Play Word Toss and Learn to Copy Morse Code in Your Head

Greg Stobbs N8GAS

William G. Pierpont, in The Art and Skill of Radio-Telegraphy, claims that some of you can hear Morse code so fluently, it’s just a conversation between two people. No pens or pencils are required, and you can hold that Morse conversation while simultaneously watching TV and reading War and Peace. That ain’t me—but I’d like it to be.

When I first started learning Morse code and tried to “copy in my head,” I immediately discovered that my brain could only hold one letter at a time. As soon as the next letter came along, I forgot the one before. This brain buffer limitation forced me to use pencil and paper. As my copying speed increased, my handwriting devolved into a tiny, often unintelligible, cursive scrawl. Yes, I knew I could switch to keyboard and learn to type into the mill as the Navy submarine operators do. But the magical allure of a Morse code conversation, without props, has captivated my attention.

Dan Romanchik, author of The CW Geek’s Guide to Having Fun with Morse Code, tells us just to put down your pencil and go cold turkey, as he did. High speed operator, Carlo Consoli, author of Zen and the Art of Radio Telegraphy, suggests you practice relaxation and visualize yourself as a high-speed operator. “Maybe one day you will become one,” he says. Bill Kisse W3MSH, who has reached the goal I seek, says, “I was a CW op for many years and discovered something fascinating. I first began to hear ‘dots and dashes’, then letters, words, sentences and at 35+ wpm, thoughts in my head.”

I have no reason to doubt that any of the foregoing advice is true. But how long must I sit—no pencil in sight—in a relaxed hypnotic trance, picturing myself a high speed operator? When will the blessed event occur? I want those “thoughts in my head” now. Certainly there must be a way to speed things up.

So I began to think about why I could only remember one letter at at time, and what I might do to fix it. I formulated a theory that the brain has a temporary buffer where it stores incoming letters. In my case this buffer was sized to contain exactly one letter. I needed a way to stretch it.

Figuring that I would eventually want to learn the sounds of words as I had learned the sounds of letters, I downloaded the 500 most commonly used English words, sorted them by length and made myself a practice MP3 file using software that converts text to Morse. After a bit of practice I managed to stretch my character buffer to hold two letters at a time, but retaining three letter words or longer remained beyond my grasp. So I came up with the following game that is designed to gradually stretch one’s character buffer. Best played with a CW practice buddy. I call the game Word Toss.

To play Word Toss, distribute a list of three letter words to each player. Player One picks one word from the list and sends it twice to Player Two. Player Two tries to copy the word in his head. Requests to repeat are freely permitted. Player Two then sends back the word he copied. Assuming he copied correctly, Player Two then picks a different word from the list and sends it to Player One. The game goes on like this until copying one three letter word becomes easy. Remember, no pencils allowed. This is all in your head.

Once single three letter words become easy, start sending two different three letter words. No need to send each grouping twice, unless the other player asks. When you and your buddy can copy both words easily, your character buffer has now been stretched to three letters. Distribute a new list of four letter words and repeat the process. After your character buffer has been stretched to four letters, switch to five letter words.

The word toss game can go on and on. Personally, I’ve not yet gone beyond five letter sets with my practice buddy, but I truly believe that one could eventually stretch one’s character buffer to hold “chrysanthemum,” if desired. I’m not sure that’s needed however. Word toss of three, four and five letter words has helped me a great deal.

If you can’t find a practice buddy who is interested in stretching his or her character buffer, you can always make mp3 files or tapes and practice by yourself. I made myself some Word Toss mp3 recordings that I loaded onto an old iPod for listening in the car. I made sets of paired three-letter, four-letter and five-letter words, sent at speeds ranging from 20 wpm to 30 wpm.

I must admit a certain delight in driving furtively about town in a car filled with Word Toss snippets of Morse code. No one even suspects I am stretching my character buffer as we all wait for the light to turn green.

My next goal will be to increase my word vocabulary—words I can just hear without the need to decode the letters. I’m thinking of using the top 1000 English words for that. If I come up with anything brilliant, I’ll let you know in a future edition of The 5 Watter.