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Why do people still use Morse Code?

What are its advantages over newer Voice or Data communication modes?

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We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

15 Answers 15

up vote 47 down vote accepted
  • because there are a large number of operators who had to learn it to get their licence.
  • because there is a large (but slowly diminishing) number of operators who learned it while serving in the armed forces.
  • because the transmitters and receivers can be extremely simple and inexpensive, not needing much more than a key and headphones along with the rig, antenna and battery to send and receive.
  • because (in theory) it has a very tiny bandwidth, allowing small QRP transmitters to send a very effective signal. This also allows a large number of contesters to cram into a few kilohertz of bandwidth, each (with suitable filtering) able to be picked out individually.
  • because it's a point of pride for some operators that they know this thing that the young 'uns don't.

CW can be sent exceptionally well by computer (with software like fldigi) or by any number of USB/serial keyers (such as the WinKeyer or K3NG Arduino keyer). It can be copied reasonably well in software (fldigi again, or CW Skimmer). The Reverse Beacon Network relies on multiple stations worldwide running CW Skimmer to report on propagation, and will show you where your CQ has been copied.

It can be thought of as a digital mode, but one that can be copied by ear with sufficient training. It's typically a little slower that PSK-31 or RTTY, and CW only supports a very limited single-case character set. Although it is no longer used commercially or by the military, it's likely to stick around in ham radio for a long time.

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It has a tiny bandwidth only "in theory?" I'd say, in practice also. Even without suitable filtering, every human comes with a sophisticated wetware filter that's very good at distinguishing tones. – Phil Frost Jan 16 '14 at 15:27
Hang around on 20m with a waterfall running, and you'll see many CW traces taking up 2-300 Hz, or 2-3× the bandwidth of PSK-31. I do agree about tonal discernment, though; we are evolved to identify tones, and that's why environmental noise that is tonal is so distracting. – scruss Jan 16 '14 at 17:37
I don't find my own reason: "because it's fun!" (and I'm a young 'un). – Camil Staps Jan 26 '15 at 18:15

The advantage? Efficiency! You get to put all of that power of your rig into a very small bandwidth, whereas voice modes need to spread the power out much more (for example, SSB uses roughly 2.8kHz of bandwidth).

Quote from: :

Going a little bit further, assuming a SSB signal takes up 2000 Hz., and comparing a 100 watt 25 WPM CW signal with a 100 watt SSB signal, we have the following. The average power density for CW is 100W / 100 Hz. or 1 w/Hz. For SSB it's 100W / 2000 Hz. or .05 w/Hz. Follow closely now, it gets interesting although a little more technical. We could say that the gain in using CW over SSB is Gain(db) = 10*log(1/.05) which is about 13db. That means that a 5 watt CW signal packs an equivalent punch to a SSB signal at 100 watts.

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That would be the slightly more ideal than typical case. You'll hear plenty of CW operators squeezing out splattery, over-driven signals which affect the full width of the waterfall. A well-modulated CW signal is a thing of great beauty on the waterfall: a crisp vertical line with almost no width. – scruss Oct 22 '13 at 23:44
All modern digital modes are more efficient than CW in terms of reliable communication at a given power level. For example, CW at 25 WPM requires 100 Hz, while PSK31 at 50 WPM requires 62.5 Hz. – Walter Underwood K6WRU Oct 23 '13 at 1:01
Digital modes usually require a separate computer and interface, though that is changing a little with purpose-built equipment. So if efficiency includes power consumption, CW can win the day. – Bill - K5WL Oct 23 '13 at 18:33
An iPad can run PSK31 for a very long time on battery power. It is probably using 2-3W to do that, since they give a 10 hour life (browsing or video) for a 25 Watt-hour battery. – Walter Underwood K6WRU Oct 24 '13 at 5:05

One of the reasons it's still in use is because of its inherent simplicity - no real signal processing is needed. Thus, CW transmitters and receivers are very simple and thus inexpensive.

