The Art & Skill of Radio-Telegraphy

-Second Revised Edition-
William G. Pierpont N0HFF

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Chapter 6 - How Fast? The Wrong Question - How Well!

"How fast?" -- that's really the wrong question when standing all by itself.  The question which ought to be asked is "How well?" or perhaps "How effectively?" or "How intelligently"

The telegraph code is simply a means of communication, and communication is transferring ideas from one person to another in the form of words and sentences.  If a person talks too slowly, attention tends to lag and comprehension becomes difficult.  If too rapidly, things may be missed or misunderstood.  Mumbling is usually inexcusable.  Speed itself is not usually the object, except perhaps in case of emergency, such as "Help!", and even then it may hurt rather than help communication   The normal goal is coherency and accuracy. Speed for us is just convenience.

Commercial operators have always prided themselves in their ability to handle a large volume of traffic with dispatch and 100% accuracy.  One operator wrote: "Over 50 years ago as a trainee commercial operator I was told that it is better to send at 20 wpm, and be received 100% the first time, than to send at 28 wpm and be involved in time wasting repeats."

The U.S. Navy insisted on accuracy above everything else: speed was always secondary.  Battles, lives and expensive ships -- often the outcome of the battle itself -- depend upon perfect accuracy in communication.   A single erroneous word or number during wartime or emergency might be ruinous and tragic. Accuracy comes first always, at all times there.  The telegraph code was devised to communicate - that is its sole purpose.

If the code is not understood it is a waste of time and effort.  If we send personal "dialect" or in a strongly personalized manner we make it hard, or even impossible  for the receiving operator to make sense out of it.  How do you like to struggle to make sense out of what a speaker with strong dialectical speech, or with a serious speech defect, says to you?  If there is anything that causes downright joy in an amateur's heart, it is the pleasure of communicating with an operator who really knows how to send and how to receive. Aim to be one of these.


How fast can you copy?  Even for a highly skilled operator this is almost wholly dependent on the sender's quality of articulation -- his rhythm, spacing and keyer weighting.  One of them said: "I can read a super operator at 50 wpm, but there are some hams I strain to copy at 10 wpm - some old timers hard to copy because of bad habits."  The key to high speed reception is to recognize the pauses between letters and between words.  This means that the sender must not run things together.  It is this split second it is the space which gives the time needed to get the mind set for the next word.   One of first things that often happens when we try to send faster is to run the letters and words together.  For example, when "of" comes out "dahdahdahdididahdit".  We can learn to read that stuff, but when longer and less familiar words are sent and word spaces also are neglected, we can quickly get lost in an maze of letters which make no sense.  (It seems to me that as speeds get really high fewer and fewer abbreviations are used.)


It is possible to creep along at five wpm, the minimum FCC amateur qualifying speed -- communicating, but just barely. Many hams in the past found lots of enjoyment plugging along at ten wpm, which for many years was the minimum requirement for an amateur operator's license.  Perhaps a majority of hams have found 15 - 18 wpm to be comfortable, adequate and quite pleasant to satisfy their desires to communicate.

Back in the days of landline telegraphy sixteen wpm was considered the minimum to qualify a new operator, while 25 - 30 was considered a "standard" range of speed.  For very many years the ARRL bulletins have been at 18 wpm, which is a comfortable speed for most of us to read and copy.  It should be clear that speed, in itself, should not be an object, but rather proficiency and ease of operation.  (One does not usually buy a racing car just to drive to work each day.)  On the other hand, when there is a lot to say, or when there is a need for extensive personal interchange, a minimum speed of 25 - 30 wpm is really needed to keep the thought moving.

From listening in the bands it would appear that in the CW mode this speed range seems to be very common.  Even when one is contesting, and ragchewing is out of the question, if one moves too slowly, he is going to have a rather low score.  But here also, speed, in itself, is not of much value:  intelligibility and accuracy are required, and correct call signs, etc., are vital for qualification.  There must be a balance.

All through the history of telegraphy, from almost the earliest days to the present, there has been the challenge for speed. The high-speed skilled operators achieved a sort of prestige, which was salable and commercially was rewarded by higher pay. The beginner and the plug were looked down upon with more or less scorn.  But as radio amateurs, CW is one element of our hobby, something we do because we like to do it.  We are subject to neither monetary incentive for proficiency nor threats for mediocrity.  It is our own sense of need and desire that motivates us.  Those among us who can race along at buzz-saw rates should not look down upon the rest of us who are content to enjoy lower rates, and we slower guys, in turn should not despise the newcomer, the handicapped or the ham content with thirteen wpm. We don't have to communicate with those above or below our state of proficiency unless we want to.  So, the word we ought to emphasize here is "proficiency" -- proficiency at a speed that satisfies our enjoyment -- a pleasant speed which we feel is comfortable and satisfying.


He is "at home" with the code up to his limiting speed.  He is quite comfortable sending and receiving in this range, and except for excessive QRM and QRN feels no sense of strain.  To him or her the code is just another, and particularly enjoyable way to converse.  He understands what he hears without any particular effort, and of course he hears it as words, not just strings of letters.  Some of our best written examples come from the old wire line RR telegraphers in small stations across the country.

