been practicing Morse code every day.
To make my goal happen, I was not interested in listening to public domain books from the turn of the 20 century or earlier. So I had to find a way of scanning in an entire book. Coincidentally a book scanner became available on Indiegogo for $175, which is less than half of the retail price of another model CZUR sells on Amazon. So I went for it. I didn't think it would take seven months to get here! Their original estimate was three months. It turned out they had a ton of problems scaling up. They were not anticipating needing to manufacture 10,000+ units.
I spent quite a bit of time trying to find just the right book. I wanted a science fiction book, but the word choice couldn't be too extensive, and the sentence structure had to be reasonably simple. Constantly encountering new words in every sentence is a bit frustrating, so an easier read is what I was looking for. I considered The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. While at the book store in the mall, a helpful customer recommended it to me. I nearly got it, but at 662 pages, the length seemed excessive for my first real book in Morse code.
Undeterred, I went to the library to check out the young reader's section. Having never looked for a book at the Manhattan Public Library, it took a bit of time to find just the right book. But I finally found it — The Thirteenth Child by Patricia Wrede. It is about a young girl who finds herself out on an old west-like frontier crossed with the fantasy of magic. It is highly rated for the demographic and it is only 320 pages!
Once we got home, it took about an hour to scan the book and correct the OCR (optical character recognition) errors. It took another hour to extend my script Perl and Python scripts, which is used to convert the text of the book into Morse Code. I had to deal with some peculiarities. Once everything was ready to go, I kicked off the program and let it run overnight. It ended up taking 13 hours to create five versions of the book at 25, 28, 30, 32, and 35wpm. The 28wpm version is 118 hours long!!!
I ran into some unexpected problems trying to transfer the audiobook to my phone. Some trivial corruption had taken place in the process of concatenating 11,000 individual MP3 files together. To correct the problem, I ended up converting each of the final MP3s to AAC and then repackaged the AAC files into M4A files. After a few more hours of processing, I was able to get it on my phone and finally hear the sweet sounds of success.
First CQ WW WPX Contest:
It was fun and a grand experience seeing James work one station after another all across the world. He worked 501 stations while I did the logging! I have no idea how he got by on so little sleep! But I learned a lot and know what I need to work on to gain proficiency in contesting.
It was also great meeting James in person for the first time. It isn't often that I find someone who is so excited and passionate about CW.
Two years ago, I made a routine FT8 contact with James on 40 meters. I could not have known at the time, but it was a noteworthy moment that would lead to a great amateur radio friendship. We have exchanged numerous emails, and I have had the opportunity of contributing to the Grayson County Amateur Radio Club Newsletter in Texas.
As I have progressed on my Morse code journey and gained proficiency, James has taken an interest in my progress. I would like to think he has seen the same kind of passion that has led him to many years of passionate CW operations.
I love the Morserino-32! It is a multifunctional Morse code device that can be used as a practice trainer, keyer, file player, and Morse code decoder. It also functions as a CW Transceiver using the LoRa (Long Range WiFi) on 430 Mhz, which allows nearby Morserino-32 users to practice with each other. I would not hesitate to recommend it to others. I have had it a couple of months now and use it every day for Morse code practice! (See this short video for a quick demonstration.)
I bought the Morserino-32 for its Echo Trainer (Challenge / Response) functionality. In this mode, you select either random character groups, CW abbreviations, English words, callsigns, or random. You get three attempts to get it right by default. First, it plays a selection. Then you immediately send it back using the built-in capacitance touch paddles or an external paddle. If you get it right, it continues to another round. If you get it wrong, it repeats. If you get it wrong too many times, it shows you the answer and moves on. This functionality enables me to conveniently practice sending.
In my opinion, this is one of the best hardware Morse code trainers on the market. It is 85Euro ($99USD) and ships from Austria. The unit can also run from a battery. Please note that the kit does not ship with a LiPo battery since it is onerous to ship internationally. A set of batteries and charger can be picked up for $20 on Amazon. (The charger is not necessary since the Heltec microcontroller has an onboard trickle charger. If you don't want to purchase a battery, the Moserino-32 can run off of USB.)
Assembling the Morserino-32 is straight forward and took about an hour and a half for me to put together. The assembly instructions are detailed and provide closeup pictures to avoid making mistakes. Most of the parts are surface mount and are already mounted onto the PCB board, but the Heltec microcontroller and larger components are left for the end user to assemble. 1) First, the phone jacks, trimmer resistor, rotary encoder, and sliding and push-button switch are soldered into place. 2) Then the Heltec microcontroller is placed into an IC socket and soldered onto the board. 3) Next, a position for the Lithium-ion battery is determined, and the connecting wire is trimmed and attached to the PCB. 4) Finally, the case is put together and the LoRa antenna connected to the Heltec microcontroller.
If you are a software developer, you will be happy to know that the Morserino-32 is Open Source. You can get the documentation and microcontroller software on GitHub. If I can find the time, I have thought about adding a feature or two.
Parks on the Air Adventure:
Quivira is a hidden gem in south-central Kansas (30 miles to the west of Hutchison). At 22,000 acres, it is the only salt marsh in Kansas and attracts vast numbers of migratory birds. There are 20 miles of roads that closely wind around the water and afford excellent opportunities to view wildlife on your own personal safari. The salt marsh is created by groundwater percolating up from salt deposits near the surface. Some parts of the marsh have salt concentrations high enough to support salt-tolerant plants. Coronado even visited the area in 1541 in search of gold!
Parks on the Air is an awesome program that brings together the great outdoors and amateur radio! The goal is to make a minimum of 10 contacts with other amateur radio operators while enjoying fresh air, wildlife, and beautiful scenery. A month ago, I realized that there was a perfect spot to set up and play radio. At the head of Migrants Mile (a paved .75 mile trail midway in the refuge), there is an open parking lot next to Park Smith Lake. It is beautiful, quiet, and spacious. I made plans to supply the power and antenna, while Greg would provide the radio and antenna tuner.
Wherever challenges are encountered, ingenuity is not far behind! Once we arrived and began to set up, things did not go according to plan. I provided half of the gear, while my uncle had provided the rest.
1) We quickly discovered that we didn't bring along the tool bag. Uh, oh! The Grasshopper vertical antenna has three hose clamps holding the segmented pole in place. If we could not extend the antenna, it would be too short and prevent us from getting on the air. With a moment to ponder, I asked Greg if he had any change. He said yes. There were quarters in the dashboard, and they worked for a makeshift flat-head screwdriver!
