The Art & Skill of Radio-Telegraphy

-Second Revised Edition-
William G. Pierpont N0HFF

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Chapter 25 - Code Courses and Devices Advertised in the Older Days

(Dates show what I have been able to find)
These items are in partial supplement to chapter 25.

Morse's first "sender" used tooth-like raised characters on a straight edge "ruler," over which a follower-contactor was pulled along in order to send.  No doubt derived from this idea Morse (in 1844) is thought to have built a "transmitting plate," a board of insulating material having the code characters composed of metal bits imbedded in it.  They were arranged so as to produce the code character (whose name was marked beside it) when a metal stylus was dragged  across the surface at an constant speed.  (Such a plate was independently designed in Germany about 1850.)

Telegraph teachers realized early in the game that the student needs a lot of practice hearing good quality sending.  The transmitting plate may have become the earliest self-teaching device.  (Such boards were advertized as late as 1960 !)


The Omnigraph, which first came out in 1901, was an obvious derivative of original Morse "sender" with its raised "teeth." It was a mechanical device consisting of a handcrank, clockwork or electric motor to drive an assembly of thin interchangeable metal disks bearing the code characters past a follower-keying device.  Several disks were stacked up together on a spindle-carrier which was driven by the "motor."  The whole assembly of disks looked like a cylinder with little "bumps" on it.  A wide range of speeds from about 5 to over 60 wpm was provided for by adjustment of the brake on a flyball governor which held the speed constant after it was set.

Each disk had five groups of code characters cut like gear teeth around its periphery, and each group was composed of five characters plus a separating space.  A spring-loaded "follower" rode along the edges of the disks, opening and closing the keying contacts.  A clever adjustable sequencing mechanism actuated by the rotating disk carrier caused the follower to move up or down at user-selected points during each revolution. Various models provided for from five to ten or more disks.  By changing the stacking of the disks and by adjusting the sequencing mechanism the five character groups could be sent in many different sequences.  There was, however, no way to alter the order of characters within a group, and all keyer-follower movements occurred between groups.

These machines were to be used  with a sounder for American Morse or a buzzer or oscillator for International Morse.  They seem to have had a very wide usage for basic learning and developing speed among would-be operators, including amateurs. (Advertising often claimed that a month of serious study could qualify an operator.)  The government licensing authorities also used Omnigraphs to administer the code tests for operator's licenses for many years, at least until 1930, when I was tested.

The Omnigraph Manufacturing Co., New York City.  A 1922 ad read : "Learn Telegraphy (Wireless or Morse) at Home in Half the Usual Time... Just Listen - the Omnigraph will do the teaching." You will be surprised how quickly you will attain speed.  Even if you are already an operator the Omnigraph will help you.  It will make you more proficient, more accurate and more confident..."   In 1918 the Electro Importing Co., NY, advertised them starting at $16.00 for a five disk machine, and $23.00 for a 15 disk model.  Additional disks were available at five for $1.00. Ini1902 Thomas A. Edison's book "Telegraphy Self-Taught" was published by Frederick J. Drake & Co. in Chicago.  It was written with the philosophy that "it is not the speed at which the letter is sounded that perplexes the learner, but the rapid succession in which they follow each other." (This is identical with the so-called Farnsworth method today.)  The book was accompanied with a small hand-crank-driven tape puller and a set of paper tapes with the code characters punched in them.  The tapes were designed to start out with very wide spacing between characters, and as thestudent  progressed these spaces were reduced to normal.  The goal was a practical working speed of 25 wpm.  The actual speeds, of course, would depend on how fast the student turned the crank on the machine.

In 1917 the Marconi-Victor set of six double-sided phonograph records, described in.  the first sound-only course for International Morse for a phonograph seems to have come out.  It consisted of 12 lessons recorded on six 78 rpm records produced by a "code expert,"  approved by the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co. and put out by the Victor Phonograph Co.  Lessons 1 and 2 gave the code and conventional signs.  Lessons 3 and 4 contained easy sentences, etc.  Lessons 5 & 6 had Marconi Press and then messages with static interference.  Lessons 7 & 8 were press with static, and messages with errors and corrections.  Lesson 9 was press with interference from another station.  Lessons 10 through 12 were groups of figures, ten-letter words and ten-letter code groups.  It was an ambitious program which included realistic, typical, practical problems of reception. Playing time was short.

