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Issue #13: Behind the Curtain of a Secret Language

By Dave Jensen, W7DGJ


When I came back to amateur radio after so many years away from the hobby, I was really surprised that I remembered Morse Code. Wow, I thought . . . decades later, this stuff is still in my brain! I bought a cheapie straight key and went through the alphabet repeatedly. While the way that QSO’s played out had changed a bit due to texting language and shortcuts, the secret language I had learned as a boy remained with me.


That’s what it was – do you remember? A couple of pals and I considered it to be the coolest thing around. I was a scout, as were many of us old timers of today (I see that’s a frequent story on QRZ profiles). The code was interesting then because what 14-year-old boy doesn’t want to have a secret decoder ring, or a way to message his buddy down the street without others knowing what is being discussed? While a few of us scouts took it up in earnest, I was the only one who managed to “get” the code beyond a few words a minute. For me, that was thanks to two mentors at the Cleveland Veterans Hospital amateur radio station where I worked as a volunteer.


These Elmers were both paraplegic, veterans of the Korean War, but with that little bug strapped on their wheelchair they could talk to the world. It was just a hornet’s buzz to me, as their speeds were so far over my head. Of course, they weren’t writing anything down. It was head copy, and at the time I just didn’t get how anyone could do that. Head copy is still my goal, of course. I try not to write anything down, and yet I know I’m missing something when the speed approaches 25+ WPM. I refuse to put pencil to paper because I know that’s just wrong . . . it’s training the brain to hear words, not individual characters, that really counts.


Sometimes, stories of 40-50 WPM are the stuff of braggadocio, like fishermen getting together over a beer and talking about their last outing on the lake. And then, you run into someone like my two Elmers at the VA, or my friend Woody (K7CQX) and you realize this is actually possible. In my article today, I’m going to introduce you to some secrets of CW success from an operator who knows this field well. And, I’m going to combine these secrets with the life of a well-known ham who has consistently built perhaps the finest keys ever made.


N2DE - The Designer of the CW Machine


I’ve read about the CW Machine for years and have always wanted to get my hands on one – so far, no luck. When a used CW Machine goes on the market, it gets snapped up quickly, much like some of the other gear I’ve written about in “Trials and Errors” – like Mercury Amps, or Mountain Topper radios for example.


The CW Machine has many different functions and perhaps QRZ will focus on it in a future issue. For right now, let me state that it has earned a legendary status, a great deal due to the devotion its developer, Ulrich Steinberg (N2DE) has put into it. Ulrich travels the world with one of these devices. It’s part keyer, part computer, and part trainer for the CW operator.


I reached out to Ulrich to solicit his comments for operators who consider themselves still in the learning phase (something that may extend through an entire lifetime with a language like this one). He was kind enough to reply to my inquiries from the South African Kalahari!


In our first exchange, I asked Ulrich about the problem I'm having with head copy. I try to head copy everything, and it's killing me. I'll get the other station's call wrong, the name, or I'll miss an element I should have had for the log. I really don't know what to write down, and what to just listen to.


“When you listen to code groups, call signs, signal reports and so on, you obviously have to write them down," Ulrich replied. "But handwriting can be an impediment. Use Notepad or some other text program to type certain elements. It's when you listen to plain text -- that's when you need to copy it in your head. That is what you will do for most actual QSOs. It’s just the essential information for a log that you’ll want to notate.”


I'm going to try that from now on. I'll keep the laptop handy for the vital stuff and just keep the rest of the code in my head, as you would for any conversation. The faces of my Elmers came to mind, and I wondered why they had me writing down everything. Maybe there was another bit of advice that has changed over the years?


I told Ulrich that my Elmers had instructed me to get a straight key and practice both sending and receiving until I knew what good code sounded like, and whether that advice still holds water. Zap -- another piece of ancient wisdom got blown out of the water!


“Don‘t start with a straight key! Use an electronic keyer with a dual-lever paddle from the start. The electronic keyer will make sure that your ear gets accustomed to perfectly timed characters," Ulrich suggested in what sounded to me like a fairly critical piece of advice. He went on to tell me that there will be plenty of opportunity for me to listen to poor code, so if I'm continuing to learn, I might as well hear the sound of perfectly spaced dits-dahs and words.