2) Next, we realized that the heavy-duty zip ties needed to be cut. If we could not unroll the antenna radials, we would not be able to transmit using the vertical antenna. We looked and looked, and looked some more. Without success, Greg even tried ripping the zip ties apart with a key. We were stumped. We did not have a pocket knife or anything sharp to cut through the plastic. Eventually, Greg spotted a Cotter Hairpin and realized that he could use it to twist the zip ties until they broke.
3) Then the wind started blowing! The tool bag also had the guy wires to hold the antenna in place and prevent it from toppling over in the wind. Fortunately, the base plate was just big enough to load it down with weight. And the nearby trees provided just enough protection from the wind to get away using 5lbs of dead weight. If it were any windier, we would have had to find heavy rocks.
4) Lastly, we learned that we did not have a way to power the antenna tuner! Without the antenna tuner, there was no way we were going to transmit on that Grasshopper antenna. By design, it is non-resonant on all amateur radio bands! This predicament required carefully looking at what we had and problem-solving together. We ended up with a precarious solution. We took apart the existing power cord for the antenna tuner. That left us with two open wires. We connected each end to another length of wire that had a battery terminal clamp on one side and an Anderson power pole on the end. Finally, we plugged that into an MFJ power box. Fortunately, the break out box included fuses and protected us from a short!
After a lengthy setup, I reached out to Julia, KF8JBB, via text message for an exceptional contact. I met Julia a year ago in my CW Academy Level 2 class. And we have been practicing Morse code once a week for a year. We have tried several times in the past to make a QSO, but have been unsuccessful. She operates QRP and lives in Columbus, Ohio. And while at home in Manhattan, KS, I have a fairly high noise floor. The two circumstances have hindered our efforts. But we wanted to try again before calling CQ and spotting myself on the POTA reflector.
I called out to Julia on 20meters using CW. After several attempts, she texted back asking if I could increase power. She barely heard my signal. I was not optimistic about our chances. I was already transmitting 50 watts, and she was going to come back to me with 10 watts. I upped the power to 100 watts and hoped for the best.
I tried again and got about 20 seconds into calling her when the radio abruptly shut off. What the heck! In our haste to power the antenna tuner, we overlooked the fact that we plugged the transceiver into an outlet on the MFJ power breakout box with a 10 amp fuse! The radio was pulling close to 20amps when I keyed up with 100watts of RF power. Luckily, there was an outlet with a 25amp fuse. With a quick switch of outlets, I was back up and running again.
I called Julia again. This time she heard me! And when she called back to me, I could hear her! We exchanged signal reports and thanked each other for the QSO. I was excited, and Julia was overjoyed. She texted me back and said, "AWESOME!!! Like a Friggin drug. It is the highlight of my weekend already!!" I was also on cloud nine.
After a couple more QSOs, I handed off operations to Greg. He found an open frequency on the upper end of 20 meters and called CQ using SSB. Over the next hour, he made eight contacts. It took a while even though propagation seemed to be reasonably decent. Most operators were giving Greg a signal report of 57 or 59.
Then we took a short break to move the pickup truck into the shade. I reapplied sunscreen and took to the air again using CW. To avoid the on-going contests I set up on the WARC bands. I tried calling CQ on 17meters for a while, but no one came back. So I switched to 30meters and made four more contacts over the next half hour.
By this time, the sun was starting to beat down on us, and my laptop was almost out of power. I switched to SSB on the upper end of 20meters and over the next 15 minutes, I made three more contacts. I was delighted when I crossed the ten QSO's needed to count for a successful park activation. Greg considered getting two more contacts, but creature comforts and home were calling to us.
We drove 2 hours back home and treated ourselves to a well-deserved pizza. Relaxing in the shade and on the patio was great. It had cooled off a little by then. The dogs entertained us as they ran around and begged for a bite of pizza.
Greg and I hope to activate another park in June. We learned valuable lessons and will plan better next time! It was a fun and awesome experience.
OzarkCon QRP Conference:
The atmosphere reminded me of a large family reunion — everyone was exceptionally friendly and social. We made several new friends and were implored to come back next year. It was a treat meeting so many passionate and enthusiastic amateur radio operators.
The conference schedule was jammed packed with sessions and activities. My favorite was the Kit Building session. Toby and I signed up to build the Cricket 40, which is a minimalist 40M crystal controlled CW transceiver. We only had to pay a small additional fee and bring several tools, such as a soldering iron, needle nose pliers, and a tray to protect the table.
By coincidence, I sat next to Joe Eisenberg (K0NEB). That was a neat experience! Joe is an expert kit builder and has written many articles for CQ Magazine over the last ten years! Joe puts together two to three kits every month and writes about them. And because he helps coordinate and oversees group kit building sessions, he was delighted to be a mere participant this time.
Joe flew through the assembly of the Cricket transceiver. Oh my! To say that he is adept at handling a soldering iron would be an understatement. He was more than generous to stop and help me when I had some hesitation on a couple of steps.
Toby and I finished building the Cricket at nearly the same time — nearly 3.5 hours later. It was nearly 11 pm, and I was exhausted by that point. I wasn't confident when I brought my radio up to the front of the room to be tested, but it worked on the first try! And so did Toby's!
My second favorite activity was looking at all the homebrew equipment that was on display in the vendor area. I fell in love with an 80-meter spiral loop antenna that someone had put together. It was a work of art, and it looked as if it could have been made during the early days of AM radio. I was also taken with Bob Heil's (K9EID) Pine Board AM Transmitter Kit. It is renown within some circles in the amateur radio community.
Despite 200 people attending the conference, everyone won a prize! Yes, everyone! I won an 80 meter Low Pass Filter kit. But Toby won the grand prize, an Elecraft KX2!! I don't know how, but I just knew moments before they called out the winning ticket number that either Toby or I was going to win. And sure enough, Toby won! Everyone was delighted with the outcome. Toby is a relatively new ham and has been evaluating several portable HF transceivers over the last few months. Toby had rejected the KX2 because of cost even though it is considered to be one of the very best portable HF transceivers on the market.
Coincidentally, I bought a KX2 just two weeks prior! After the conference, we spent an extra day sightseeing. We packed the day and made the most of every moment. We did a ton of things! I hope to come back again.
My First Ragchew:
I had my first rag chew (aka log conversation) using Morse code! I talked to Mike (KK7N) in Troutdale, Oregan on 20-meters. Signals were strong with just a touch of QSB. For 20 minutes we talked about the weather and other small pleasantries. We jokingly complained to each other about all the snow and cold temperatures this winter. I wanted to keep conversing, but my mind began to tire, and my accuracy in copying started to suffer. So I gave Mike my best regards and let him go. This achievement is a noteworthy milestone in my Morse code journey!
I made several other CW contacts this weekend including one with a special event station WA1WCC. They are celebrating the centennial of the Radio Corporation of America's incorporation on October 17, 1919. In November 1919, RCA acquired the assets of the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company.
