Reading in your head – the long path to morse code bliss

I’m one of those people who learnt morse code completely the wrong way. Starting off in the seventies with no guide I simply tuned into nightly morse transmissions sent by local hams at a very slow rate. I think they started at 5 words a minute. The main risk there was nodding off between words or impatiently guessing the wrong word.

Contemporary wisdom is that you should start listening at a much faster rate, say 15 or 20 words per minute. This is to prevent you counting dots and dashes in your head, and to make it easier for you to recognise the letters, numbers and even words by their sound.

Learning 15 wpm after mastering say 8 wpm is almost like learning a new language. Students of morse talk of ‘a plateau’ at 10 which is a mighty barrier to progressing up to a more useful conversational speed.

My personal goal is to be able to copy and send at 25 wpm and be able to sustain it over a couple of hours, and to be able to read mostly ‘in my head’, only using pencil and paper for details like names and callsigns.

Now that morse code is no longer compulsory for any ham licenses, surprisingly it seems to be more popular than ever! Especially with those hams who like to use low power to make contacts, or to take the lightest possible transceiver to a remote mountain top as part of the global ‘Summits on the Air‘ activity. Morse gets more mileage than voice per watt, and often these tiny transmitters are only putting out a couple of watts power.
And there’s something delightful in having the skill to read the beeps.

But for me it’s a skill I have to keep working on. I think in my twenties I was quite at ease chattering away at about 12 wpm seemingly for hours on end. Four decades on with a large slab of radio silence in between, I’m quite rusty, even though I know the basics are still there like riding a bike.

I’m a bit wobbly at the paddles, having grown up with the old fashioned straight key (the type you’re likely to have seen in old westerns). But you can feel slow but definite progress from every bit of practice you put in.

Lightweight portable VHF antennas

One of my favourite sites is Martin DK7ZB’s collection of pages detailing the construction of practical antennas for VHF and UHF.

I first visited the site following a link to designs for lightweight portable yagis that would be suitable for SOTA VHF activations. Under the link ‘2m/70cm-Yagis ultralight’, Martin describes a number of yagis for 2m and 70cm that use thin metre long aluminium welding rods mounted on PVC booms.

“These Yagis are constructed with cheap lightweight materials for electric installations and you can mount and dismantle them without any tools. The boom is made of PVC-tubes with 16mm, 20mm or 25mm diameter, the element holders are the clamps for these tubes.” DK7ZB

What makes the designs particularly attractive is that they can be quickly assembled from a compact (admittedly metre long for 2m) pack you can carry on your ascent, even designs using a 2 metre long boom.

The components of a DK7ZB lightweight 6 element yagi suitable for SOTA or any portable operation
The components of a DK7ZB lightweight 6 element yagi suitable for SOTA or any portable operation

The welding rods – used for TIG welding – are available in Australia in 2.8mm and 3.2mm diameters from welding supplies shops. I’m still on the lookout for 4mm diameter rods. PVC conduit and the mounting clamps are readily available in VK from hardware stores.

I’ve managed to cut a suitable slot in the end of a 3.2mm aluminium welding rod using a Dremel with a thin cutting wheel. One suggested way of attaching the feedline to the driven element is to crimp the lines into thin slots like this.

Also of interest to the portable operator are the J Pole designs based on Wireman 450Ω window feedline. There are dimensions for bands from 2m down to 40m. The J pole is essentially a half wavelength dipole where the high feed impedance is transformed by a quarter-wave length matching section (the tail of the J) tapped at a suitable distance to yield a 50Ω match. Follow the ‘Wireman-J-Pole’ link in the left navigation. These pages remind you that the J-pole can be configured in any way so a 40m J pole in a Zepp arrangement starts to look quite practical if you have just under 10m of 450Ω feedline available. I want to start with the 6m design and see if I can make it robust enough with heat shrink etc for portable work.

Kits for the DK7ZB yagi designs are also available from nuxcom.de, Attila Kocis DL1NUX’s website. Both sites are in German and English.

SOTA launch in VK2

News is just in that SOTA – Summits on the Air – starts in a number of new call areas tomorrow including my home state New South Wales, VK2. I understand that Queensland VK4 and Hawaii KH6 may also be launched tomorrow, 1st September.

SOTA - Summits on the Air
SOTA – Summits on the Air

The new VK2 association adds over a thousand summits to the SOTA database. I was part of the team that surveyed the 16 regions. Hats off to Andrew VK1DA/VK2UH who coordinated the widely dispersed team of surveyors. I should publish a post here soon about the things I learnt along the way, about the resources available for SOTA summit surveying and cracking the mystery of identifying the all-important saddle to ascertain the required prominence. Flooding Google Maps is the clue.

The news of the scheduled start has taken us a little by surprise. I’m not sure how many activators will have had time to properly plan activations for the first day. The other issue is that tomorrow, Sunday 1st September is Father’s Day.

