The Art & Skill of Radio-Telegraphy

-Second Revised Edition-
William G. Pierpont N0HFF

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Chapter 11 - Further Development of Skills

Recognition of CW is a process of learning to perceive intermittent sounds as intelligible "speech."

Real skill begins when we no longer think of the code as code, but only of the content.  A good operator is one who feels quite at home with code, fluent in it.  He is able to copy accurately up from a low of about 15 up to about 25 wpm and can think and talk in telegraphic words, almost as if it were ordinary language at speeds sometimes up to 30-35 wpm ("conversational CW" as one teacher happily called "rag chewing").

This ought to be the minimum ambition of every operator, because it makes the game all the more enjoyable, a very comfortable working range. He enjoys it and feels no strain or pressure.  He is competent. (Anybody can talk into a mike.)  By omitting needless words and with the help of common abbreviations, Q signals, etc., his rate of communication is high enough to be comfortable, and he feels no particular drawbacks when he talks in Morse code.  Sure, he may spell or sound out unusual or strange words or proper names, just as he would when he meets them in reading or writing, but mostly he hears words as words because he has become  more proficient. Words are the "alphabet" of the skilled operator.


As we talk about these highly proficient men and women, we must draw a distinction between reading code at these speeds and copying it.  All through the history of telegraphy  skilled operators have said they could "read a whole lot faster than they can copy the stuff down." Obviously no one can copy faster than he can write -- whether by hand or on a typewriter.

We have already discussed copying.  In this chapter we address reading skills again.  We're talking here primarily about amateurs who have achieved a still higher degree of skill, not for commercial or professional reasons, but simply because they want to.  It may be for sheer enjoyment or to satisfy an inner drive, but whatever may be the reason, such an ability is as worthy an objective as any other skill, and even more so, for it is useful as well as enjoyable. We need incentive -- motivation -- to achieve, and that ought to be enough.

Doesn't our satisfaction over managing to get even one recognizable word out of a high speed code transmission trigger a desire to be able to read it all at that speed?  "The joys of high speed CW are known only to those willing to put forth the time to learn what a unique world exists on our bands."  This semi- pro is completely relaxed as he effortlessly reads or copies: he has no reason to doubt -- he knows he can read it even while doing something else.  Regardless of what he may be doing, a skilled telegrapher hears what is being said in code within his hearing.  He reads it like he hears the spoken word and may even be able to remember it later well enough to copy it down if he needs to.

The following is an interesting example:   On a local SSB net of high speed operators the controller asked:  "Gary, can you operate SSB as well?"   After a short pause, somebody said: "Gary, He's talking to you on SSB!"   "Ah" said Kirby, "So he is!"  --   Morse is so much a second nature for those with real skill that they have to stop and think what mode they're actually using.  It will surprise you when you first experience it.


High speed CW demands precision: it did not become a reality for most operators until digital communication in the form of microprocessor controlled keyboards became available.  This made available at reasonable cost the two parameters which are paramount to enjoyable high-speed CW operation: -- accuracy, which is always the most important and never to be sacrificed for speed, and speed.

An operator cannot send accurately enough with a mechanical device at speeds much over 40 wpm for any length of time, but a keyboard makes that easy.  In addition, its features of memory, etc. give further help, making CW communication better, with the result that operators can now converse instead of carrying on monologues.  The human mind manifestly is better equipped than any computer to copy the Morse code, and the joy of operating comes from listening to accurate CW send by a skilled operator.  No matter what sending device is used.  The point is to send ACCURATELY. It is the mind that copies CW, and it is in the head that pleasure is found.


There are said to be four phases of skill:

Remember that in the earliest stage we learn to hear the letters as units of sound, rather than hearing the dits and dahs as such.  Next, we advance to hearing many common words and parts of words as units, instead of strings of letters spelled out. At this point we are quite conscious that the dits and dahs are there, and this gives us a sort of inner confidence that the foundation is in place (our security blanket).  Up to this point we feel comfortable.