K1EL Morse Tutor Board:
I let the fun out of two identical kits, the Morse Tutor Board by K1EL. After a few hours of soldering and assembly, I had both of them working! The manual has clear, but brief instructions on how to assemble the kit. If you have experience with other kits, this one will be a breeze to assemble.
It is a neat little board. The capacitance keying is fantastic and perhaps the best feature! It has a nice tactile feel that is entirely different compared to a paddle. And yet it feels comfortable and natural. I will have to try it on air sometime soon. I don't think it will take too long to master this style of keying. I might even try it while working portable. It is light, and I won't have to worry about it sliding around left and right.
There are a couple of other notable features. 1) With two kits hooked together, you can practice Morse code in person with a friend across the table or room! 2) By yourself, you can practice playing a Simon-like game. The game works by sending one character. You repeat it back. If you are right, it sends the same character, followed by another one. Every time you are right, it adds one character with a maximum of 5 characters. If you get the character sequence wrong, it sends the letter X and starts over with a new character group. 3) The kit can also be used as a keyer with built-in memory functions.
As a follow-up, a couple of months later, I bought and assembled two more! I have given three away as an inexpensive gift. It has been a great way to excite the right person about Morse code.
First CW Contest:
I am thrilled to have participated in my first Morse code contest, the ARRL International DX Contest! It was a great learning experience! I spent several hours searching and pouncing. Next time I will spend more time operating the 2-day event.
I made a total of 15 contacts. Most of them were international — Germany, Scotland, Azores, Bonaire, Belize, Barbados, Jamaica, and Mexico. On my second contact, I spent 10 minutes trying to decode a callsign being sent at 40wpm while listening to a weak signal. I finally figured out that it was 6Y3M! I did not cheat and use the Reverse Beacon Network. That was the highlight of the contest!
I was surprised to work several Hawaiian stations. They were strong, and they heard me on the first try. I am delighted that my callsign is easy to recognize in Morse code even with a weak signal. Almost all of my QSO's were on 20-meters. The noise level was fantastically low at S1, which is unheard of at my home QTH! I made one contact on 40-meters, but I gave up on the lower band after a while. The majority of the stations sounded mushy with the high S8 noise level and low signal strength.
I look forward to the next contest. By all comparisons, many stations will have made 100's if not 1000's of contacts! Some people live for radiosport. For my next one, I will focus on breaking my record of 15 QSOs.
QCX 20m transceiver:
I am excited to have successfully built my first transceiver and made my first QRP contact! There is a long and proud tradition of building your own radio in the amateur radio community. It is was a great learning experience and a lot of fun! It has rekindled my interest in electrical engineering and tinkering.
At $50, the QCX transceiver is one of the cheapest full-featured QRP CW kits on the market. Kits are available with your choice of a single band, 80 through 17m. It has a 200Hz filter, an on-screen S-meter, CW shaping to remove key clicks, and 3 to 5 watts on transmit. It supports split operation and even decodes stronger CW signals! The internal keyer supports iambic and straight keys. And the kit has built-in test equipment to assist in troubleshooting and calibrating the transceiver without additional expensive equipment. Hans Summers (G0UPL) has done a marvelous job in designing this kit! Perhaps the best part is the detailed and clear instruction manual for putting it all together.
My QCX transceiver sat unassembled and in a box for nearly a year! I considered putting it together earlier, but instead, I prioritized learning Morse code starting from no proficiency. (See below for how I learned Morse code and was able to copy at 30wpm in less than a year. I am very appreciative of CW Ops and the opportunity to take their CW Academy Level 2 and 3 classes. They were invaluable!) But enough was enough. The anticipation was mounting! So this winter I set a goal of assembling the QCX. Short days and cold temperatures are a great time to work on indoor projects.
Day 1 - Preparing for the Build:
Before getting too serious, I inventoried the parts and made sure that nothing was missing. Next, I affixed the capacitors, resistors, and other small parts to a sheet of paper and clearly labeled them. This step saves time in locating capacitors and resistors with specific values during the build. And it reduces the likelihood of parts getting lost. Avoid using tape on any components, such as integrated circuits, that are sensitive to ESD (electrostatic discharge).
Then I read through the first part of the manual and discovered that I needed a jeweler's magnifying loupe. As the manual suggests, you will want to inspect and verify each soldering joint closely. It is easy to get a cold soldering joint or accidentally bridge two joints together. While I have had some prior soldering experience, this was the first time soldering so many parts so closely together! I also decided to purchase an antistatic mat and strap.
If you are considering building this radio, you will also need a fine-tipped temperature controlled soldering iron, fine soldering wire, and a PCB holder. While not strictly required, you will want a digital multimeter for checking continuity and a de-soldering tool to correct any mistakes.
Day 2 and 3 - Building:
After I received my shipment of tools, I was ready to begin the project in earnest. And as luck would have it, it was just in time for the weekend!
The first soldering step was to install all of the IC's onto the PCB. This made me a little nervous since it had been several years since I last touched a soldering iron! You have to balance applying just enough heat to the IC pin and PCB pad to avoid a cold solder joint, but not so much heat that you burn up the integrated component. I set the soldering iron to 375C, which required a few seconds of heating to melt the soldering wire in place.
The ATmega328, the primary microcontroller, was a little more difficult to solder in place. It required first soldering the 28-pin DIP socket, and then carefully inserting the chip into its holder. The pins have to be bent gently and just slightly so that the IC can slip into the socket. If you are not careful, it can result in breaking off a pin! The rest of the IC's were relatively a piece of cake since they were soldered directly onto the PCB.
Next, all of the capacitors are soldered in place. I made sure to double and triple check the value of each capacitor and its placement on the PCB before soldering them into place. The jeweler's loupe made it easy to read the tiny print on the capacitors.
Things did not go so smoothly. Difficulty started when I created a cold solder joint. I had trouble getting the leads on one capacitor heated back up to melt the solder quickly enough without excessively heating the component. Turning up the iron 25C to 400C took care of that problem.
Then after the numerous capacitors, I soldered a handful of diodes and two crystals into place. Next, I started to solder the abundance of resisters onto the PCB. Once I got to resistor R12, I did a double take. Wait, what? Despite carefully checking the position of each component before soldering them into place, I discovered I had reversed the position of capacitor C18 and resistor R18! They were firmly soldered into place. What should I do?
For a while, I thought I might have to purchase a new kit and start over!! It was extremely difficult to correct. I slightly damaged the capacitor, but it checked okay — 978pF versus the expected 1nF. I also ruined one of the PCB pads getting them desoldered. So after getting them swapped, I checked and re-checked the electrical conductivity between the traces to the other connecting components from C18 and R18. I was relieved when everything checked out. I was very fortunate! Learn from my mistake. All of the capacitors are annotated on the PCB with a rectangle! C18 and R18 are right next to each other, which is unlike any of the other ones.