For more news about the accelerating SOTA activity in Australia – it’s already active in VK1, VK3, VK5 and VK9 – you should follow the conversation on the SOTA-Australia Yahoo group and visit VK1NAM’s blog for a list of SOTA blogs from VK activators.

The WIA’s Amateur Radio magazine for September which arrived in letterboxes yesterday features a report on the mass activations on 11 August celebrating six months of SOTA in VK1 as well as three pages of regular SOTA news. It’s brilliant for SOTA that editor Peter VK3PF is also one of the top SOTA activators in VK.

CW Academy FB

Yesterday I had my final CW Academy session. As an indication of how good it was and how much we valued it, not one of the five of us ever missed a single session! There were sixteen hour-long sessions over two months. And it was all free!

Late last year I noticed a couple of messages from Jack W0UCE inviting hams keen to improve their CW skills to join in and pointing them to this page detailing the thinking behind CW Academy’s approach.

What was on offer was a series of online sessions in a small online group re-learning the code. The hour-long sessions are designed to get you to read in your head and to break or avoid habits (like writing everything down) that will prevent you from increasing speed later.

A compact straight key - the HK-705
A compact straight key – the HK-705

The target for our beginner group was around 20wpm. The sessions took place using Oovoo which is like Skype for groups. (Apparently it’s important that the instructor can see who is having difficulties.) We logged on twice a week. In between times we were expected to practice daily using a nifty online tool, Morse Translator. This neat web app lets you practice listening to code and adjust both character speed and Farnsworth spacing. Our default setting from day one was 20wpm character speed with gaps to yield an effective speed of 10wpm. Morse translator is a great model to help practice sending as well. I found including sending practice helped lock in recognition of words.

Our teacher or Elmer was Rob K6RB. He shared his intense enthusiasm for CW with us as well as his experience on air. After a few weeks of walking us through the alphabet, numbers and prosigns and practising new letters and words, Rob gradually upped the speed. Then the rubber hit the road about week five when we were QSOing back and forth. Rob patiently introduced us to the format of the typical QSO, contesting and even handling a DXpedition. His aim was to prepare us for these so that we’d know what to expect and what was expected of us when we joined in. We got the benefits of decades of operating experience in these sessions.

CW Ops banner - 'The CW Operators' Club - Celebrating The Unique Art Form of Morse Code'

The CW Academy is an initiative of the CW Operators Club. CWops is international in focus and it was great to be accommodated as the token DX in the group.  As they say on the webpage “available to anyone, anywhere”.

The training has got me confident to get back on the air with a practical code speed and as a bonus, interested for the first time in having a go at contesting, initially the CWops fortnightly Mini-CWT contest which we spent a couple of sessions rehearsing.

A big TU to CWops and Rob K6RB for all their efforts running the CW Academy.

New KD1JV ultralight rig for 80/160

There’s been a higher than usual level of activity on the AT-Sprint email list over the last few days as  hints have emerged of a possible new offering of the popular MTR (Mountain Topper Radio) the latest of Steve Weber KD1JV’s radios that define the possibilities of ‘trail friendly’. To get a view of one in action check out this video from G4ISJ shot on a SOTA activation.

PCB of Steve KD1JV’s popular MTR, ‘a very small, very efficient, two band rig’
Steve KD1JV’s popular MTR, ‘a very small, very efficient, two band rig’, is set for another future offering

Steve KD1JV is the designer behind the PFR-3 and a number of other radios offered by Doug Hendricks’ QRP Kits along with the new Tri-bander Transceiver kit. But he also enjoys a passionate following for his high performance but tiny (Altoids tin size) radios in the ATS series where ATS stands for Appalachian Trail Sprint. These radios (especially the ATS-3B and the MTR) are prized by ham hikers and walkers who watch the ounces and milliamps. They are also an example of masterful interface design using small push buttons and minimal LED display. As Steve mentioned recently in a post reflecting his deep field operating experience “Little tiny rigs and knobs don’t work well together”.

During the buzz earlier today about whether he would offer more of the MTR kits (he will), Steve also announced his latest project “An 80/160 dual band rig with direct conversion receiver and a DDS/PLL hybrid VFO using all through hole parts.” (The ATS series made extensive use of microscopic SMD components and lots of the assistance Steve offers via the AT Sprint Yahoo group is concerned with discovering and rectifying makers’ errors assembling these devices.)

His website carries a pretty detailed three-page description of the design thinking behind the new rig which he’s calling the Super Deluxe Direct Conversion Transceiver. Tantalisingly he’s suggested it may be able to work at 500kHz. The new rig also features an “LCD frequency read out, built-in keyer and rotary tuning”.

