Morse is dead ... long live Morse!

One of the oldest means of electronic messaging is Morse code. Developed by Alfred Vail and Samuel Morse and sent for the first time on the 24th of May 1844, Morse code changed the way we communicate.

For nearly a century it was required to become a licensed radio amateur until in 2003, the International Telecommunications Union or ITU left it to the discretion of individual countries to decide if a budding amateur needed to demonstrate their ability to send and receive in Morse. With that decision many thought that the end of Morse code was only a matter of time.

They were wrong.

Turns out that use and progress of Morse code continues at a surprising rate. Searching for scholarly articles on the subject, you’ll discover that it’s used, for communication by quadriplegics, for information exchange between IoT or Internet of Things devices, as a way to secure information combining DNA and Morse code, as a method for gesture recognition, as a research tool for psychologists interested in learning methodologies, for training neural nets, for REM sleep research and plenty more.

Learning the code is an activity that sparks joy or dread, depending on whom you ask. For me it’s been a decade of anticipation with little to show for it.

How to learn is a question that prompts as many answers as there are people within earshot and most of those disagree with each other. If you do ask, you’ll discover that there are dozens of websites that offer to teach you, podcasts and audio files, bits of paper, buzzers, software and video, images and cheat sheets, the list is endless. You’ll also discover two terms, Koch and Farnsworth. Both are intended means of learning. You’ll find proponents of both methods wherever you look. You’ll also hear from people who learnt the Army way, whatever that means, there’s people who were taught not to send before they could properly receive, those who were taught the opposite and everything in between.

There’s discussion on the topic, heated even, but very little in the way of actual hard data. There’s some research. In 1990 the Keller Method from World War 2 was explored. The method involves playing a Morse letter, followed by a gap where the student is expected to write the letter, followed by a voice prompt of the letter. Interesting, were it not for the fact that it looked at nine students and only at their ability to master the alphabet.

In 1960, 310 airmen were subjected to 14 tests to determine their ability to learn Morse. No idea what the research outcomes were, since the Journal of Applied Psychology doesn’t appear to share their research unless you pay for it.

There are reports of actual science behind the Koch method of learning, but I wasn’t able to find it, though it’s repeated often. It’s only with the introduction of computers that actually using this method of learning has become practicable and recently popular.

As you might know, I’ve been attempting to learn Morse code for a while now. I’ve tried many different things, including Farnsworth, Koch and others. I publish versions of my podcast as Morse code audio only. They’re published every week and there are a few people who listen.

I also attempted to make stereo audio files with a computer generated voice in one ear and a Morse word in the other, I generated flash cards, I tried learning the code as dits and dahs, but in the end, nothing really worked for me.

About a month ago I came across a video on YouTube by Electronic Notes. It contained the Morse alphabet as audio and flashed the letter visually on the screen whilst the audio was playing. There’s also a video with numbers and a combination of the two.

It gave me the idea for something entirely different to try and in preparing to talk about this, it turns out that there’s even research to suggest that I might be on to something. I discovered that in 1994, sixty healthy people were tested to determine if learning Morse code in a rehabilitation setting was best achieved using visual, auditory or a combination of both. The research conclusion was that the combination works best.

My idea is a video that shows an individual word whilst Morse code for that word is heard. There’s no dits and dahs on the screen, just the word, written in English, and the Morse code for the word. The speed is 25 Words Per Minute, or WPM, and it’s played with a side-tone of 600 Hz. Each video is an entire podcast, lasts about 30 minutes, and plays at full speed.

I’m already beginning to notice that some words sound like a sound blob in much the same way as when I learnt a new language, so I’m hopeful that this will finally get me on my way.

It’s early days and the video channel is an experiment, so please comment to share your thoughts on the experience.

Who knows, I might have introduced a new way to learn.

Now all we need is some research to compare it to other methods, Koch, Keller, Farnsworth and Onno, hi hi.

You’ll be able to find this article on YouTube too, “Morse is dead … long live Morse!”

I’m Onno VK6FLAB