"If you later decide to give straight keys a try, your fist will be better because you know how characters and spacing are supposed to sound," Ulrich said.


Because I'm a product reviewer, I spend a lot of time pounding on new keys or paddles and as a result, I wondered if my practice sessions were perhaps out of kilter. I asked for some basic advice from Ulrich, as to the right mix of practice for sending and receiving. Perhaps I am now at 70% sending and 30% receiving in my practice sessions, and I had a sneaking suspicion that this was off base.


“Try your best to mix copying practice and sending practice in equal measure," he said. "Being able to copy faster signals does not help if your responses are garbled. You will also see that sending well-timed signals improves your ability to copy.”


N2DE’s comments were much appreciated, especially in light of Ulrich’s travels at the time. For more information on his CW Machine, look at the website of Begali Keys, which I will pass along towards the end of this issue.


The Code is Where the True Craftsmen of the Hobby Reside


There’s something of a personality to that key in your hands, right? You’ve made it yours over the years, and have developed the sound of your “fist,” but there’s still a bit of the original maker in your key as well. Perhaps that’s someone like Horace Martin, founder of Vibroplex, or Robert Kent of Kent Engineers. These are just two brands, one American and one European, that have left their mark on the hobby.


When it comes to fine, handmade keys, names like Uli Scheunemann (Germany) or Pietro Begali (Italy) come to mind. Their products are just as much a work of art as they are a functioning telegraph key. In Begali’s case, with much credit going to his daughter Bruna, there’s more of his product across the globe than any other maker of fine CW tools. It's still a small company, a boutique provider of the best-of-the-best, but Bruna Begali spends a lot of time in the field at events and has brought her father's product to the world.


Begali Keys are expensive, although with the current Euro to Dollar conversion rate that's not as big an issue as in the past. And there will always be arguments about which key is best or whether the investment can be heard when that key is in use. But there is absolutely no argument that great keys like these are built with a love for the code and a passion that greatly eclipses the solder-and-circuit-boards world of radio production. I love my ICOM, but when I put my hands on my key, I am connected to the maker of that product in a completely unique way. There is nothing better in my opinion than the tactile sensation of hand to key, key to radio, and radio to RF.


What follows are some choice comments from an interview I conducted with Piero Begali (I2RTF). Piero is an informal nickname for Pietro.


Dave: “Piero, you’ve spent a lifetime playing radio. How did you first happen to learn the code, and what kind of key were you using at the time?”


Begali: “When I started studying for my Amateur Radio license, it felt like CW was as pleasant as torture. It took me about 6 months to start receiving at 15 WPM. At the time, I was using an Italian Post Office telegraph key, the Forcieri brand. Then, after landing my license with the call I1RTF, I built myself a SideSwiper using a hacksaw and quickly came back to the Forcieri. My first real key was the Begali Simplex, which took me all of two days of designing and prototypes. But I can’t tell you how many years and how many prototypes came before we actually had a company producing these keys commercially. We are now celebrating 27 years for Begali Keys.”


Dave: “Congrats on the anniversary. I know you are still selling a version of that original Begali Simplex even today.”


Begali: “That’s right. When I machined that first prototype, I was trying to combine not only my own mechanical design experience, but also adding to that my interest in Italian design, which as you know is an important part of Italian culture. My daughter Bruna studied at the Art Academy in Design and she has been a great resource for me during the years since then. The first Begali key born was that Begali Simplex key which, as you say, remains one of our best sellers. It is still made with a spring return force. All of the first keys I built were designed not only for me, but also for some of the greatest CW operators who have become my good friends. They asked me to design a key they could use during their competitions but also during their free time. The beauty of the shapes, of the materials, and of the finishes are what made Begali Keys a success.”


Dave: “Piero, you have made quite a business out of Begali Keys, but there must have been times where you wondered how it could support you. Aren’t you in other businesses as well?”