The third step comes as we pass the point of being able to hear the dit and dah components any longer -- they seem to have vanished into a blur.  (We should still be conscious that the letters are present, however.)  At first one may feel somewhat helpless, as though the supports had somehow gotten lost. However, the automatic mind, which has been trained by enough of the right kind of practice  (and has been active all the time, though we may have been unaware of how far its activity extends), seems to be able to hear those components and identify the letters with no strain.  What we must now learn to do is to TRUST this mental ability although we are unaware of how it works.

"Conscious effort is fatal to speed" is a common observation with respect to any skill we have acquired.  "The moment you let yourself think and cease to rely on 'instinct' you will fail in these special skills."  If a code transmission is played at 20 wpm for the rank beginner, his probable reaction will be: "I will never be able to read or copy  that!"  However, after as few weeks of training he will be doing it.  High speed code may seem far too fast ever to read, but it is not nearly as fast as it sounds to the uneducated ear.  A good share of the problem is overcoming the impression that it might not be possible to comprehend at such a speed.  One stubborn fact faces us: others can do it, and surely I can, too.  Therefore, take heart.  We recognize that it is hard to understand recorded speech when it is played back at twice or at half speed because not only the pitches but the sounds become so distorted.

This is not true of code, where the important proportions are strictly maintained the patterns are still there.  Skilled operators need to learn to read and copy over a fairly wide range of speeds.  Ted McElroy once said: "If you can pick out even one single character at a higher speed you are on your way."  So if you have ambition, take heart!  When the mind is near its limit, struggling, concentrating on each individual letter as it is heard, there is no time to identify letters poorly sent, jammed together or missed, or words misspelled, etc.  But if we have a comfortable margin of speed, this makes everything easier and much more enjoyable.

At slower speeds we can then reason out the words because we have time to think over each word as it comes in (we can't change the sending operator!).  Early in the day we are likely to try too hard.  Especially when we are fresh and alert the conscious, reasoning part of our mind wants to control our receiving ability, while the automatic part of our mind says  "I can do it myself without your interference".   We must stop this internal warfare, this conscious attempt to control reception. Make it let go let go, so the unconscious inner mind may function.  Give yourself permission to let go of your conscious demand to recognize each letter.  The better you succeed and the less you try, the better and faster you'll become at it.

As one student said: "When I'm fresh and 100% alert, my code speed is really bad, but when I'm really tired I can keep up with best of them."   Does that give us a hint as to how to go about it?  (This is not speaking of the beginning student, who needs to put his whole conscious attention on learning the sound-letters, but to the person aiming for very high speed reception.)


A long-time telegrapher was once given the code test at 13 wpm for a General Class ham examination, but laid down his pencil and said: "I can't copy that stuff."  When asked why, he said: "Well, it's just too slow."  Everybody laughed, then they speeded it up considerably and he made perfect copy.  The dragged-out characters are harder to recognize -- patterning is lost much below  about 12 wpm


The expert, who is a step up, races along effortlessly up to around 40 wpm or more, so fast that most of us can't make out much more than  a letter or a word or two -- or maybe nothing at all.  In the past these experts were mostly professionals, but now many are hams

One old timer, now a silent key, who had begun as an amateur, then for an interim period of time was a commercial operator and could copy 40-45 wpm with no trouble, and could easily read up into the 50 wpm region, said that as a ham he always listened for ideas, for meaning, for sense, and was hardly conscious of the actual words sent.  (This came out strongly when I asked him one day after a QSO: "What word was it that W8xxx used to express   . . .? --  He didn't know.  There was an expert.)

Above that speed is the super expert who lives in that upper atmosphere where 60 wpm is loafing, and some have been able to comprehend at 100 wpm to as high as 125 wpm (one of these was the well-known Bill Eitel of the Eitel-McCullough Co., tube designers and manufacturers).  Some of these whizz-bangs tell us that they don't think there is any real upper limit in speed at all.  Like most of us at such speeds, probably none of them consciously hears more than a buzz.  (He wouldn't even think of trying to listen for the dits and dahs.)   But all the while the automatic section of his mind is active and well, reading it easily and telling him what is being said.

