On Reaching Fifteen…

CW has long stopped being a requirement for radio amateur licensing. Yet, many still consider CW the ultimate experience in radio communications, not only because of its intrinsic superior efficiency as a mode, but also – and more important – because of the historic dimension that it adds to radio operation.

Most human adults speak at a rate up to 100-160 words per minute (wpm). And we do so mostly without noticing the words, the letters or any of their sounds. We merely operate at the level of the concepts that combinations of written symbols or spoken sounds elicit in our brains. Such level of proficiency, unless acquired early in life, takes a long time and much effort to acquire. In the same manner, those really conversant in CW also use it without noticing the words, the characters, the dashes or the dots, and merely communicate at the level of the concepts that the flow of CW elicits in their brains. Everyone learns differently and every teaching method has its followers and detractors. However, independent from the teaching method and similar to any other language, making CW transparent to the communication process is an intimate and personal endeavour: a fascinating struggle with one’s own brain taking both time and dedication.

In 2004, being able to receive CW at 5 wpm was a requirement for gaining access to the HF bands. Learning the code at the expense of the visual cortex was easy and fast and the test was passed at first try. That, of course, was a huge mistake.

It took nine years for that same brain to shake off the dots and dashes, favour instead the parietal auditory cortex and start paying more attention to the rhythms in CW: it wasn’t until September 18, 2013 that it was able to copy the W1AW Qualifying Run broadcast at 10 wpm and be rewarded with the “ARRL Certificate of Code Proficiency”.

It would then take over three more years, until December 13, 2016, for that brain to start automating reception, combine characters into words and copy the W1AW Qualifying Run at 15 wpm. The anti-climatic reward on this occasion was a small “15 WPM” sticker to be added as an endorsement to the original “ARRL Certificate of Code Proficiency”. This is, of course, totally inconsequential, but it does provide for a tangible milestone of personal achievement together with the bragging rights embodied in this article.


However, the main reward has been to start participating in CW nets and CW contests without resorting to any decoding aid. Not the best strategy for reeling top finishing scores, but a winning one towards a feeling of communion with the Marconi operators of the wireless era and even their predecessors from the Railroad Telegraph.

Just for the sake of completion here is information on the ARRL Code Proficiency Certificate, the on the air W1AW Qualifying Run Schedule, the ARRL MP3 code practice files and the on the air W1AW code transmissions.