He’s planning to offer only 50 kits at about US$75 at the end of November. Expect to see them sell out in two minutes! I suspect if he offered 200, they might last an hour or two.

Hidden heroes

The BBC have just broadcast and put on YouTube an excellent hour long documentary about two people whose wartime work is credited with shortening the war and saving millions of lives. Yet because of the cold war and the climate of secrecy, credit came late or not at all.

Code-Breakers: Bletchley Park’s Lost Heroes‘ details the work of young mathematician Bill Tutte who broke the German’s top-secret Lorenz code and Post Office engineer Tommy Flowers who built the first electronic computer ever – to replace ‘Heath Robinson’, the mechanical device used to process the code-breaking.

Bill Tutte and Tommy Flowers were both ‘scholarship boys’ who benefitted from the best educational and research opportunities available to their generation. Earlier conflicts may not have been able to discover and develop such talents. (And it’s questionable whether comparable educational opportunity is available today.)

It’s hinted towards the end of the program that the extended secrecy about their achievements is connected to the assumption that the Soviets continued to use the captured German Lorenz system into the 1950s. You can only imagine Tommy Flowers’ frustration, biting his tongue every time someone referred to ENIAC as the first computer!

You have to marvel at the beautiful minds of these two men – dealing with complex matrices and patterns and the logic associated with understanding them – without the tools we take for granted today. One of my favourite scenes is Bill Tutte at his desk with a hand drawn grid on a large sheet of paper tracking the pattern of the characters in the coded messages.

Big Day Out at Wyong

Just back from a few hours spent at the annual field day at Wyong hosted by the Central Coast Amateur Radio Club. This has to be the big day out for Australian radio amateurs. People came from near and far. It’s a good barometer of the health of the hobby and the local industry supporting it.
I was delighted to see – as the first exhibit as you enter – a full display of the Elecraft K-line presented by Gary VK4FD. Only thing missing was a KX3. Gary of course is an enthusiast, not an employee of Elecraft. A pretty good indicator of the passionate support the company enjoys.

Gary VK4FD and his display of Elecraft gear at the Wyong field day
Gary VK4FD and his display of Elecraft gear at the Wyong field day

The flea market became pretty busy as the morning progressed, but maybe not as many stalls as previous years. One stall that stood out for me at least was Stephen VK2SPS’s which included his offering of keys and bugs, surplus to his collection as he focuses on homegrown Australian manufactured keys. Eagle-eyed visitors will spot the McElroy bug (top, centre) and an interesting wooden based French military key towards bottom right.

Spotted in the flea market at the Wyong field day
Spotted in the flea market at the Wyong field day

Brilliant sunny weather, but not too hot to spend some time wandering about looking for a bargain or three. Also saw an impressive display of homebrew gear from members of the ARNSW Homebrew group.

Winnie the war winner

The other day I noticed a very interesting photo on a fellow Australian ham blogger, Peter Mark’s site. The blog entry was titled a “Radio nerd’s tour of Canberra“. The first photo is described as ‘a transceiver with a nifty antenna tuner’. But the instant I saw it I sensed there was slightly more to it.

Winnie the war-winner seen in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. It was named after British wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.
Winnie the war-winner seen in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. It was named after British wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.

The fact that it was built on a beaten up old kerosene can prompted me to google “Winnie the war winner” and the results confirmed Peter’s photo is of this most famous piece of Australian ham homebrew ingenuity. Max (Joe) Loveless’ skill to be precise. The photo prompted me to find out the story of this iconic wireless set that’s an inspiration to a generation of Australian radio hams proud of their traditions of ‘making-do’.

The wikipedia entry on the Battle of Timor gives detailed historical and military background to this little radio’s moment of fame in April 1942.

As a result of British intrigue Australian troops were sent to Portuguese East Timor to disrupt any Japanese invasion on Australia’s northern doorstep. By April the 2/2nd Independent Company had been fighting a guerilla campaign for four months. Many were ill and they were low on supplies, and had had no contact with Australia since February.

For weeks a team had been trying to build a transmitter from salvaged parts from damaged radio gear. Before the war Max Loveless was a radio amateur in Hobart with the call 7ML. He became a Signaller with “Sparrowforce” on the Dutch part of Timor with the Australian Infantry Forces (AIF).

Report on Winnie the war winner in the Melbourne Argus for 1 Jan 1943 - page 12
Report on Winnie the war winner in the Melbourne Argus for 1 Jan 1943 – page 12

Bill Marien reported the story in the Melbourne Argus of 1st January 1943:

“Force Intact. Still Fighting. Badly Need Boots, Money, Quinine, Tommygun, Ammunition.”

This was the first official message received in Australia from the lost AIF commandos of Portuguese Timor who, for 59 days after the Japanese landing on the island, had been written off as missing or dead.