What are these race-track operators doing so differently from most of us? -- They are hearing in longer spans than we are. Their "groups" or units of comprehension are longer than ours, and they are not consciously thinking of code characters, letters or probably even in words as such.  (See below and Chapter 26 Speed contests)

Somewhere above about 45 wpm speeds become too fast for us to be conscious of the difference between  dits and dahs.  The facts are that at these higher speeds -- unless we have actual hearing defects -- the interior workings of our brain are quite aware of these differences and can discern the patterns accurately, and so can convey to us the bigger picture of words and meaning, but for some reason will not allow us to be consciously aware of the details.  The experiences of the operators described here are evidence of this.


Many highly-skilled longtime landline and radio telegraph operators are said to have copied at steady rates between 50 and 60 wpm all day long for a 10 - 12 hour day.  This was common on press circuits, as well as some others.  (However, there are some questions -- we may suspect that they were typing 50 - 60 wpm in actual word counts, while receiving in Phillips code, an abbreviation system which typically shortens the number of letters by about 40%   [See Chapter 27.]  If so, this would be slower actual code speeds than in full normal English at the given speed.)

At high speeds, over about 45 - 50 wpm, many experts agree that copying -- but not reading -- quickly becomes very exhausting, and can be continued only for very short periods of time.  For them as speeds go up, getting it from the ear to paper demands the utmost of concentration, shutting everything else out of mind.  Some have described it as almost being hypnotized.  (In great contrast to "comfortable" speeds of 20 to around 40 wpm, depending on one's degree of skill.)  Tiny lapses of attention for them can be devastating.  Since we have already discussed copying (Chapter 8), our attention here will be confined to reading the code.                     --



After an official amateur speed contest about sixty years ago, one of the judges, himself a former telegrapher, asked the young man who won at 56 wpm:  "Listen, Kid, did you get it?" -- "Sure, why?" -- "Well, all I could hear was just one endless string of dits without even so much as a space anywhere."  That judge had passed his limit.

"Sound consciousness" has been used to denote the limit beyond which a given person can no longer consciously distinguish the components of the code.  At speeds somewhere around 50 wpm it becomes impossible to make out the separate dits and dahs any more - they become a blur.  Conscious recognition of details ceases, and if one is to continue reading the code signals, there must be a distinct change in the consciousness of reception.  Sound consciousness must shift gears from letters to words and phrases.

This ability is developed by allowing the automatic mental functions to completely take over the recognition of all details below word level, without any conscious interference whatever, so that from then on one is conscious only of words, phrases and meaning.  One has to let go of any demand to be conscious of the details.


One man did it this way:-- when he got so he could copy 14 wpm almost solid, he tried a 21 wpm tape speed and was surprised to be able to get about 60% right off.  After three 15 minute sessions, one a day, he was getting 4 - 5 words or groups in a row without misses.  He alternated back and forth between the two tapes, and found it helped both.  Continuing with still higher speed tapes, he was able in about 5 months to copy at 35 wpm. (Many have gotten to that speed much sooner.)  So, try listening at speeds 10 or more wpm above your present limit, and as you listen see if you can hear anything recognizable.  WANT to understand what you hear.

A number of the very high speed operators have said that if you can catch just one word in a high speed transmission, you are on your way to reading it.  "If you start hearing short words, then you're on the right track, and are already moving forward." --  Listen, listen,  listen and want to understand what you hear.  Remember the rules for practicing -- work in short enough bursts of speed so as not to get tired, then drop back to a slower speed again and it will seem much easier.  One of these experts says that he feels comfortable and does not sense any degree of tension or strain at all while reading or copying at these very high speeds.  Nor does he sense any changes in mental action or approach as he listens at any speed. He says that at these high speeds he is not conscious of dits and dahs, and only sometimes is conscious of the letters, spelling, etc.  ("You don't even need correct spelling at these levels.")

