The Art & Skill of Radio-Telegraphy

-Second Revised Edition-
William G. Pierpont N0HFF

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Chapter 9 - Sending and the "Straight" Key - Part I

Quality Of Sending

RULE ONE: Never send faster than you can send accurately.
Quality must always come first, and speed second.  Stated another way -- It is more blessed to send good code than to receive it.  Aim to make your sending as nearly perfect as possible. Smooth,  uniform  characters  and  spacing  penetrate static and interference far better than individual sending styles.  We should learn to send so clearly and accurately that the receiving operator gets perfect copy every time.  (Most of the difficulty in reading and copying code is due to irregularities in spacing between letters and words.  See Chapter 15 Timing.)

"Over 50 years ago as a trainee" said one 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 waste time with repeats."

RULE TWO:  Never send faster than you can receive properly.

Break either rule, and you may end up sending poorly formed characters  or a choppy, jerky style that is hard to copy, and establish a habit that will be very difficult to overcome later.  Bad sending is not cured by changing keys, but by correcting wrong mental impressions.


The genius of the Morse code lies in its simple modulation requirements -- only two "states" are needed:  0 and 1 (binary code). These two states may be any sort of distinct differences in condition or quality of the modulation: ON\OFF,  and for electrical and audio signals may include pitch and quality, as well.   This greatly simplifies the equipment required for transmission and reception.  Any form of two-position switch which can be operated at a satisfactory rate of speed by a human operator or mechanical or electrical device will serve the purpose.  For electrical and radio telegraphic communication the switch may simply control the "on" and "off" conditions (single-pole-single-throw switch).

This opens a wide range of possibilities for mechanical designs, the simplest being just touching two wires together and separating them (which has served in emergencies),  to electronic "switches" which have no mechanically moving parts, but rather control their conductivity between very high and low values by electronic means.  For code transmission we generally call such switches "keys", "keyers", or "keying devices".  In this chapter we are primarily concerned with hand keying, that is, using  the simple up-and-down hand key "straight key". (See Chapter 10  for other types and their use.)


Alfred Vail designed the first "straight" key and called it a "correspondent".  It consisted of a board on which was mounted a simple flat metal strap spring attached to the board at one end and on the other end having a small knob on its top side and an electrical  contact on its bottom side.  This contact was arranged so that when the knob was depressed it would make connection with a second contact mounted  directly below it on the board, thus permitting the closing and opening of a circuit. When the pressure was released the spring caused the circuit to open again.  It had no stops or adjustments of any kind.

This "classic" pattern of up-and-down movement has governed the design of all "standard" keys ever since..  Later models have simply been "improvements", variations and elaborations of this basic concept.


Sending with any kind of hand-operated key is an art that takes some time and practice to develop properly.  For this reason some teachers today recommend that, if possible, the beginner start out sending preferably with a keyboard (or code-programmed computer).  With a keyboard it is impossible to send poorly-formed characters.   A keyboard is a typewriter-like device which produces the  code character corresponding to the key pressed. There is no way you can misform a character with a keyboard -- you can only push the wrong button.    (See Chapter 10.)

A keyer (see Chapter 10) always produces perfectly timed signal elements and inter-element spacings.  However, the operator must control the sequence of the spacing of letters and words.  This requires considerable skill and may discourage the beginner.  It is easy to send  well-formed characters, but unintended or even non-existent ones may also be created.  Therefore it seems wisest to begin learning to send with either a straight key or a keyboard. (A straight key does help to reinforce the rhythm patterns of  the characters more effectively.)  In any event, it is well for the beginner to heed the advice of a wise teacher who said:-  "Do not touch a hand-key at any time until I tell you that you may."

This advice has a two-fold purpose:
1) to make sure that the student has an accurate mental impression of the correct sound and rhythm of the code characters before trying to send them,  and
2) listening to one's own poor sending may actually hinder learning (as noted in Chapter 3).

So the best way is not to touch a key until you have developed a good feel for the proper rhythm of the letters.  This usually means by the time you can receive at about 10 -12 wpm or more. When you begin with a straight key you must have a good feel for timing -- that is, the three building blocks of code: the dit, the dah and the several lengths of spaces.  (Those who have poor hand control should avoid the use of any handkeys, at least while they are gaining in receiving skill.)

After you have learned the proper rhythms, sending with a straight-key, whether for practice or in actual use, sending with it  is quite beneficial for building up your receiving ability in all its aspects.   In addition it develops muscular memories which further strengthen our  perception and recognition of characters and words.  Constant practice in sending this way does help build our copying ability.   Sending practice  also prepares the hand and arm for transmitting over long periods of time without fatigue.  Finger and arm exercises may also be devised to help gain needed flexibility and strength.