Begali: “When I started producing keys, the knitting machine market was still very good and from 1960 I had the experience of designing these machines and producing the precision electromagnetic actuators required by those machines. This gave us the ability to support the production of radio amateur items even when they were not always economically viable. I considered the Ham Radio commercial market as a secondary business since my main field was for the precise small parts required for these German and American knitting machines, and for other industrial machines made by companies such as Olivetti. These clients allowed me to subsidize the costs of the Telegraph keys production so that I could play out my radio passion.”


Dave: “I was hoping that the word ‘passion’ would come up in our discussion, because that’s the unique element that I see in what you do. You’re an innovator, Piero, but not someone strictly making technology for the ham. There’s something else you bring to a Begali Key . . . perhaps it comes from your passion. Whatever we call it, it is evident in the end product.”


Begali: “Well, it is not just me. Begali is a family business, and perhaps for this reason we are friendly and flexible with people. We have employees who have been with us for decades and they are still working with us today. Maybe it is because we love our job. We are not a big multinational company and we don’t want to treat any of our customers as a number. We care about each Begali user, one-on-one exactly as if they were a family member as well.”


Dave: “You’ve never jumped into the bargain key business . . . the products from Begali have always been high-end and, of course, that means expensive in comparison to some of your competitors. Have you ever been tempted to introduce a different standard at a lower cost?”


Piero: “Well, with the materials and technologies we are using and the cost of the production here in Italy it is quite hard to produce something cheaper. We don’t want to use cheap material and cheap parts . . . I’d prefer to keep our products top-of-the-line, and always improving. But we do produce a 'less expensive' Begali key, the Begali Simplex Basic. Sadly, I have to say that we lose 15-25 Euro on each, but in that way we can give those people who want a 'cheap' key the ability to afford a Begali. Then, we may see them later for another higher-level model.”


Dave: “Thanks for investing the time for this discussion, Piero. Can you wrap it up for us by telling me more about what you’ve learned about producing a fine key or paddle? What are your learnings that you would pass along to those coming up behind you in this field?”


Begali: “Dave, I’ve always asked myself this question, and I keep coming back to these essentials. First off, it’s low friction. It’s essential to use only the highest quality ball bearings available, and at Begali we find these made in Germany. Secondly, it’s low inertia on the return force, using the lightest aluminum alloys – those which are often used in space and military applications. On the ergonomic side, there’s a design for the finger pieces that gives the best touch and most comfortable results, as this is important too. And of course, using the best contact materials, both solid raw silver and raw gold, to get better electrical connections and less resistance. Finally, a good key uses the newest industrial technologies available to treat the parts because you want them to have a durable and aesthetic appearance. It’s not just a color change, believe me.”


Dave: “Thank you, Piero. I hope to catch you on the air someday!”


Piero: “Yes, I am still active. Of course, I may have abandoned my youthful passion for chasing DX. Nowadays I am pleased to simply “rag chew” on 40 M with low power and lower speeds, because when I am on the air I have to relax myself a bit after a long day of work! I use the Begali Semiautomatic Intrepid bug key.”


Thank you to both Ulrich and Piero for the insight on this topic. You'll find more about Begali Keys and the CW Machine at this link


Special Note: Please see Short Takes #5 product reviews article this week for reviews on a variety of product reviews, including new keys!


73 for now,  Dave


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Dave Jensen, W7DGJ

Dave Jensen, W7DGJ, was first licensed in 1966. Originally WN7VDY (and later WA7VDY), Dave operated on 40 and 80 meter CW with a shack that consisted primarily of Heathkit equipment. Dave loved radio so much he went off to college to study broadcasting and came out with a BS in Communications from Ohio University (Athens, OH). He worked his way through a number of audio electronics companies after graduation, including the professional microphone business for Audio-Technica.  He was later licensed as W7DGJ out of Scottsdale, Arizona, where he ran an executive recruitment practice (CareerTrax Inc.) for several decades. Jensen has published articles in magazines dealing with science and engineering. His column “Tooling Up” ran for 20 years in the website of the leading science journal, SCIENCE, and his column called “Managing Your Career” continues to be a popular read each month for the Pharmaceutical and Household Products industries in two journals published by Rodman Publishing.

Articles Written by Dave Jensen, W7DGJ

This page was last updated March 3, 2023 20:13