Unusual words, a proper name, call sign, abbreviation, etc., do not "throw" him and so he doesn't miss anything following it.   He adds: "The faster the code speed, the better."  (As for copying at very high speeds he says:  "I usually listen for the first sentence and then start to copy.") In these comments he is joined by another expert.  Both of them were initiated into the code before the age of six by expert close-relatives or friends.  They feel entirely comfortable with code at any speed, and  feel that there is no upper limit in speed.  "The one thing that myself and others [find limiting] at high speed is the matter of putting QSO's on paper.  Copying is the only limit."  (Is beginning at such an early age part of the reason they feel so "comfortable?"  We need some more information on this point.)

Another of these experts describes this skill as something like this: - "You mention [hearing only] a 'blur of sound' at higher speeds.  This happens to me too, where the code [at first] sounds like popcorn popping or chicken grease on a hot griddle, and I have to concentrate to 'break the sound barrier' before it starts making sense and I can read it. ... I have to make my mind break into this and begin concentrating on words and phrases....  [then suddenly] one word or phrase snaps me into gear and I go on from there.  Then so long as I consciously maintain my concentration, I can continue to read it in my head ... without much sense of strain... [Then] so long as concentration is strictly maintained, 'drop-outs' [from this receptive state of mind] do not occur."

He admits that he misses occasionally - a hard or unusual word or a misspelling, etc., but he just continues on -- there is no time to ponder about it.    This indicates that he senses the need for some kind of mental "shifting gears" in the way he is conscious of what is being received, and that once "in gear" he needs to keep deliberately concentrating on it, but without evident strain. He suggests the following thought:-      If  you are listening  to a news broadcast  on the radio while reading the daily paper,  you have to give  priority of attention to one or the other.  If your attention is on the newspaper, you are usually be aware of the radio only as more or less jibberish, a noise.  Then, if you want to listen to the radio you have  to  turn  your  attention  to  it, and what was jibberish now suddenly becomes intelligible.  Snapping into high speed code may be something like that.

Ted McElroy and Levon R. McDonald were men who before WW2 demonstrated copying in the 75 wpm range.  A few years later Frank J. Elliott and James Ralph Graham demonstrated the same degree of expertise.  There were others who were runners up. McElroy said there were many others who were as good as he was, or even better, who never entered the speed contests.  George Hart said:" If you were born with a whistle and no voice box, you'd be able to send and receive 100 wpm or more.  I guarantee it!  It's all a matter of incentive."   "Sit and listen, and keep listening and want to understand it."  "Anyone who can type over 75 wpm can copy code over 75 wpm if he really wants to."


In Addition to Practice

One vitally important point to remember while receiving is to KEEP COOL.  Don't let yourself get flustered or distracted.  If you miss something, keep going.  At high speeds you can't copy characters, you must copy  words and phrases.  You will be surprised how much you can get and how much fun it will be to listen to high quality code at 40-45 wpm (as to the press in former ears).

McElroy wrote: "I remember a contest where the word 'hospitalization' shot through around 57  wpm.  How is a fellow gonna grasp at that speed?  But half a minute or so later it came to me and I flipped back and filled it in.  Try it for fun."  Keep cool, don't let yourself get flustered or distracted.  Keep the mind on the incoming stream of words.  There is a limit to how fast we can consciously spell out words, but with the submind doing the work we don't know where that limit is.  Strong emotions seem to make the expert more fluent, but the less experienced tend to get rattled or upset.


In England a blind and almost totally deaf young man of 23 could handle the code at 50 wpm.: it was his only way of communicating at all.  In 1959 Katashi Nose KH6IJ wrote "Any DXer worth his salt is good for at least 60 wpm.  He gears his speed to what comes back."  As noted before, Bill Eitel was one of those able to communicate easily at 100 wpm. That means there must also have been some other hams with whom he communicated at that speed!

In looking over the years of contests and speed records made elsewhere it seems as though the capability to achieve ever higher speeds is something that has grown, either due to improved equipment or to better learning methods,or both. Higher speeds require more accurately formed code signals. Perhaps many superexperts were there all the time, but so busy they weren't officially recognized.