A standard "straight" key is one having a simple up-and-down movement.  In American usage the key should be aligned so that key lever is in a straight line with the forearm.  To control it, the operator moves the knob by a pivoting up-and-down wrist motion.   (The hand and arm muscles do not favor the very small movements needed to control key motion.)  The design of a key, its location on the operating table and manipulation tend to vary from country to country, and its adjustments in the final analysis depend almost entirely on the references of the individual operator.  Here we can only give the generalities and some instructions by experienced users.


The key lever is generally relatively thin and typically pivoted so that its front section is longer than the back section, and often droops downward toward the knob end.  Its control knob is flat on top and may have an underskirt (originally designed to protect the operator from high voltages on the key lever).  The top of the knob should be about 1-1/2 to 2 inches above the table, and have firm adjustments for up-and-down movement (nominally about 1/16 inch movement at the knob, but adjusted to whatever suits the operator best).

The key should be located far enough back from the edge of the operating table (about 18 inches) that the elbow is just off the edge of the table.  The operator's arm rests lightly on the table with his wrist off the table and more or less "flat".  His first finger rests on the top of the key knob and his second finger generally on top near the edge. His thumb may rest lightly against the other edge of the knob, or not touch it at all.  (The student should find his own most comfortable way.)  Downward movement of the knob to close the key and upward movement to open it are by rocking the hand, pivoting it from the wrist: the finger end moving down while the wrist moves slightly upward, and vice-versa, without any accompanying independent finger motion.  The upward key knob movement is produced by the built-in spring in the key, but may be helped by the thumb.

Walter Candler's advice to professional telegraphers in training (to avoid developing a painful "glass arm") was:-


Gaining Skill, Errors, and Automaticity

For the skilled telegrapher the characters and words flow without conscious thought as to their details.  Proper and adequate practice has made the action habitual, automatic and virtually effortless -- almost like just talking.  However, if something interferes, the conscious mind jumps in and tries to make the correction and take over control.  If this conscious interference continues, it may displace the habitual coordination, resulting in expending more effort than needed  to send accurately.  This in turn produces strain, and soon one finds he working against himself, and (with a straight key) if he sends for long periods of time this may develop into "glass arm".  (See Walter Candler's advice)  The master operator does not send a single needless dit or dah.

What About Mistakes Made During Sending?  If you make a mistake while sending, just correct it, if necessary, then forget it and calmly continue on. Don't let ourself get all tensed up and start to worry about making more mistakes (such as:  "Now I mustn't do that again!").  If this keeps bothering you, focus your attention  for a just few moments on sending each word (or maybe even each letter) as it comes along, sending evenly and with proper spacing, and then go on normally as if nothing happened.  This will help create a positive, constructive attitude rather than a negative one.  As for correcting mistakes, general practice varies:--  eight dits (like HH sent without space between the letters)  is the official standard, but it is more common to use the question mark and then send the word (or with the preceding word also) again correctly.  If you are chewing the rag, you may just a pause a moment and then repeat what was sent wrongly and go on.  On the other hand, since it is usually the beginnings of words that are most important, if enough of the word has been correctly sent to be recognizable it may be best just to pause a moment and then proceed without comment.  We wouldn't do this, of course, in the midst of a formal message.


All sending with any kind of a handkey will show little personal quirks, or characteristics collectively called one's "fist", which unconsciously develop as one's skill and experience grows, no matter how precise an operator may try to be.   This is why a receiving  operator may immediately recognize a sender and say: "I know that fist," even before he identifies himself..  Our fist may also betray our mood or state of mind -- excitement, fatigue, boredom or laziness -- much as our tone of voice often does.

Someone said of one operator: "his code almost seems to yawn".  But there is more to it than that.  The type of hand-key being used which may also affect the sending.  This does not mean that high quality code cannot be made on any of these types of keys, but rather that their particular construction and use tend to produce certain characteristics.

With a straight key, side-swiper or bug it is easy to send a jerky or "choppy" sort of code, as well as to make inconsistently longer or shorter dits or dahs overall or in certain characters.  A common fault with using a bug is to make the dits too fast as compared with the dahs.  Sideswipers tend to encourage to some very oddly timed characters, inconsistent formations.  The type of key in use may greatly influence one's fist as it sounds to the receiving operator.

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The Art &Skill of Radio-Telegraphy-Second Revised Edition-
©William G. Pierpont N0HFF
This page last updated August 02, 1998

Modifications and compile by Thom LaCosta - K3HRN - December 2004