Next, I soldered a multitude of components onto the PCB — potentiometers, electrolytic capacitors, transistors, .1" male pin headers, a voltage regulator, and power connector. All of these were straightforward and easy to install. By the time I had gotten to this step, I had put in 15 hours into the build and had 141 components soldered together!
Next, the toroids and transformer need to be assembled and installed onto the PCB. I made sure to stop right before this step and get a good nights rest. These are difficult and critical steps in the build.
The first torrid was the most difficult one to assemble and solder since it was my first one ever. The instruction manual indicates that the number one cause of problems with building kits from QRP Labs is the failure to remove wire enamel before soldering toroids and transformers into place. It is bold and in red! I used fine-grit sandpaper to remove the enamel from the leads coming off the torrid. Before soldering them into place, I used a digital multimeter to ensure continuity between both leads. Then I soldered them in place and re-checked continuity between the two PCB pads. It didn't take too long to repeat the same steps for the remaining three toroids.
Then I took on the granddaddy of build steps — correctly wind and solder the transformer onto the PCB. The manual dedicates seven pages and many diagrams to help you avoid problems! There are four windings on the transformer. They must all be wound in the same direction, and each winding needs to be soldered onto the correct PCB pad.
Despite taking my time with the transformer, I ran into a problem. I didn't scrape enough of the enamel off of the wire on one of the windings! I had significant difficulty getting conductivity on the two leads after I had everything soldiered in place. Persistence and patience with the soldering iron paid off. I was able to burn off the enamel with each lead still partially soldered. It required the highest temperature setting on the iron! Then it was a matter of re-tinning the two leads and soldering them securely to their respective PCB pad.
Finally, I soldered a handful of remaining components into place — the rotary encoder, microswitch, potentiometer, and female header to the LCD module. By the end of Sunday night, I had completed the initial build and was ready for the moment of truth. I was exhausted, but I had to know. As you can see in the video, I plugged in the QCX transceiver and no magic smoke was let out!! The screen was blank, but I was relieved. Hours of work were not in vain!
I spent the next 30 minutes following the manual to initially adjust the contrast on the LCD screen and calibrate the receiver. Before propagation went away on 20-meters for the evening, I hooked up an indoor dipole antenna and was able to catch the end of a CW QSO. I took a break and ate dinner.
Even though the band had died, I called out CQ and confirmed that the transceiver was transmitting a small amount of power. I don't have a QRP watt meter so unfortunately, I cannot accurately see how much power the radio is outputting. However, it appears to be about 1 watt.
The radio isn't perfect. There is a loud clicking sound that occurs randomly when the VFO dial is turned or pushed in. It happens more frequently when I turn up the audio gain more than halfway. It is more of an annoyance than anything. Later, I discovered that the clicking noise is a design flaw which allows RFI generated from updating the LCD to be picked up by the audio amplifier. It doesn't bother me too much.
Day 4 - Testing:
I verified that the transmitter is operational. If you can imagine seeing a night light in my living room from several 1,000 miles away, you can understand why I was delighted and amazed. I estimate that 1 watt of power was making it out from my indoor dipole antenna.
First I tested the radio by calling CQ. After several minutes with no one answering back, I checked the Reverse Beacon Network and confirmed that my signal was making it as far away as Arizona, Nevada, and Utah. My signal wasn't very strong. And only a handful of automated listening stations spotted me. With better band conditions and persistence, I'm sure I will make my first QRP contact with this radio. I am motivated to try again soon!
Next, I tested the built-in WSPR functionality and checked WSPRnet to see who heard me. After two successful test transmissions sent 10 minutes apart, I was being heard as far away as Iceland and Brazil! Propagation was beginning to close up as the sun went down, so I was not surprised to see that I was primarily being heard to the west and southwest within the United States.
I was successful with WSPR, but not on the first try! Initially, I had difficulty finding the right transmitter frequency. Part of it was my fault for not reading the manual, and part of it was a calibration problem with the radio. The published WSPR frequency for 20meters is 14.0956MHz using USB (Upper Side Band) with audio inserted at 1.5KHz. Setting the QCX to that frequency won't work since there is no CW offset. The correct frequency is supposed to be between 14.0970 to 14.0972Mhz. That would be the right. However, the timing of my radio was slightly off by +200Hz (approx). I was finally heard once I set the frequency to 14.0970Mhz. Anything higher and it didn't work.
Once I realized the display frequency was off slightly, I committed to building the corresponding QLG1 GPS Receiver Kit that plugs into the QCX transceiver. It will allow me to finish calibrating the radio and ensure that the displayed frequency is accurate. The timing error comes from slight operating deviations in the 20Mhz and 27Mhz crystals.
Day 5 - Building the GPS Receiver:
Next, I built the $23 QLG1 GPS Receiver Kit. It was not nearly as hard to solder and assemble compared to the QCX 20-meter transceiver! There were far fewer parts. However, the instruction manual could have been slightly better. It is not nearly as detailed as the QCX manual. On the positive side, it is straightforward to assemble the GPS receiver.
I was a little disappointed that the GPS kit did not come with the necessary 4-pin male header and corresponding cable to connect the GPS and QCX transceiver together. So I ordered the parts from Sparkfun for a few dollars and waited until the following weekend to verify that the GPS receiver worked.
Day 6 - Making my first contact:
I was very excited to have made my first contact using the QCX 20-meter transceiver! It was with W6ZE, the Orange County Amateur Radio Club in California. Pretty cool for 1 watt of power! Orange County is 1,991 miles away from Manhattan, KS!
I didn't initially realize that the yearly Winter Field Day contest was going on when I called CQ. Silly me! After a confusing and failed contact, I realized my mistake. I looked up the expected exchange so that I could participate in the contest. Next, I searched the 20-meter band and found a relatively strong station calling CQ WFD. I waited for the right moment and provided my callsign. On the first try, the operator picked up my callsign. I was surprised! He didn't even ask for a repeat on the contest exchange. I'm convinced he was receiving me much more weakly than I was receiving him!
Later I finished calibrating the QCX transceiver. The display frequency was slightly off. The calibration entailed soldering a 4-pin header to the GPS receiver, waiting a little bit for the GPS receiver to lock on to enough satellites to provide a highly accurate 1-second tick, and running through a couple of documented steps on the QCX. The transceiver was able to determine that its 27Mhz crystal was oscillating at 27,004,112 cycles per second while the 20Mhz crystal was oscillating at 20,006,486 cycles per second. That was just enough to cause the displayed frequency to be off in the neighborhood of 200Hz. After the calibration, I used WSPR to confirm the accuracy of the calibration. It appears to be spot on.