These men (few women held such jobs because of the other duties required) also had responsibility for delivering train orders to the train crews, maintaining RR property associated with their stations, operating the semaphore signals and track switches for passing trains,  answering customers' questions, selling tickets, handling baggage and freight shipments, etc.  In short, telegraphy, while of great importance, was but one aspect of their jobs.  They were not just sitting beside their sounders waiting for something to come through on the line.  Their ears were attuned to the sounder, and they would have to be ready to interrupt other duties if something important was heard.  Their sounders were continuously on the line and they could and did hear, almost unconsciously listening to everything that was said to anyone on the line: they knew everything going on.  (It was like a big party line.)  Very many skilled radio operators of the past and present do the same thing.

One of them who operated commercially for many years and was also a ham wrote:  "During my time as a RR telegrapher, and as a [radio] operator, I could and can do several other things while still knowing what is going on on the wire or on the radio.  As a matter of fact, right now, I have 20 meter cw on and I am fully aware of what is going on, who is there, what they are saying, etc., while writing this letter. With speeds of up to 30 - 40 wpm, I have always been able to carry on a complete conversation while copying the code on a mill, servicing the message ahead of time, etc., etc."  SET


So, how high should you set your goal of speed? - Set it to meet your own temperament and desires, what you think will be comfortable and enjoyable to you.  Set it realistically -- not so high that you get discouraged by how long it takes to get there.  But not so low that you are unable to enjoy much that is on the air, available to be read or copied.  If you feel challenged to go to the top, fine, but maybe you should divide it into stages of growth along the lines suggested here.

Ted McElroy, long the code speed champion and a teacher, said that 25 wpm is an easily achievable and reasonable goal -- one who can handle this speed comfortably is a "good" operator. But if you can read or copy at 30-35 wpm this added margin will allow you to correct for errors, static and other kinds of interference or losses, as well as widening your contacts.  We have tried here to lay out for all to see what has been done and what can be done.  Pick what you yourself want.  You don't have to keep up with the fastest Joneses you may hear.

First and foremost, have fun: enjoy it.   Good" operator?  "Skilled" operator?  "Expert?" "Super-expert?"   Up to some point each stage brings increasing pleasure as one becomes more and more free from conscious effort.  Reaching higher speeds will turn out to be easier than you might suppose.   It is mostly a matter of right approach and practice, continuing what we have already started.  Your rate of gain will depend mostly on how you go about it, and will be more or less proportional to the square of the time invested. What do you want?


At too low a code speed it takes so long to say things in ordinary English that it may become tedious or even boring. This can be a major road block to the real enjoyment of slower cw operating, but it is not the only reason for tedious QSO's. This can be partly overcome by certain shortcuts.  In the early days of wireless, code speeds were necessarily slow for a number of reasons, and so three ideas were borrowed from landline telegraphy to help speed things up:-

"Q" signals allow us to cover a lot of ground with only three letters.  If they are followed by a question mark, the sender is asking a question; without it he is making a statement.  "QTH", for example, says "My location is ...", while "QTH?" says "What is your location?"  (It is a waste of time to send: "My QTH is ..." as we sometimes hear, or "What is your QTH?")  See the ARRL Operating Manual for a list of the most useful of these.  (A similar but much more extensive set of special commercial three-letter signals was once devised, called the "Z-code." This system never attained wide popularity, but it is much easier to remember.)

In most sentences certain words can be left out completely without altering the meaning of a sentence.  Words such as "I". "the", "that", etc., can often be dropped without causing any confusion.  Several words or a whole phrase can often be ignored without detracting anything of importance.  These were the kinds of things commonly done in writing commercial telegrams to reduce the cost.

Various kinds of abbreviations, a sort of shorthand, have been in common use over the years.  Many of them were used extensively by people making brief notes, etc., others were devised by old time telegraphers for their special purposes. Several different schemes have been devised to form them:

Amateurs must, however, remember the government regulation that we may not use secret codes or ciphers -- our communications must be open,which means something generally used and understandable. (The old Phillips code, for example, would qualify because it is public information.)  The older handbooks contained lists of the more common abbreviations, a sort of standard list.  Some were for general use, others were for handling heavy message traffic, etc.

When commercial telegraphers were sending press (news) at relatively high speeds they used a very extensive set of abbreviations called the Phillips code.  Here the sending operator translated many of the words and phrases of a news dispatch into this code, and the receiving operator retranslated them back into normal English as he copied the news.  This procedure reduced the total number of letters to be sent and received by around 40% (estimated from samples given).  When speaking of the speed of press dispatches this factor must be factored in (the counts were based on normal English spelling). Some of the Phillips abbreviations were adopted by amateurs.

The important thing about using abbreviations is that they must be obvious to the receiving operator.  That means they must be common words in normal amateur or everyday use.  We must use common sense with them -- not overdoing it or using them excessively, just being careful that they will be understood.  Refer to Chapter 27  for examples and lists of abbreviations.

The Art and Skill of Radio-Telegraphy-Second Revised Edition-
©William G. Pierpont N0HFF