The Day The Music Died

Time sure flies. We are fast approaching the fifth anniversary of the end of Morse code testing for U.S. amateur radio licensing. Prior to February 23rd 2007, an applicant to the amateur radio service that was interested in world wide communication needed not just exhibit a smattering of radio theory, but was also required to demonstrate a deftness in the manly art of telegraphy. A lot of predictions were made, from the death spiral of ham radio into the swirling cesspool of citizens band, to an actual heaven on earth brought about by a genius class, who, once freed from the shackles of a five word per minute test, would be able to deliver ham radio to the promised land. So how did it wash out? It turns out everyone was a little bit right.

A lot of new blood was brought into the hobby, in fact the number of U.S. licensees recently broke the 700,000 mark. Among our new brothers (and sisters!) are some really sharp children of the computer age. I’m of the era when the internet was just a clever system of pneumatic tubes, so I look forward to picking the brains of these nerds. More operators also bring different points of view that make for interesting QSO’s. I’d even call some ex CB’ers true radio men.

The floodgates also let in a few mopes. Five years later many are still on their HT talking about getting on the HF bands. Most of those that made it really aren’t much of a threat to the airwaves though, feeding their signal into a slinky just isn’t likely to cause an international incident. We shouldn’t throw the babies out with the bath water though. Microphone shyness, or other commitments shouldn’t be construed as a lack of dedication to the radio art. My own on air blunders have been met only with kindness. A warm hand on the shoulder can lead these guys down the right path. Ah the true path.

So what about CW? Alive and kicking! To the uninformed Morse’s code probably seems rearward looking, like a trip to the renaissance fair, or perhaps a route 66 tinplate sign hanging in the garage. Of course CW has a heritage and it’s traditions, but it’s beauty isn’t trapped in history. Just because 32,000 years ago one of our forebears recorded the glories of a hunt on the walls of a cave, it certainly doesn’t make capturing a likeness with pencil and paper any less lovely. CW gives the operator not just the chance to buy something, but the chance to be something. CW is the mode of craftsmanship. When Tut’s tomb was prized open, the world wasn’t admiring the desicated bones or the incestuous bloodlines of the boyhood king. It was (and still is ) in awe of the craftsmanship of the workmen that filled that time capsule. I don’t expect Morse telegraphy, or even ham radio, to stoke the furnace in everybody’s loins, but Marconi’s gift gives every ham the chance to craft signals that will still be coursing through the aether long after the four winds have reduced the pyramids to the finest powder. To me that’s pretty darned cool.

Tom Bruzan, AB9NZ, is a special contributor to AmateurRadio.com and writes from Illinois, USA.

6 Responses to “The Day The Music Died”

  • W0FMS:

    All of those who thought dropping the Morse requirements would kill ham radio should have looked at other services history of what happened when Morse transitioned away. Nothing much really. In a lot of cases the communications actually improved.

    Anyone who had thought CW would go away on the ham bands in particular misunderstood the utility and simplicity of CW. It never was going to happen.

    The good news here is that someone who is not interested in Morse can now enter the hobby and either never affect the CW operators or at some time in the future become interested and enjoy learning it rather than being forced to do so and maybe because of this never entering the hobby.

    It turned out to be a win-win all along but many were too obsessed with tradition to realize it.

    Even those “HT Guys” you mentioned are valuable to the hobby. I know a lot of public service oriented hams who are that way. I think it’s great– I have no interest in that stuff at all but it makes us all look useful.

    Fred W0FMS

  • Joe KJ6QBA:

    Two things got me to get my ticket: Softrock radios and digital modes. I will learn CW some day. But as a younger ham with a full time job and many responsibilities outside of work, I am very lucky to be able to monitor the bands and upload spots to pskreporter/wsprnet and check them occasionally thoughout the day, and then snag a QSO here and there at night and on weekends.

    I would have never gotten my license if I had to learn Morse to get on HF. I am much better off with what I learned becoming a ham and I am grateful to be a part of this community. I look forward to the day my life allows me the time to get proficient at Morse (I have a couple keys, all I need is time.) and I will see you on the air!

    By the way, JT65 is perfectly musical to my ears. 🙂

    73 Joe KJ6QBA

  • Tom Bruzan, AB9NZ:

    Fred, Joe, Very well put. I think with ham radio (or anything) the effort put into it is directly related to the satisfaction you’ll receive. I’m glad everyone now has the choice to follow their own path. I sure hope occasionally you’ll stop by my webpage guys. Very best of 73, de Tom AB9NZ http://radiotelegrapher.posterous.com/

  • Don - AE7QL:

    I am one of those hams who never learned code. The reason is very simple…my hearing after working with headphones in commercial radio for about two plus decades makes it very hard to distinguish the differences to be able to carry on a conversation. For that matter…had to learn phonetics in a college English class 30 years ago and almost failed that class because of not being able to hear the subtle differences in letters like “a” and “e”. Thank God for computers/digital software which can do the work I can’t with what nature gave me.

  • Goody K3NG:

    But did the music really die?

  • Tom Bruzan, AB9NZ:

    Goody, of course the music didn’t die, I just couldn’t resist the title. Don, I’m so glad you’ve found your niche in ham radio. It’s great that more and more people are able to enjoy the magic of radio. Tom

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