On a side note, the GPS receiver worked for the calibration procedure, but it didn't work well enough in my apartment to resolve its location. I placed it next to our sliding glass door. The GPS receiver was able to hear and track more than a dozen satellites at one time. And I gave it more than an hour to resolve its location for the first time. Maybe at some point, I will have to try again when it is dry and warmer, and when I have a portable battery for the transceiver. Perhaps it is a matter of taking it outside to have an unobstructed view of the sky.
Day 7 - Tempt fate?
I am undecided on whether I should try and increase the radio's transmitter power. With the 12 volts I am supplying the transceiver, I should expect 3 watts.
A simple solution is to provide a higher power supply voltage. For context, the graph on the right shows the relationship between power supply voltage and transmitter power. The manual indicates that the transceiver can safely be driven with 15 to 16 volts. Any more voltage and I risk overheating the small BS170 MOSFET transistors. A related option is to short the reverse polarity protection diode (D3 1N5819), which would avoid lowering the supplied voltage by 0.3 to 0.4V.
Another solution is to remove 1 or 2 windings from the Low Pass Filter toroids — L1, L2, and L3. For context, the transceiver uses a class E amplifier. And like all amplifiers, it produces harmonics that must be suppressed to avoid harmful out of band transmissions. A Low Pass Filter is the last stage of the transmitter circuit. It attenuates frequencies greater than the target frequency. It might be the case that the inductors I wound by hand have too high of inductor values. Ideally, I would have measured the inductance values and made any fine adjustments before soldering them onto the PCB. This solution is not without its dangers. As I found out the hard way, removing any component might result in damaging a PCB pad and ruining the radio. The recommended procedure is to desolder the toroid, adjust the winding, and resolder it to the top side of the PCB.
For now, I am happy with the estimated 1 watt of output. Before making any adjustments, I will purchase an accurate QRP RF power meter. The LDG AT-600PROII and its segmented display that I am using do not offer enough precision to evaluate changes made to the QCX.
I had a lot of fun, made new friends, and significantly improved my proficiency in sending and receiving Morse code. I highly recommend the CW Academy! Find out more and signup for free.
I completed Level 2 and 3 CW Academy classes. It was an awesome experience! Thank you, Joe (KK5NA) and all my classmates. I appreciated your advice and patience. And thanks to CW Ops for putting together the CW Academy program. Each year it continues to grow and get better!
After ten months of practice and two academy classes, I can reasonably keyboard-copy Morse code at 30wpm. I routinely practice copying up to 42wpm. I can head-copy common words at 25wpm with extra word spacing. And I can comfortably send pre-composed messages at 27wpm on iambic paddles. Despite that, I have not reached my proficiency goals. I am not as proficient in real-world conditions. I know with practice, I will get there. Morse code is not hard to learn, but it does require a lot of practice. It is like learning to play the piano. Practice. Practice. Practice. Thankfully it takes a lot less time!
A few weeks after my Level 3 Academy class, I was nominated for membership to CW Ops. It was my pleasure to support the organization with a lifetime membership. CW Ops is an international organization working hard to preserve and perpetuate the art of CW. For example, they teach Morse code for free to hundreds of other amateur radio operators through the CW Academy program.
I am also looking forward to giving back and teaching a Level 1 CW Academy class, hopefully, I will find an opportunity to teach in 2019.
The Thrill of QRP:
I am excited to have worked Gary (W0ITT) using CW. It was one of the most challenging QSO's I have had! He was right at the noise floor, and there was deep QSB. I have a high noise floor on 40-meters, and band conditions were not great that evening. After struggling for several minutes, I discovered that Gary was QRP (transmitting 5 watts or less). That made me smile. I was amazed and delighted. Imagine being able to see a nightlight flicker 100's of miles away. Crazy huh? That's why I am amazed!
I had a sneaking suspicion that I should slow down and call CQ at 17wpm instead of 25+ wpm. Initially, after calling CQ, I wasn't sure if I even heard someone there or not. I sent AGN AGN (again) and carefully listened. Sure enough, I heard just a small part of a call sign. And from there, the challenge was on. Part of my success was staying cool and not rushing to transmit. I did not know with certainty when it was my turn to transmit. That was unnerving.
Even though Gary was only 232 miles away from me, I will remember this QSO for a long time. It is a milestone in my Morse code journey. Without hesitation, I will send Gary a QSL card.
Randolph State Park:
I had a wonderful time at Randolph State Park playing amateur radio this afternoon. Despite propagation not being all that great, I made two CW contacts after calling CQ many times. I talked to Jim (W6LFB) in Denton, Texas, and Keith (KA4KPB) in Walhalla, South Carolina. Each conversation lasted about 10 minutes, and we conversed at 17wpm. Keith and Jim were using straight keys, and I managed to copy them! I still tend to struggle with slight variations in timing. These were my 6th and 7th Morse code contacts.
For this adventure, I focused on unaided Morse code copying with some assistance in sending. I used the Begali machine to allow me to type and send perfect code. I am still working on becoming proficient with the Bencher paddle. I didn't want to inflect my troubled fist on others, especially with poor conditions. hi hi.
I also had an opportunity to work my uncle Greg (N0ZHE). We made contact on 7.255Mhz using SSB. Despite band conditions, we were able to talk briefly. I was excited because ever since I first went to college 22 years ago, I had always dreamed of using amateur radio to make contact back home to Conway Springs, KS!
My Bionenno 60Ah battery worked flawlessly! Today was the first time that I tested the LiFePO4 battery in the field. It weighs a LOT less than the deep-cycle lead-acid battery that I was previously using, and I don't have to worry about it spilling in my car! It can handle up to a 60-amp continuous load without sagging, which allows me to operate at full power (100 Watts) on my IC-7300. And running the radio for hours this afternoon barely discharged the battery.
Randolph State Park is becoming my favorite location to play radio and test my Morse code skills. I love how the park overlooks the surrounding area. It was a little warm, but not too hot — It was close to 90F. I was darn sure to put on sunscreen. Getting sunburnt is one of my least favorite things in life, and it tends to happen at least once in the springtime.
I packed up just as a small storm system moved through the area. It very lightly sprinkled as I packed everything away. It was neat seeing heavy rain about a mile away across the valley. It was raining hard enough that I could hear the rain pounding the lake. Luckily I was prepared for the rain. Nothing got wet except the antenna.
