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.

| January/February 1983

copthorne macdonald

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

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.

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