In 1845 telegraphers' speeds were about 5 wpm.  By 1855-60 they averaged 20-25 wpm with 46 a maximum;  by 1875 - they reached 52 wpm;  by 1897   63.5 wpm.   McElroy went from  51 wpm in 1920 to 56 in 1922,  then to 69 in 1935 and to 75 in 1939.   Other records were:  1937 - 4 hams at 55;  1938 2 hams at 65; 1945 - 79 wpm.

In the mid 1970's a group of hams found that "their code reading ability had so far outstripped their sending skill that slow, frustration-filled 35 wpm QSO's grew increasingly unsatisfying." They then bought commercial keyboards simply to have more enjoyable chats with each other.  Their standard conversational speed was about 65 wpm (reading, of course, in their heads), but on good nights some would go up to 80."  One of their later participants said that he bought a keyboard and within three months his speed went from 35 wpm to 65 wpm.  "They did not think they were doing anything particularly clever."

The observer felt that they were an exceptionally "Morse-talented" group who find code reading comes easily and have difficulty understanding why others can't do it.  Why "can't" they?  There are good reasons to suspect that these men, about whom we have no present details, while they may have had some special aptitude, either benefitted from a wise teacher, or were so strongly motivated that somehow they all just stumbled onto ways to advance that did not penalize them.  Somehow it doesn't sound like all of them just happened to have some special ability, does it?.  The fact that they didn't seem to consider they had done anything especially remarkable strongly suggests that they simply went up the speed ladder without any startling "jumps" in skill.  This is something to think about.

Fellows, with this many engaged in using it, high speed code must be really easy!  Ted McElroy often demonstrated his skills in copying behind along with speed.  He was noted for being able to listen rather casually for a number of seconds, then dash into the keyboard at high speed until he was up closer to the incoming signals.  Not many others seem to have demonstrated this particular ability, but rather tend to copy close behind the incoming signals: often only a couple of syllables or words behind.  (We see this in McDonald's statement regarding the 1939 contests (see Chapter 26).


The European CW Association was founded in May 1961 to promote the use of CW.  Member clubs have developed within it.  Those of interest here are:-   The High Speed Club, founded 1951, requiring a minimum speed of 25 wpm;  the Very High Speed Club, founded l960 requiring a minimum of 40 wpm, with about 280 members;  the Super High Speed Club, founded 1983, requiring minimum of 50 wpm, with about 200 members; the Extremely High Speed Club founded 1983 requires a minimum of 60 wpm, has about 75 members.

Similar high speed clubs exist in America.  CFO (Chicken Fat Operators) started out in the U.S.  around 1980 as a loosely-knit bunch of hams with a deep love of CW, who enjoyed long ragchews with each other, sending lots and lots of beautiful CW on their keyboards from 40-45 wpm up to about 100. Almost immediately there were about 700 members world-wide, and ten years later they numbered about 900.   (Look for them on the air around 7033 kHz during the hours of US darkness, and on weekends.)  Their identification is given at the end of a QSO by an chicken cluck in Morse, produced by an acoustical-mechanical device invented by Kirby, WS9D.  They meet together for "Cluck-ins" at hamfests and conventions.  Membership requires one to be able to operate at their speeds on a keyboard and to be nominated by a couple of members who deem the person worthy.    There is also a "Five-Star Club", a group who are said to communicate regularly at about 80 wpm.

The truly skilled CW operator can accurately read and transcribe code that by amateur standards may sound very strange indeed. The operators on foreign ships, where CW is used because it is cheap and reliable, are often poorly trained and grossly underpaid.  Their Morse, sent by hand key and rarely faster than 18 wpm, can be very perplexing to read.  A good commercial operator can learn nevertheless to copy them faultlessly, even while doing something else at the same time.

There is always some speed at which we all fall apart, so what? -- You will enjoy doing a bit faster.  Listen to very fast code as if it were music and soon you can recognize character here and there you will hear some words pop out.  High speed code has a musicality and beauty which musters respect and admiration for those who work it.  Background music or other rhythmic sounds can be used to aid high-speed operators-- it does not distract, but rather relieves any tedium.

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