The Art & Skill of Radio-Telegraphy

-Second Revised Edition-
William G. Pierpont N0HFF

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Chapter 31 - The So-Called "Farnsworth" or Spacing Method


This method (in which the spacing between letters and words is lengthened to facilitate recognition of character patterns and words in the early learning stages) is obviously excellent.

This is actually an old procedure used by many teachers long before Farnsworth, who popularized it.  It appears that the first clear mention of this approach is by Thomas Edison, a highly skilled telegrapher himself in 1902.  He hit the nail on the head when he wrote as follows about his punched tape course called "Audio Alphabets" (by Frederick J. Drake & Co.) for teaching the American Morse code:-      "It is not the speed at which a letter is sounded that perplexes the learner, but the rapid succession in which they follow each other."

A few students have felt temporary rhythm recognition problems with the way this method was used by some teachers as the speeds were increased by shortening the spaces, making the characters seem to run together.  They may feel a bit frustrated, but this is easily avoidable.

This effect seems to be most noticeable when using a character speed of around 13 wpm, and is one of the reasons why it is recommended from the very beginning to use character speeds of  18 - 25 wpm.  These higher character speeds also make it easier to concentrate on the character as a unity of sound, without the risk of counting or analyzing it as a collection of shorts and longs.  (Of course, after learning the code, we need to get used to hearing it at various speeds, including those slower than our initial learning speed.  One reason: operator's tests for license will be slow speed.)

This method starts out by having the beginner hear each character from the very first at a high enough speed for it to be perceived as a unit of sound (which means at least at a rate of 12 or more wpm), rather than as composed of dits and dahs. It accentuates this perception by separating the letters and words at first by wide spaces, giving the student time to recognize each one clearly and associate it with its printed letter, or number, etc., and then as the student progresses, gradually shortens the spaces to normal length.  It has been confirmed by experiments in psychology which have proved that if a stimulus can be grasped as a single unit, a wholeness or "Gestalt", learning will take place at a rapid rate.  And with respect to how this course handled it, he added: "The principal feature of the Audio Alphabets is the graduation in the intervals between the letters.  By beginning with a record in which the characters are widely separated and then changing to others with less and less intervals, the student gradually reaches the one having normal telegraph spacing."

This spacing method is perhaps the most obvious and effective way of focusing a beginner's conscious attention on the Gestalt, or form, of each individual code form of letter.  It makes the letter- patterns stand out prominently and allows him time to associate it with its equivalent printed letter with a minimum of interference and distraction from all other characters.

So this is actually an old procedure based upon the experience of   many teachers long before Russ Farnsworth (W6TTB), whose name apparently became attached to it because of his Epsilon Records Code Course consisting of 3 LP phonograph records in an album put out in 1959.   In that course the characters were from the very first sent at 13 wpm, widely spaced, and the time between them gradually reduced as the student became more proficient.  Next of record we find two bulletins published in 1917 and 1918 by the Federal Board of Education which recommended sending each character at a rate of 20 wpm with rather lengthy pauses between them.

In Chapter 11 of "RADIO SIMPLIFIED", a popular book of 1922-3, authors Kendall and Koehler, instructor and director respectively at the YMCA Radio and Technical Schools in Philadelphia wrote about learning the Code:--       "To begin with, the novice should not set out by committing [to memory] the number and order of the dots and dashes in the various letters  and figures in the code, as for example, that "dash-dot-dash-dot" equals "C".  Much of the energy so spent will be wasted.  The radio operator does not recognize letters as so many dots and so many dashes nor does he translate signals in that fashion.  The operator hears and learns to recognize each letter as a combination of sounds  "dah-de-dah-de" [sic.] as the letter  "C",  "de-dah-de" as "R" , "dah-de-dah" as  "K", etc., in much the same manner as children in the primary school learn to read words by sounds instead of by learning to spell them."

Although they do not mention the spacing method directly, they imply it by comparing it to how children learned to read in those day, by recognizing letter forms and spelling out words at first.  This involved one at a time learning with spaces as a natural part of learning, without calling any special attention to it.    In 1940, in his  Master's Thesis "Teaching Radio by Radio" Marshall Ensor summarized his highly successful code teaching methods (which began about 1929 from Olathe KS).  He clearly used this spaced-learning method to teach hundreds of students during his one-hour lessons daily on 160 meter phone "broadcasts".  Each lesson alternated teaching code, theory and regulations.  (See Chapter 12)

In 1945 Ted McElroy offered printed copies of his free "Morse" Code Course said to contain "everything he has learned in 30 years of operating experience."  He claimed that, "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 rate of 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 and the space between letters becomes progressively shorter as the rolls go along."


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