The signal came to Darwin on the night of April 19. It was transmitted by “Winnie the War Winner,” a crazy contraption built from scraps of wire and tin, and pieces of long discarded radio sets.

When the commandos showed me the incredible Winnie recently, it was easy to recapture the scene of that night of April 19.

In the thin air of a Timor mountain hideout, 4 bearded, haggard Australians were working by the smoking, stinking light of a pig-fat flare. Three of them watched anxiously as the fourth thumbed a Morse key. Weak batteries sent the dots and dashes of the morse dimly across the Arafura Sea to the Northern Territory of Australia. The tension was something physical as the operator strained his ears for a reply. At last a reply came.”

The AIF commando force which had been in Portuguese Timor were joined by other Australians from Dutch Timor including two signalmen, Cpl John Sargeant, of Bonshaw, NSW, and Lance-Cpl John Donovan, of Lindfield, NSW. Under leadership of Capt George Parker, of Earlwood, NSW, they joined Sigs Max (Joe) Loveless, of Hobart, and K. Richards, of Victoria, both of the original commando force.

“On March 8 the 4 men got to work — Loveless just out of sick bed and Sargeant just recovered from malaria. Three days later a Dutch sergeant, exhausted, stumbled in. He had carried what he thought to be a transmitter-receiver 40 miles through some of the roughest country in the world. It was an ordinary commercial medium-wave receiving set – and out of order.

CORPORAL WENT SCROUNGING

Loveless, whose knowledge made him No 1 man of the team, thought he could build a one-valve transmitter from parts of this set and of another small and weak set. He planned a circuit, and all the commandos were asked to be on the lookout for anything that might serve as a radio part.

Cpl Donovan went scrounging at Attamboa, on the north coast, to see what he could salvage, while his companions recovered an abandoned army set. The parts of the 3 sets were unsoldered, and a bamboo used to catch all the melted solder for re-use. Loveless had carefully preserved 2 small batteries, but they needed recharging. A generator was taken from an abandoned 10-year old car and rigged to a series of wooden wheels, which a native was persuaded to turn. The set was complete on March 26.

It would not work!

Three of the team who helped Max Loveless build Winnie the war winner re-enact transmissions from a hill in East Timor - Signaller Keith Richards, Corporal John Donovan and Lieutenant Jack Sergeant. Photo by Damien Parer
Three of the team who helped Max Loveless build Winnie the war winner re-enact transmissions from a hill in East Timor – Signaller Keith Richards, Corporal John Donovan and Lieutenant Jack Sergeant. Photo by Damien Parer.

The only tools available were a tomahawk, pliers, and screw-driver. They had no test equipment to determine the set’s frequency. The coils were wound on pieces of bamboo.

On March 28 Donovan returned from Attamboa – laden like a treasure ship. He had the power pack from a Dutch transmitter, 2 aerial tuning condensers, 60ft of aerial wire in short lengths, and a receiving set. Next day the men had to move all their precious gear, for the Japanese were getting too close.

Loveless got to work on a second transmitter twice as big as the first, and built it into a 4-gallon kerosene tin. A battery charger was recovered from enemy-held territory. To get it 14 commandos went through the Japanese lines to the old Australian headquarters at Villa Maria. There, within 100 yards of Japanese sentries, protected only by the dark, they dug up the charger which had been buried when the headquarters were evacuated.

HEARD DARWIN WAS SAFE

On April 10 the signallers heard Darwin on the receiver, and knew then that Darwin was still in Australian hands. But their second transmitter was also a failure.

Loveless had another idea, but he needed more batteries. Four were found. Then the petrol ran out and the charger could not be kept running. So they raided the Japanese lines and carried off tins of kerosene. Finally the charger was started on kerosene and run on diesel oil.

With batteries at full strength they signalled Darwin on April 18, but got no reply. They did not know that their message had been picked up on the Australian mainland and passed on to Darwin, that all transmitting stations had been warned to keep off the air and listen to Timor the following night.

You can get a good sense of the story from this video of the documentary ‘The Men of Timor’ filmed in Timor by Damien Parer in late September 1943. You can see a reconstruction of the building of the radio about 3’16″ in from the start.

On the 19th April they heard Darwin but their batteries failed again.

On the night of April 20 they again got Darwin. But Darwin was suspicious; demanded proof of their identity. So questions and answers like these were rushed across the Arafura Sea:

“Do you know Bill Jones?”— “Yes, he’s with us.”

“What rank, and answer immediately?”— “Captain.”

“Is he there? Bring him to the transmitter. . . . What’s your wife’s name, Bill?”— “Joan.”

“What’s the street number of your home?”

Once they provided the correct answers, help was on its way.

I found the newspaper report on the National Library of Australia’s brilliant Trove, where digital versions of many Australian newspapers have been put online courtesy of crowd-sourced editors across the global internet. Truly astounding!