The Art & Skill of Radio-Telegraphy

-Second Revised Edition-
William G. Pierpont N0HFF

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Chapter 26 - Speed Contests

Speed contests -- officially and unofficially -- have been held over almost the whole history of telegraphy in America.  Both the professionals and the amateurs have had a pride of accomplishment which begged competition to display and reward. Speed contests provided that.

After WWI speed contests among amateurs, but open to others also, began under the sponsorship of the ARRL and also local hamfests and amateur clubs.  Ted McElroy, who was not an amateur, stood out as the world's speed champion for decades beginning in 1922.  (In 1933 he lost out to Joseph W. Chaplin, but regained the title again in 1935.)  There were others who demonstrated almost equal ability, and McElroy himself said on occasion that there were probably many others who were as good or better than he.  Several unofficial records have been established in this country, and lately the European clubs have reported some astounding high-speed champions.

At first, in the latter 1800's, contests seem to have been concerned only about sending ability.  This implies that receiving ability exceeded their ability to send -- which is borne out as we read history: operators were then limited by their sending ability only.  Only later, as "speed keys" and then machine sending entered so that truly high sending speeds could be achieved, do receiving contests seem to have become important.  That means until about the turn of the century.  We have already looked into sending abilities in Chapter 9, so we turn here to receiving contests.

We have little detail about most of these receiving contests. However for the one conducted at the ARRL Convention in Chicago, in August, l933, where former World champion Ted R.  McElroy was defeated by Joseph W. Chaplin, we have extensive information provided by Ivan S.  Coggeshall, one of the four judges.  Mr.Coggeshall was a telegraph operator himself, and later a vice president of Western Union.  He was the only non-amateur judge. (QST November 1933 p 3., personal correspondence with Mr. Coggeshall and comments from McElroy, etc.)  From these materials the contest may be described as follows:-

It was an "open" championship for the world's speed title and cup.  More than 250 contestants showed up, both amateurs and professionals.  Silver trophies were to be awarded in eight classes, beginning at 8 wpm.  The contest was run in two sections, the first a preliminary classification test on August 4, eliminating most contestants, and the final run-off the next day.  The first section of test began at 8 wpm, then 10, and at 5 wpm increments up to 55 wpm.  At each change of speed the contestants first listened to some familiar taped material, followed immediately by the fresh test tape. The test tape material was in plain English taken from Chicago newspapers and carefully edited so as to contain no difficult or unusual words or figures, and only the simplest of punctuation.  Each section of test tape ran for five minutes at each speed.

The set-up provided 200 pairs of headphones to listen to the 1000 cycle tone of the oscillator as it was controlled by a Wheatstone automatic keyer.  The available test room was small and not many visitors could watch the proceedings.  Because there were so many contestants the first test series had to be run in two heats.
Mr Coggeshall's personal reactions to the tests are interesting:

"At 8 wpm you sit back and twiddle your thumbs, you yawn...  At 15 you take up your pencil and leisurely jot the stuff down...  At 20 you see the first signs of life.  For a minute or two you sit back and copy, and then, on second thought, you hitch your chair forward a bit and straighten the paper.  At 25 you quit 'laying behind; you decide to close the gap until you read about a word behind the sender.  Not so bad, now.  At 30 the fun begins.  You can read it all right, but the  pencil seems to be getting a little sluggish -- better make a grab for a 'mill' [typewriter].  At 35 you begin for the first time to think about errors: 'How many am I allowed on a 5-minute test run of this?' At 40 it gets hotter and very suddenly, too.  The last 5 wpm have more mustard on them, it seems, than the first 30.  You are holding your own with many a crack commercial radio or telegraph operator now.  You quit worrying about single wrong letters and start hoping you can put a typewritten line down without leaving a word out.  At 45 the jig is up.  You quit, but half a dozen of  the champs go on.... At 50 wpm the dots and dashes get blurred and jumbled.  ...  at 53 it is just a lot of static - no sense now in trying to hear anything.  At 55 there is no change.  Just as easy to read the QRN [static]..."

As each group reached its limit, the contestants left the test room.  Finally, eight passed the test thus far.  Between this test section and the final run-off a WU cable operator,  J. C. Smyth, copied 5-letter solid cipher code correctly at 45 wpm, making all the other contestants look like amateurs, and thus putting their attitudes  on a more nearly equal footing for the speed grind to follow.

The test tape for the final run-off had been prepared and sealed in New York in the presence of Inspector Manning of the Federal Radio Commission, and was opened by Inspector Hayes of the Chicago office at the scene of the contest.

The final run began at 40 wpm - then 45 - then 50, 53, 54.1, 57.3 and 6l.6 wpm. (The machine apparently could not be accurately preset at these speeds, and speed was determined afterward by word count and time elapsed.)

Rules of the contest allowed a maximum of 1% error for each 5-minute run.  At 61.6 wpm all made more than 15 errors.  At 57.3 (1432 characters or 286.7  5-letter words) Chaplin had 11 errors out of an allowable of 14, while at 54.1 wpm he had but 5 errors, and McElroy made 8 at this lower speed.  Chaplin was declared the winner at 57.3, breaking McElroy's 11-year old record (1922) of 56.5 with one error on a 3-minute run.

From this we can see that the 5-letter word had been standard for some time, and is in fact representative of regular English. It is not difficult to compare this with the present 50-unit standard word (as in "Paris") by using letter-frequency tables (such as used in cryptanalysis.  See Chapter 25).  From this it can be shown that a word count based on standard written English may be expected to come within about one percent of the present standard of 50 units per word.

Regarding speed contests in general, Lavon R. McDonald wrote in 1940: "About the speed tests, government count is used, that is five units to the word.  Only plain newspaper English is used, everything having clear meaning, no trick stuff."

As for the well known 1939 speed contest, where McElroy was credited with winning at a speed of 75.2 wpm, McDonald wrote: "In the Asheville tournament, the speed was practically the same for McElroy and myself.  We both copied solid  (press matter prepared by the FCC), but they sent some stuff at 77 wpm and I didn't get a good start on it.  McElroy made something that looked like copy,. but pretty ragged looking, so they gave him 75.2, I guess it was.  If only first class copy had been counted, it would have ended a tie.  McElroy and I have had about the same telegraph experience."

At the present time the Europeans appear to have exceeded our recorded contest speeds. In the 1991 International Amateur Radio Union high speed telegraphic championship contest Oleg Buzubov UA4FBP copied 530 figures (numbers) per minute with only one error: that is 106 wpm, 8.83 figures per second!  Amazing!  (See Morsum Magnificat 22-4)  However, the duration of these tests is stated to be one minute.  This seems rather too short in itself or to be in any way directly comparable with the contests run in America. It seems doubtful that these speeds could be maintained for three to five minutes.

Some of the others who have achieved very high speed have been:
Eugene A. Hubbell, Wayland M. Groves, J. W.Champlin, J. B. Donnelly, V. S. Kearney, J. S. Carter, Carl G. Schaal(W4PEI), Frank E.Connolly, Wells E. Burton.

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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