First mini-contest (CWT):
I was exhausted after participating in my first Morse code contest. CWT is a mini one hour contest that is held every week. Three times a year at the end of each CW Acadamy session, a special event is held in honor of recent graduates. The speed is kept to a maximum of 20wpm, and the exchange is simplified. These limits help newcomers adjust to the challenge and pace of radio-sport. I took up this opportunity to give it a try!
I made six contacts in that one hour! I had a lot of fun, I struggled, and I learned a lot! I was not prepared for so many people to be transmitting nearly on top of each other. Even on the narrowest filter on my radio, I could frequently hear other people that I wasn't trying to contact. This made it difficult. It was like listening to a single voice in a crowded room. The extra challenge was the hurried nature of the contacts. I had not experienced that frenzied rush before. Lastly, I stayed a little too long on 40 meters when 80 meters appears to have been a better choice — band conditions were better, and there were more people to work. I did not check the other bands until the last 10 minutes of the hour. I will try again soon!
I had to laugh a little at the end of the contest. Literally, dozens of people stopped transmitting within seconds of each other. And I noticed that there was one person still transmitting. So I spun the dial to listen in. I caught him sending AGN AGN…(long pause)... WHOEVER YOU ARE 73 UNTIL NEXT TIME. He was left hanging. Aww.
After that, I heard another station up about 15kHz. He was calling CQ, so I answered back. I chatted with Larry (N5MEP) in Arkansas for a little over 15 minutes! I was challenged to copy him for such an extended period. He was just above my noise floor, and there was significant QSB. His speed was a little under 25wpm.
I’m not sure if it was a more significant achievement participating in my first contest exchange or holding an extended QSO with someone just above my noise floor! I was exhausted at the end of the night!
Visualizing my progress:
After 10 months of diligent practice, I had a blast visualizing my progress using Just Learn Morse Code. Even if you don't plan to analyze your practice in this way, it is helpful to keep a log. At some point in the learning process, everyone gets discouraged with how fast they are learning. Diligent practice and keeping a log will allow you to see consistent gains over time, even when they aren't apparent.
In this video, I use Python and R to create a three-dimensional graph of my progress using Just Learn Morse Code. Specifically, I used Python to parse my log file into CSV. Then I used R and the Plotly package to create a 3D representation. If you would like to visualize your progress, you may download my Python script and R script. Unless you happen to use the same format for tracking your progress, you will need to modify these scripts to suit your needs. (If you are going to modify them, take a look at the CSV file generated by my Python script. Also, note that the input file names in both scripts are hardcoded and need to be changed.)
If you are interested in learning to practice copying Morse code in your head, take a look at Morse Camp. It is a free standalone web application. It runs well on handheld devices and on desktop computers. It should work in any modern browser. Morse Camp initially challenges you with short, common, and easy words. As you become more proficient, it automatically increases the difficulty to include longer, less common, and multiple words.
I am continuing to work with Petru Paler (HB9GKP) to develop and enhance the web application. Petru graciously open sourced the application. If there are features you would like to see implemented, feel free to send me an email. The list of open requests can be found on GitHub.
I have extended the application to be more configurable. Users can customize which parts of the dictionary are active. In the future, I plan to enable users to define a custom dictionary. Users will be able to create a custom dictionary by cut-and-pasting an article or short book into a window that will then analyze the text for unique words. The motivation is to help users learn the sound pattern of words in an article or book so they can later practice head-copying it. There are a number of other features that I plan on implementing too.
First CW QSO:
I am excited to have made my very first Morse code contact April 22, 2018! And portable at that! I forgot the microphone at home. I kid you not! It helped me overcome my hesitation to get on the air after months of practice.
We went out to Randolph State Park, which is at the North end of Tuttle Creek Lake near Manhattan, Kansas (Grid square EM19PK). I appreciated that my XYL came with me. He had fun painting with watercolors and listening to podcasts while I played amateur radio. My uncle Greg, N0ZHE, listened intently 300 miles away to the South and encouraged me via text message to keep trying after an initial failed attempt. I welcomed the moral support!
Unfavorable band conditions did not deter me. I called CQ for about 5 to 10 minutes on 14.035 Mhz using 75watts. Then VE7UBC, the University of British Columbia Amateur Radio Society, came back to me. They were in Vancouver Canada! We had a short QSO. I gave my name, mentioned that this was my first CW contact, and provided the weather conditions at my location. Dan gave his location, radio, antenna, and indicated that my first QSO was going much better than his first one from years ago. That made me feel better.
What I wasn't anticipating was how nervous I became when someone back to me. I was able to copy just fine, but my nervousness caused me to make a lot of mistakes in sending. I especially valued Dan's patience! He mentioned that QSB was making it extra hard for him to copy me. His signal was 559 with little to no QSB. I would have loved to rag chew, but I did not want to test his endurance. hi hi. I thanked him and was left smiling ear-to-ear.
As pictured, you can see that I am transmitting with my ICOM7300 radio into an MFJ magnetic loop antenna. To the left of me, I am sending code with the Bencher BY-2 paddle and using the Begli CW Machine as a keyer. The Bencher paddle isn't the most portable paddle, but it worked splendidly. I was happy to have brought the battery boost. It enabled me to send more than 20 watts using the deep cycle lead-acid battery.
I am hoping to participate in POTA (Parks On The Air) spring and summer 2019. I am looking forward to many more Morse code contacts! I am also forward to using my Lithium-Iron-Phosphate battery. It will be lighter and won't sag under high amperage draws.
Morse Code and the Call of the Hambone:
On my journey to learn Morse Code I have practiced every night. On most nights the rhythmic code has been heard in our living room. I practiced sending code with a paddle and often practiced copying without headphones.
Hamsters are nocturnal. But whenever I practiced in the evening, our hambone, Waffles, would rise several hours before she would normally wake up. She would then proceed to look around with great curiosity and playful vigor.
At first, I thought it was a coincidence, but then after a while, I realized that little Waffles was likely mistaking the stream of swift dits and dahs for a nearby hamster that was extraordinarily happy. If you don't know, hamsters make the cutest little-chirping noises when they are happy and content. Waffles must have been surprised because this neighboring hambone would continue on for more than an hour every night!
Perhaps the frequency I used was close enough to be mistaken for hamster talk, especially when practicing at higher speeds. I am most comfortable practicing Morse code using a tone of 700Hz, and at the time I was practicing at a character speed of 30wpm. About a month ago, Waffles passed away. We miss her dearly! She loved to play on the couch with me and beg for cheese. She even grew to tolerate if not enjoy our affection to hold and pet her.
Her memory lives on. A couple of weeks after her passing, we filled the void in our heart with another little hambone, Gus. He is a Roborovski hamster and is the cutest little bean. Gus is exceptionally afraid and likes to hide when the lights are on. But you know what? He also begins to stir every evening as soon as the music of Morse code fills his little ears.
