Morse Code was first used in the 1840s, and even after more than 160 years, it is still used today, especially by amateur radio operators. In 1844, Samuel F.B. Morse developed this code, which can be sent quickly over the telegraph. It’s also useful for emergency signaling (SOS) with a radio, mirror, or flashlight, and even for people with severe disabilities to communicate. Plus, you can probably communicate faster with Morse code than you can with SMS text messaging! In order to master Morse code, however, you need to approach it like a new language. Here’s how to get started.
1. Listen carefully to slow morse code recordings:
What you’re listening for is a combination of dots and dashes (also referred to as dits and dahs). A dit is a short beep, while a dah is a longer beep (three times longer). Every letter is separated by a short pause, and every word is separated by a longer pause (three times longer).
* You can search or shop for practice recordings, or use a shortwave receiver to listen to the real thing.
* Some people use the Farnsworth method, which entails listening to Morse code characters at high speeds but with long spaces in between; as you become more proficient, the spacing is reduced.
2. Refer to a copy of the Morse Code alphabet:
You can use a basic chart such as the one shown at right (click to enlarge), or you can use a more advanced chart which includes punctuation, abbreviated phrases, prosigns and Q Codes. Match up what you heard to the letters in the alphabet.Some people find it easier to learn by writing down the letter with dots/periods and dashes, and comparing it to a chart such as the one shown; others say this creates an additional step that will only slow you down in learning Morse code. Do whatever feels more comfortable for you. If you choose to avoid interpreting written dots and dashes, you can use a pronunciation chart which lists the sounds of the Morse Code signals, as if you were hearing them, rather than the dash and dot symbols.
3. Sound it out:
Practice translating basic words and sentences into Morse code. In the beginning, you can write it down, then sound it out, but eventually you’ll need to go straight to sounding it out. For example, the word “cat”. Write it down: then transmit the word (you can use the buttons on a mobile phone, or beep vocally–the latter will probably help your mind pick up the code faster). To pronounce morse code, dit is pronounced di with a short i sound and a silent t. Dah is pronounced with a short a sound. So cat is pronounced dah-di-dah-di di-dah dah. Once you feel comfortable with that, pick up a children’s book and try to transmit the content in Morse code without writing anything down. Record yourself and play it back later to see if you were correct.
* Be conscious of your spacing. Each letter needs to be separated by a space that’s the same duration as a dah (three times the duration of a dit). Each word needs to be separated by a space that lasts about seven times the duration of a dit. The better your spacing, the easier your code will be to understand.
4. Memorize the easiest letters first:
A single dah is a “T” and a single dit is an “E”. Next, a dah-dah is an “M” and a dit-dit is an “I”. Memorize the letters for 3 and 4 dits and dahs in a row. Once you’ve got those down, start memorizing the combinations: dit-dah, dit-dah-dah, dit-dah-dah-dah, and so on. Leave the more complex combinations for last. Fortunately, this includes some less commonly used letters (like Q, Y, X, and V) so when you get to this point, focus on the more commonly used letters first. Notice how E and T have the shortest symbols, and how K, Z, Q, and X have long symbols.
5. Make associations:
For every letter, think of a memorable “sound alike”. Here’s an example: The letter “C” is dah-dit-dah-dit (long short long short). Can you think of a word that starts with that letter, and sounds like the Morse pronunciation? How about catastrophic, which has an emphasis on the first and third syllable, and begins with a “c”? Or how about dah-dit, which is Morse code for “N”? How about nanny? This will be harder for words that end in several “dahs” in a row, since many words in the English language alternate emphasis between syllables, and usually do not end with an emphasis, but you could use sentences, too. There are also existing Morse code mnemonics that have been around for many years; you might be able to find them online, or purchase them.
* If you’re a music lover, you can try associating Morse code pronunciations with tunes or melodies that are familiar with you. For example, the distinctive beginning of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 is short-short-short-long, or dit-dit-dit-dah, which is the letter “V”, the roman numeral for “5” (as in Beethoven’s 5th Symphony), and is rather appropriate for such a “victorious” tune, don’t you think? During WW2, BBC broadcasters used this four-note melody to start off its radio broadcasts because of its association with the word “victory”!
6. Have fun with it:
Want to get your friends into it? Learn how to blink code. That way, you can give an SOS blink when your friend just introduced you to a rather unpleasant blind date, for instance. Use written Morse code to write secret notes, or keep a diary in Morse, or tell dirty jokes without anyone knowing. Give someone a Morse code greeting card. Say “I love you” in Morse code (how romantic!). Whatever floats your boat, find a way to do it in Morse code, and you’ll learn it much faster.