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One of the biggest advantages of CW is that users worldwide can contact each other without knowing English, or any specific language. Conversation is limited to the common Q codes, but these provide significant flexibility and ability to communicate making Morse Code a common language of sorts.

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Thanks, this is one I haven't heard before. +1 – Timtech Dec 10 '13 at 23:19
Interesting answer, but Q codes aren't limited to CW. You can use them on any other mode. – scruss Dec 11 '13 at 13:39
@scruss As long as you know how the English alphabet is pronounced, yes. I suspect morse is a little easier, but you're right, it's not that big a hurdle. – Adam Davis Dec 11 '13 at 14:12
I was really meaning other digital modes. I seldom use voice modes because — although I'm a native English speaker from the UK — many people in North America have deemed my accent too thick and heavy to try to understand. ☺ – scruss Dec 12 '13 at 15:31
Wha not? Y'all do sound interestin', speaking a furrin' language lahk yew non-Murricans dew. – K7AAY Jan 7 '14 at 17:18

In noisy conditions, CW is the most effective mode for "real time" communications. This is the primary reason that CW remains popular with DXers.

Some digital modes can succeed under even worse conditions, but they do so by employing redundancy, which makes for very slow QSOs.

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I think this is debatable. CW with an experienced operator with a good ear and mastery of their rig's filters can interpolate missing sounds to guess letters correctly. PSK modes can disappear into the inaudible, and yet still be copied at 50⁺ WPM. – scruss Oct 23 '13 at 15:47
It quite possible to improve on the sensitivity of CW without employing redundancy. A fairly obvious improvement is coherent CW, which is incidentally unpopular because other modes do even better. As another example, BPSK31 (as scruss mentions) employs no redundancy. – Phil Frost Jul 22 '14 at 11:48

I am a new ham, and I decided to learn it, and use it, strictly for the purpose of efficiency. CW operation is low bandwidth, and therefore requires very little power to get a signal out over long distances. You will not get the same results from voice transmissions or other larger bandwidth data modes (although JT-65A and PSK31 are relatively efficient data modes). It's very gratifying to work around the world with ease in CW mode, whereas doing so in voice is doable, but a lot more difficult. The best advantage I can think of over other data modes is that you don't need to depend on a computer or external device to create Morse code messages. It's a human rendered data mode.

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Morse code requires an extremely small bandwidth (and is usable in a channel that has a relatively low S/N) for a mode that requires no digital processing hardware or computer/digital logic chips (instead requiring just the skill of a couple of human brains) to communicate. Some people value accomplishing things using personally learned skills rather than software and DSPs/CPUs designed by others.

A legal Morse code transmitter is about as simple as possible as that which can be constructed from basic analog components, although the receiver might require more parts than for AM (not sure about a pure regenerative receiver design).

Morse code is also a useful cross-over skill that could potentially be very useful to have in certain survival or medical situations (signal mirrors, eye blinking, one-button controllers, etc.)

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In the UK, the terms of the licence start with:

1(1) The Licensee shall ensure that the Radio Equipment is only used: (a) for the purpose of self-training in radio communications, including conducting technical investigations; and (b) as a leisure activity and not for commercial purposes of any kind.

CW/morse lends itself to the self-training aspect due to the simplicity of the equipment required.

For example, in the Summits on the Air program, there is an ongoing PP3 challenge - which making the most QSOs using one PP3 type 9V battery. This is only possible by operating on very low power, and using CW. OK, this is only for fun, but that is what most of us are in amateur radio for, are we not?

Personally, I haven't mastered CW (yet?) but I am quite impressed to watch/listen to operators working the key...

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Morse code is a raw and ancient way to deliver a signal to its destination. Even in case of non-digitised communication, Morse code is a way to express signal. The science of this is known to all telecommunication personnel, and thus is still used in many cases. It is also easier to create than a digital code.