I asked Jason to illustrate this story. As you can see, he exceeded my expectations by delivering a 5"x5" painting! It will become a part of my amateur radio work-space, and I will smile every time I see it. And as pictured above, I created a QSL card to commemorate our hambone and will send them when out I make contacts with others using Morse code. 73's to all the little hambones out there!
(This Hambone article garnered national attention after I posted it to the 100 Watts and a Wire Facebook group. It was picked by Amateur Radio Newsline on March 23, 2018. Feel free to listen to the broadcast.)
Initially Learning Morse Code:
I did not have anyone to mentor me initially. But through a bit of research, I discovered an excellent book — The Art and Skill of Radio-Telegraphy by William Pierpont (N0HFF). It is a free book available for download as a PDF. I highly recommend it. It is filled with history and practical advice. And it is a fun read!
In his book, I discovered the importance of leveraging the unconscious mind to do the heavy lifting of copying Morse code. And I learned it takes significantly more time to learn to copy than to send Morse code.
Many people start by learning the letters as a sequence of dits and dahs. As they copy Morse code, they count the dits and dahs that make up each letter. With this approach, people will start at 5wpm and slowly increase their speed until they reach 10 to 13wpm. The problem is that they are unable to go any faster despite ample practice or even with heroic effort. Sometimes this ceiling can persist for years! The problem with this approach is that counting relies on the conscious mind. And the conscious mind is much slower than the unconscious mind. The unconscious mind can easily handle 60+ wpm with sufficient practice!
With that in mind, I took the book's advice and focused on acquiring instant character recognition. This means that when I heard a particular sound pattern, I instantly recognized it as a specific letter associated with that sound pattern. To avoid counting while copying, it is recommended to begin learning at a character speed of 20 to 25wpm. If you are still able to count while copying, go faster. For me, this meant starting the learning process at a character speed of 30wpm! It seemed crazy fast!
The next step was to figure out whether the Farnsworth or Koch method was better suited for me. With the Farnsworth method, the character speed is kept above 20wpm, but extra spacing is introduced between the letters and words. The alternative is the Koch method, which starts the learning process with two characters at a standard 20wpm. Once two letters can be copied randomly with 90% proficiency, another letter is added. The process repeats until all the letters, numbers, and prosigns have been learned.
After trying both methods for a couple of days, I settled on the Farnsworth method. I felt too overwhelmed with the Koch method. So I started out at a speed of 30/10wpm — a 30wpm character speed with an overall speed of 10wpm. Like the Koch method, I started out copying two letters send randomly. Once I scored 90%, I added another letter. It took several weeks before I was able to copy all 40 characters. The tricky part was switching to standard timing. I started at 15wpm and then worked on learning to copy faster.
Once I felt that I had some level of proficiency in copying Morse code, I started working on sending. What I learned in the book is that no matter if you learn to send with a straight key, bug, or a paddle, you need to focus on learning proper timing. Without proper timing, you will make it that much more difficult if not impossible for someone else to correctly copy your code even in the most ideal of band conditions. If you don't have someone to help you, use software to check your sending. I was spoiled and used the Begali CW Machine to check my timing.
To sum up, I dipped my toes into learning Morse code using Morse Toad (available for iOS). I did all of my initial learning using Just Learn Morse Code. It a Windows program, but it also works well on a Mac using CrossOver. Then I used a variety of programs to assist in my practice. I used Morse Runner to practice participating in contest-like conditions. I used RufzXP to practice copying call signs. I used ebook2cw to convert short articles and paragraphs into Morse code. And I used Morse Camp to practice learning the sound pattern of entire words.
Practice Log (From 0 to 50+ wpm):
<Download> — Last uploaded October 16, 2020
I have kept a detailed journal of my Morse code practice. It starts three weeks after the start of my Morse code journey. At a high-level, I have strived to practice every day for at least an hour. I try to train at uncomfortable levels at some point in my daily practice sessions. In the log, unless otherwise specified, I am using Just Learn Morse Code and keyboard-copying (meaning I am typing what I hear as I hear it). Things that are bolded are new personal bests as of that date.
If you have an interest in looking at it, there are two take ways that I would like you to have. 1) If you practice every day, it will lead to consistent improvement over time. 2) Consider keeping a log of your practice. When it felt that I was not making progress, it was helpful to look back through my log. At times it did not seem like I was making progress. At others times, it was not happening as quickly as I wanted. In each case, it was helpful to see improvement over time. It was motivation to keep with it and remain persistent.
It is not necessarily a good idea to try to follow my exact path in learning Morse code. You may have different goals than mine. And there are differences in learning preferences. For example, I initially learned using the Farnsworth method, and yet other people will learn better using the Koch method.
I have had many people interested in looking through my log, so I am making it more widely available. If you have any questions about it or find it helpful, feel free to email me. I will try to remember to upload an updated file periodically.
Sharing the joy of ham radio:
My uncle Greg (N0ZHE) got me interested in Amateur radio as a teenager. His passion for working amateur radio satellites was infectious. In 1995, it was the driving force for me to get my no-code Technician class license as KB0TMQ. Greg has positively shaped my life and helped me become interested in computers, software development, photography, electronics, and astronomy.
After my grandfather (KA0OXY) passed away in 2012, my uncle's interested waned, and he sold all of his amateur radio equipment. They had enjoyed amateur radio together since the early 1990's.
After I got relicensed in 2016, I increasing enjoyed the hobby and wished to share my enthusiasm for amateur radio. Perhaps it was destiny to come full circle and rekindle my uncle's passion for amateur radio. In 2017, for Christmas, I gave Greg a special gift. I wrapped up an ARRL General Class License Manual with a small note attached. At first, Greg did not say anything. And that was okay. But it turned out to be a seed.
Greg began to study in 2018. And a couple of months later, he passed the exam and upgraded to a General class license. In May we traveled hundreds of miles together to attend our first Dayton Hamvention. Greg then took up an interest in POTA, started studying for his Extra class license, and has even begun to practice learning Morse code!
I suspect many amateur radio operators share the hobby with at least one family member. It makes amateur radio that much more fun and enjoyable when shared with those we care about the most.
First portable operations:
I had an epic weekend playing Amateur Radio! For the first time, I went portable with my HF gear at Stockdale, a campsite at Tuttle Creek Lake. I was astonished at what I could hear in the absence of electrical noise. At my apartment, I typically hear S9 white noise caused by all sorts of RFI. At this campground, it was S1! I heard signals from Japan, Europe, South America, and the US. However, I could not transmit as well as I could hear others. The deep-cycle lead-acid battery could only sustain 35 watts. But while I was out there, I made two contacts using JT9 to Massachusetts and Texas. And I had a lot of fun. I can't wait to do it again!