In1921 the Wireless Press, New York City.advertised:. "Study the Code  Anywhere" appeared.  The ad said: "This New Way  -  The Sound  Method   for  Memorizing  the Code.For  success in telegraphing   the   letters  must  be  learned  by the  sound. Each letter has  a  distinctive cadence  or  rhythm  which is easily  memorized  by a few hours' practice.  The charts attached give  the key to the rhythm of  each  letter  of the telegraph  alphabets.  It  forms  no  picture  in the student's mind, but instead  a sound is memorized like a bar of music. An hour a day devoted to memorizing the distinctive  rhythm of each  letter will enable the student to send or receive a message in a  few  weeks.   The  beginner  is  strongly advised not  to practice with charts or books which show the actual dots and dashes.   Once a picture  of each letter  is formed in memory it will be found  difficult to send or receive by sound. Don't try to teach the ears though the eyes."  [It would be very interesting to see a copy of their course method.]

National Radio Institute. Washington DC.  Radio News Se. 1921. "Wonderful Natrometer Gives You Code-Speed in Half Usual Time. ... will send messages in a human and not a mechanical manner at a rate which you can vary from 3 to 30 words per minute. ... The effect of static interference may be added to the messages being copied. ...A beginner can quickly learn the alphabet from our  A dial."  Picture shows a mechanism similar to Omnigraph, but about half the total size, using ten disks which were exchangeable.  Price not stated.

The first ad for the Dodge Radio Shortcut (Later "Shortkut") called "BKMA YRLSBUG", by C. K.  Dodge, Mamaroneck NY. was seen in Radio News Dec. 1921:  The ad said: -"Memorize Continental Code Almost Instantly.  Two hundred beginners in 44 states have reported mastered [sic.] code in 20 minutes, in one hour, one evening, etc., etc...." It was a large 5/8 column ad.  The usual later ad was about one inch in one column, though sometimes larger.  Price at first was $3.00 for small booklet.  These ads appeared for many years afterward.  (This is the worthless "Eat Another Raw Lemon" method mentioned in Chapter 21.)

Memo Code, H. C.  Fairchild, Newark NJ.  Radio News Aug. 1922."Boys and grown-ups.  Makes you a real radio operator.  By my System and Chart, you will know the code in 30 minutes...
Complete system $1.00..."  A buzzer-blinker key practice set available with course for $5.00.

In 1922 a Radio News ad of Oct.1922 read:  "The fastest way to learn the radio code."  The American Code Co. of New York City put out a phonograph course recorded  by the famous hero operator Jack Binns, whose bravery and skill saved almost every life aboard the liner Republic after it was struck in 1909. "Two phonograph records made by Jack Binns and text-book $2.00." This course claimed to be able to teach the code in one evening! Pretty Ambitious !

Teleplex Co., New York City.  First ad in QST seen Apr. 1927:
"The Easy Way to Learn the Code Cuts Learning Time in Half.  The famous Teleplex for self-instruction at home.  The quickest, easiest and most economical way of learning Morse or Continental... Faithfully reproduces actual sending of expert operators."  Next month's ad: "At last! The Famous Teleplex ... with only a screw to turn.... 5 to 80 words per minute." Third month: "Learn the Code at Home This Easy Way With Teleplex.  Complete course ..."  They provided a code instruction manual and help and advice personally by correspondence. It was initially a spring-driven punched paper tape machine.  Later models were electric-motor driven.  In 1942 they produced a paper tape model which could record one's own sending (using electro-chemical means) as well as send user-prepared tapes.  In 1956 they reverted to punched tape again, and in 1959 they went to a machine resembling the Omnigraph.  Prices never published in ads.  The Teleplex Company later brought out an inked paper tape type of mechanical keyer, which was available for several years.  It used the sidewise motion of a pen with a conducting ink (apparently made from a silver compound), and was followed by a similar mechanical design using a chemically treated paper tape.  The user could make his own recordings with a key or from a receiver.  Playback was by a pair of spring-loaded fingers which contacted the conducting ink to close the circuit.  Later designs used a photocell instead of direct electrical contact for reading the tapes.  This permitted the use of non-conducting inks.  These differed only in degree from Morse's original "recorder." McElroy's company also manufactured this type of recording system.  These types of systems were generally far beyond the average ham's pocketbook.