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Morse is neither raw nor ancient, and I haven't found a single "telecom person" that knows morse code. Most hams don't know morse, myself included. It is simply an efficient method of controlling a tone, which in itself is an efficient way to extend the range of a transmission and mitigate interference or signal loss that otherwise would make voice contact difficult or impossible. – Ron J. KD2EQS Jan 15 '14 at 13:54

I got my technician license in 1992 to play with packet and TCP/IP on VHF/UHF. I got bitten by the HF bug listening to the CW subbands. I decided to learn CW on my laptop on business trips. I struggled to pass 5 WPM for my Tech-plus but I did and I got on 80m CW. A few months later I had WAS and It wasn't long after that I passed 20 WPM for my Extra.

Why do I operate CW? It is a blast!

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Unfortunately, this answer fails to answer the broader question of why amateur radio operators in general would still use CW today. It provides an interesting anecdote as well as your personal feeling ("it is a blast!") but little more than that. I would suggest you edit your answer to list concrete reasons why a person should learn and use Morse code for communication today. – Michael Kjörling Jan 15 '14 at 13:07
@MichaelKjörling: Thank you for your comment. I would also like to point out that Amateur Radio is a hobby so "It is a blast" is a fantastic reason to use a mode like CW. I also like to dabble in woodworking and enjoy hand-boring holes for pegs. There is no good technical reason for me to do that aside, from "it is a blast." – n8wrl Jan 16 '14 at 13:22

I would echo the point mentioned by N8WRL: "Why do I operate CW? It is a blast!"

I'm actually re-learning morse and realising I've been missing out on a lot of fun over the years.

In terms of learning and training, it feels some way between learning a musical instrument and learning a new language. It is an excellent way to stimulate the brain - an investigation into morse-related neuroplasticity can be found here:

"You never know when it will be needed":

Why is morse code still in use? We know it is technically efficient, is good for the brain, but many people use morse because it's really fun!

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Because it's fun to send and receive messages by Morse code!

It's something that can be done without any specialized equipment for sending and receiving. It's a shared historic experience. It's a challenge, and a skill that is fun to learn. It puts you into a special "club," setting you apart from those non-CW capable hams.

But mostly, it's just fun.

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This is a valid answer, but it's already been stated multiple times in multiple other answers. If you agree with existing answers, please consider upvoting them rather than re-stating them. Or, please consider editing your answer to distinguish it from the information already contained in other answers. – Phil Frost Jul 23 '14 at 13:50

I love Morse code for these reasons:

  1. It's fun.
  2. There is something satisfying about pulling a really weak signal out from the noise just 10s of Hz away from another really strong semi-local signal, and making a decent contact with someone halfway around the planet with less than 100W.
  3. I can put headphones on and operate in the living room while the XYL is watching TV (think: condo in the city), and neither of us is disturbed by the other. I'm busy calling CQ DX (from here in Thailand you can get quite a lot of responses when the conditions are right) while she's watching some awful soap on TV - and we're both happy!
  4. Speaking of condos in the city - with a compromised antenna and reduced power, you can STILL work the world with a little help from the propagation gnomes if you use Morse code.

Reason 1 is the main one though :)

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It was all I could afford when I was a kid. AM and SSB gear was expensive and still is! Stuck with it because: Signals are stronger, More of a challenge, and a CQ gets answered faster. Great people on CW.

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Morse Code needs to be known as it is the lowest common denominator for emergency situations.

I am aware that there are radio installations for use in emergencies in nuclear fallout situations and the most likely signal to get through will be morse [although whether it's detectable over any background radiation is another question].

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Do you have any citations to provide? I am aware of some transmitters used in emergencies, but none of them use Morse code. I also doubt that if communication despite poor conditions (low power, high noise) is your goal, Morse is the best choice -- many digital modes have far better sensitivity than CW. – Phil Frost Jul 22 '14 at 11:30
It would appear that even systems designed expressly for nuclear war do not use Morse code. – Phil Frost Jul 22 '14 at 11:38

protected by Phil Frost Apr 30 '15 at 22:35

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