Ham Radio News: Morse Code Converter Technology

Using a Morse code converter makes it easier than ever for ham radio operators to translate dots and dashes.
By Copthorne Macdonald
January/February 1983
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Copthorne Macdonald is the inventor of slow-scan television, a method of amateur radio transmission that allows ham operators to both hear and see each other during shortwave broadcasts.
Beverley Mills Stetson
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A few minutes ago I transmitted an NDR Bulletin, using Morse code. There's nothing special about that, of course, except for the fact that my fingers didn't touch a telegraph key! Instead, they simply tapped the message out on a typewriter-style keyboard. (And soon I won't even have to do that. Once I've built a little more circuitry and written a little more software, the source of these Morse transmissions will be a text file stored in my computer's memory!)

Then, when the bulletin transmission ended, I heard another station calling me. The Morse dits and dabs came whistling out of my receiver's speaker, but I wasn't really listening. Instead, I was watching the message unfold — letter by letter — on a TV screen. Now this sort of morse code converter technology is rapidly becoming commonplace, perhaps, but I was still struck by the wonder of it. It carried me back to that magic moment, years ago, when I first heard the dots and dashes of my own brand-new call sign being sent by a station 100 miles away. I'd like to think that old Sam Morse must have felt a similar awe. (He did, you may recall, inaugurate his first telegraph system with the message, "What hath God wrought?")

Of course, machine-read code is just one example of what's become a widespread phenomenon: Our tried and proven tools are teaming up with microelectronics to do the old jobs better and more easily. Books are still with us, for example, yet today's electronic word processors and typesetters are making them easier to write and to publish. We still weigh things on scales, but solid-state chips are making such tools more accurate and easier to read. And in radio, Morse code retains certain advantages over other modes of transmission, but now microprocessors are helping to erase many of this particular mode's disadvantages.

As many of you know, Morse code (or "CW" as it's often called) continues to be used for a number of reasons. First, it cuts through noise and interference better than do other modes. (You get more miles of transmission distance per watt of transmitter power.) Second, the radio equipment needed to transmit the code is both simpler and less expensive than that required for voice transmission. Finally, Morse retains its place in ham circles because the multinational treaty that established the amateur bands mandates it. (By international agreement, all hams allowed to use the long distance bands must be proficient in the code.)

However, modern technology is making Morse more convenient to transmit and receive, allowing untrained people to use it, and permitting Morse links to interconnect with other data transmission systems and codes. The XITEK ABM-200 circuit board that I recently added to my computer/ham-radio system is a fine example of the new hardware. It performs a wide variety of code conversion tasks. In fact, this was the gadget that converted the ASCII code coming from my computer terminal into Morse code and converted the incoming Morse into ASCII for visual display. It'll also convert the Baudot teletype code to ASCII or Morse, and vice versa — and perform all these tasks over a wide range of transmission rates.

If you've already invested in a computer, the $239 cost of the board probably won't strike you as outrageous. The ABM-200 will, after all, open many new communication doors.

Another interesting unit recently came on the market: the Kantronics "MiniTerminal." The tiny 2 1/2" x 5" x 5 1/4" device displays incoming Morse, Baudot, or ASCII on a built-in ten-character moving display (or on an external printer, if you have one). To transmit Baudot or ASCII, you simply feed Morse into the unit from a hand key, electronic keyer, or Morse keyboard. This novel approach allows not only visual display of incoming Morse, but also provides Baudot and ASCII transmission and reception capability with a minimum of added gear. (I should mention that many other companies also manufacture CW display and generation equipment. Check the ads in ham publications such as QST, CQ, 73, Ham Radio, and Worldradio for information about such products.)

You may be wondering how all of these innovations will affect New Directions Radio. Well, my own thoughts start with the realization that our NDR family is quite a varied group. Some of us with ham licenses have fairly complex, fancy stations, while others make do with very simple low-power, Morse-only gear. Still others are equipped for high tech communication via telephone-connected terminals and computers, but don't even have ham tickets.

Despite our diversity, though, I see this new technology allowing much more extensive and flexible intercommunication among us all. I envision that — down the road a bit, perhaps — we'll have our own homegrown conferencing and electronic mail system, one that's accessible by telephone and by the simplest ham stations, as well as by the sophisticated units. I picture a system in which microprocessors, code conversion, and electronic information storage combine to help break the tyranny of the sked. We'll be able to "drop off" and "pick up" messages and conference contributions whenever it's convenient for each of us to do so!

Until then, though, remember that a somewhat abridged version of the NDR On-Air Bulletin is transmitted in Morse code Tuesday evenings on 7100.5 kHz at 9:00 p.m. Eastern Time. NDR folks with any kind of license — including Novice class — can operate on this frequency, so stick around afterward and perhaps we can even get a CW net started!

Reader Suggestions

Gene McGahey, N5DDV would like to start a Central States NDR Net. He suggests getting together either in the early morning (say, 5:30 Central Time) on 75 meters, or in the evening on 40 meters. Contact Gene if you're interested in contributing your efforts to help get the net going.

Carter Rae, WA8YVM suggests that MOTHER EARTH NEWS-readers take advantage of amateur radio's extensive traffic handling system to send personal (nonbusiness) messages from place to place, free of charge. The first step in doing so would be to track down a nearby ham who's active in one or more traffic nets. If your local Chamber of Commerce can't provide a nearby ham radio club's address or phone number, write to the American Radio Relay League http://www.arrl.org/  and ask for the address of the club nearest you.

Communications sent by ham radio should be kept reasonably short, of course. Also, a number of foreign countries prohibit "third party" messages altogether. These limitations aside, though, if the cash for stamps and long distance calls is running low, a free service offered by radio amateurs could be worth looking into!

Peace,

Cop Macdonald (VE1BFL)


New Directions Radio is an international network of radio amateurs concerned with those ways of using ham radio (and related modes of communicating) that promote our own growth as individuals, and that we perceive as helping to create a more aware, more caring, and more responsible human society. We encourage all who share these interests to work with us.


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