The Candler System, Chicago.  First ad seen in QST dated Sep. 1928 (probably advertised earlier in other magazines), last ad seen in QST Feb. 1959. Emphasis on high speed and "scientific" nature of course.    Large ads from time to time, but usually about one inch in a column.  Price not advertised.  See Chapter 30.

The Instructograph Co., Chicago.  Must have been in use before first ad seen in QST of Jan.  1934.    "(Code teacher)  The
scientific, easy and quick way to learn the code.   Machines, tapes and complete instruction for sale or rent."  Similar to the Teleplex punched paper tape machine, speeds from 3 to 40 wpm.   Last ads seen in 1970 ARRL Handbook.

0ther devices included machines for producing code practice using punched paper tapes.   The tapes were wound on reels and pulled by a clockwork-type spring motor or electric motor having adjustable speeds.  The tape perforations actuated a spring-loaded contactor to open and close the circuit. Commercial machines were in use long before they entered the amateur field. There, Teleplex and Instructograph were the earliest and best known; other later imitators were Automatic Telegraph Keyer Corp., Gardiner & Co., etc.  A few provided for punching one's own tapes.  Ted McElroy, the long-time code speed champion began making a series of similar high-quality equipment primarily for commercial and Military use during the WWII period and continued for some time afterwards.

Some of these units could be rented as well as purchased outright.  In either case, it involved a substantial amount of money, which most amateurs could not afford.  In addition, the variety and amount of practice material they provided was often rather limited.

McElroy's "free code course" offered in 1945 and again in 195- appears to have been associated with the use of one of his code machines.  For its use the claim was "Assuming that the average person will practice several hours the first day, we can tell you... that you'll be copying that very first day, words and sentences at the character rate rate of 20 wpm.  Ted has taken one-half the alphabet and prepared a practice tape whlich runs for a full hour without attention at 20 wpm.  You won't copy 20 full words in one minute, but each letter you write will hit your ears at a full 20 wpm rate, and the space between the letters becomes progressively shorter as the rolls go along."

 An odd little unit offered in 1970 was called the "Cotutor."  It was just a simple whistle with a set of disks which contained the alphabet and numbers. Each disk had six characters, punched through so that the characters would sound when one blew into the mouthpiece while at the same time turning the disk by hand.


The real turning point in availability and variety arrived with the advent first of the wire recorder and then of the tape recorders.  Here, like the phonograph, the "machine" was probably something already owned and could be used for other things besides code-learning.  This kept the cost down.  Many prepared code tapes became commercially available, or could be self-recorded from the radio or other sources and played over and over as desired.  Many good courses became available and more are available today.

Some electronic keyboards and keyers offer a wide variety of pre-programmed practice materials for practice.  One of their main advantages is that they always produce perfectly formed characters -- something that greatly expedites initial learning.

But personal computers, which entered the scene actively in the early 1980's, offer the widest range for basic code learning and for advancing in skill.  A wide variety of freeware programs for learning and for practice are available, as well as programs commercially produced.  Not a few PC programmers have been able to prepare their own programs tailored to their own particular needs.  A number of interactive programs are available which give either immediate or delayed helps to the student -- these offer tremendous help in learning.   Some may also allow the more advanced student to conduct QSO's with the computer program, just as if he was actually on the air.  The potential here is great indeed.  (See Chapter 16)

Finally, there are available computer programs and devices which can read receive code transmissions.  Because they are machines, they can only read code signals which are reasonably accurate in timing.  For the student who has access to one of these, it will give him a chance to test his own sending for accuracy. However,  they are not recommended as substitutes for personal receiving by ear.

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