Second, I made my 1,000th QSO since getting relicensed! It took me one year and two weeks to reach it. I have worked 15 countries, with Japan and Spain being my most distant contacts. Most of them were made using JT65. I have worked every state in the United States, and most of my contacts have been on 80, 40, and 20 meters.
And finally, I started to learn Morse Code. I am learning at a character speed of 30 wpm and an overall speed of 10 wpm using the Farnsworth method. So far, I am making good progress. I look forward to my first CW QSO!
On a personal note:
Some of us work very long hours, but we continue to do it even if we realize how stressful it is. Why, because in a sense we are weak and we seem not to care at times. But then all of a sudden when a 'life event' occurs, say for example, having a heart attack, then you realize just how wrong you were to continue to do things that work against your health. In some cases, you may be too late to admit to being wrong.
On November 27th, 2017 I had a heart attack. I am thankful for so many people and things that happened on the day of and the after my health concern.
I have kept a gratitude journal since March of this year. I do it to reflect on all the good that happens throughout the day. It is a personal moment and not something that I typically share with others. However, I want to share with you my entries for Monday and Tuesday. I hope that it will encourage you to take a moment and reflect on the positive and good things in your life. If you are open to sharing, I would love to see a comment on something that you are grateful for.
November 27, 2017 (Monday)
- I am very very thankful to be alive after my heart attack. Things could have gone so much worse.
- I am thankful that Jason took me to the emergency room with haste and care. I love Jason with all my heart. If I had to leave this world, there is no other person whom I would want more to be at my side when I took my last breath.
- I am grateful to the emergency room staff for their professional and empathic care. Despite other difficult concerns in the ER, their performance was exemplary.
November 28, 2017 (Tuesday)
- I appreciate the head nurse that stopped by and visited me at 2 am. She kept me company for half an hour, answered every question, shared a little of her own life, and expressed such deep empathy and compassion. Words cannot adequately describe how much it meant to me when Jason had to leave for a while.
- I am very appreciative of the head of the Cath lab team. As I cried before going into surgery, she gave me the biggest hug and comforted me. In that moment, I saw the best in humanity. We make the world a better place when we care for each other.
- I felt so much love, compassion, and care from others that I am indebted to everyone. I appreciated everyone's concern and keeping me in their thoughts.
- I am very thankful to learn that there is no evidence that I have any permanent damage to my heart and that I should make a full recovery.
- I am thankful to my mom who took time off of work to be with me. I share a deep bond with my mom. And I love her so much.
- I am thankful that I was able to come home and slowly walk on my own last night.
This incident gave me great pause. It helped me realize the need to spend time away from work and to make time for family, friends, and to enjoy hobbies. And it triggered a renewed desire to achieve a dream as a teenager of making contact with another amateur radio operator using Morse Code. I had tried once before right after college to learn the code, but I gave up too quickly and did not put the time into it.
Getting Started Again:
At the end of 2016, I got started again in Amateur Radio after an 11-year vacation. SDR (Software Defined Radio), DSP (digital signal processing), and new digital techniques have ignited my interest and imagination. Initially, I spent a lot of time using JT65, JT9, and FT8 on 80, 40, and 20 meters. But I have started to focus on learning and using Morse code. I also like to have longer rag chews using Olivia 500/8 or 500/16 depending on band conditions.
I designed both the front and back of my QSL card. I took the photo on the front of the card January 2016. Photography is my other hobby.
I started out with a modest setup for D-Star: an Icom ID-51A Plus handheld transceiver, a 70cm DVAP, and a Raspberry Pi 2B running D-Star Commander. I enclosed the DVAP and Raspberry Pi in a DHAP Mini enclosure so I can take my D-Star set up anywhere there is mobile service.
As pictured below, you can see I have gotten started with HF operations. I really enjoy the Icom 7300 HF radio. And I am using homemade dipole antennas. I use banana plugs to create a resonate antenna beyond 40m. If you can believe it, I can even get on 160m. No one ever said a dipole has to run in a straight line! And because I am on the third floor of an apartment building, I use an artificial ground.
When I first got started with Amateur radio, I was compelled to learn a lot about RFI! I had no idea the adventure that I was getting myself into as I got into HF amateur radio again.
For hunting RFI, I used a handheld AM/FM radio, the MFJ-856 Directional Line Noise Finder, and the MFJ-5008 Ultrasonic detector. I read The ARRL RFI Book Practical Cures for Radio Frequency Interference and the AC Power Interference Handbook by Marv Loftness. Both books helped me understand the fundamentals and get practical information on finding and resolving RFI issues.
My biggest problem was a neighbor with a plasma TV. It was giving off broadband RFI from 1.8 to 10MHz. Luckily, they moved out after a few months. Our landlords forced them out when they refused to replace their TV. It wasn't just interfering with my beloved hobby; it was causing intermittent problems with the Cable TV internet service. (And even going to ridiculous lengths with RF chokes, the RFI could not be stopped since it was being emitted directly from the screen!)
I got our local electric utility to replace two sparking insulators and one burnt out street light across the street. I am left with broadband noise that I have yet to identify and resolve completely. Now I am down to S7 to S9 white noise depending on the band. I can identify no structure to this white noise. If I don't hear you as well as you hear me, RFI on my side is likely the reason. I can knock the noise down S3 to S5 by using an MFJ magnetic loop as a receive antenna. It is inconvenient to set up in our living room, so I don't often get it out.
On a side issue, I worked with a friend and fellow ham to resolve his RFI problems. We worked together to get his electric utility to replace one sparking insulator and one hot wire that was dangerously and loosely connected to another electric pole in his front yard. We also identified a problem with his hot tub and with a long CAT5 ethernet cable. We are still tracking down RFI problems at his place, but we have made significant progress!
A precursor of things to come:
I became interested in microcontrollers and electronics using an Arduino. I built many small projects, including this one involving Morse code! It was a precursor of good things to come! My amateur radio license had expired several years before, and it would be several more years before getting engaged with ham radio again.
I set up the Arduino to listen for input on the USB-to-serial interface connected to a computer. Once I input a message and hit return, the Ardunio sends the message to the buzzer as Morse code and echos it out on the serial port as dots and dashes. The project idea came from Practical Arduino: Cool Projects for Open Source Hardware by Jonathan Oxer and Hugh Blemings.
This project helped me to understand the principle of transistors used to amplify a small signal coming from the Arduino and turn on and off a 3-volt buzzer. It is mildly humorous that I made a mistake in the programming and would not catch it until ten years later! The letter Y is mistakenly encoded as the letter Z.