The Art & Skill of Radio-Telegraphy

-Second Revised Edition-
William G. Pierpont N0HFF

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Chapter 30 - The Candler System

No treatise on learning the code would be complete without a summary and discussion of this famous and formerly long-advertised course.

By 1904 Walter H. Candler had learned the American Morse code and worked for two years as a telegrapher.  He had practiced diligently and felt qualified to apply for a job as commercial relay operator in the Western Union office at Atlanta GA.  But he didn't last out there even one day, and had to take a night shift job as telegraph operator at a small town R.R. station. He was deeply hurt and puzzled.  What was the matter?  What mysterious ingredient was missing?

As was the custom at the best telegraph schools, he had visually memorized the Morse code from a printed table of dots and dashes, and then practiced and practiced.  (This "standard" procedure was confirmed by a former teacher at the well-known Dodge's Institute -- no connection to the later C. K. Dodge "Radio Shortkut".)  One night on the job, quite by accident, he discovered that when once in a while he dozed off at the operating table, he could read the fastest code coming over the lines to his sounder. Yet when he was awake and alert he could catch only a word here and there.

It was then that he began to realize that telegraphy is primarily a mental process, and that the so-called "sub-conscious mind" must play a vital part in it.  (At that time here was quite a bit of popular writing about the "sub-conscious mind," which no doubt helped him put it all together.)  He began experimenting until he had solved his own problem and mastered the code himself, and in time he became qualified to teach others how to do it, too.  By 1911 he had established his own "school" in Chicago to teach "The Candler System," later moving it to Asheville, NC.

Although he died on 23 April 1040, his wife,  who was already an experienced telegrapher herself when they were married in 1924, and had worked with him since, continued to handle the course for a number of years.  (It was last advertised in QST in 1959.)


Originally his "High Speed" course was designed for operators who already "knew" American Morse, but were stuck at some too low speed.  Later he added the International code to it, covering both codes.  Still later a new course, called "The Scientific Code Course," designed to be successfully used by beginners working alone, was created from the regular "High Speed" course by modifying it to add helps to get the beginner started.  (Thus it contained all that the "High Speed" course contained.)  That new course was later renamed "The Junior Code Course," and was the one I obtained in October 1939, and made extensive notes on.

There is evidence that, although the essentials stood out strongly and firmly, over the years the details varied in minor ways.  His basic philosophy may be stated as:-  "This system trains you to use your MIND" to develop "scientifically your coordination, concentration and confidence" -- your responsiveness.  The course consisted of ten lessons plus considerable valuable supplementary material, mostly as letters.  It is summarized below.


Since Candler was concerned with those training to become commercial operators, he first emphasized the importance of healthy living: eating, exercise, breathing, etc.  This emphasis was needed in those days because the typical city operator worked long hours in unhealthy smoke-filled, darkish, crowded and poorly ventilated offices.

  1. Develop "SOUND CONSCIOUSNESS."  -- In Lesson 7 he wrote: "In learning code it is necessary to consciously count the dits and dahs of the various signals, both in sending and receiving.  By repetition, the sub-conscious mind gradually assumes this burden of counting them.  As long as you must consciously count them, work will be slow, but as the sub-mind takes them, they go faster and faster."  "As you progress," he wrote elsewhere, "Begin to respond more readily to the sound patterns than to visual ones: learn to shift from what you mentally see to what you hear.  So long as you must consciously remind yourself that so many dits and dahs 'stand' for certain letters, you are not learning code."  So, "when you hear  didah, no longer say to yourself: 'didah stands for A.'  Instead, when you hear  didah,  hear A.  Do not translate."   "In learning code you do not have to relearn words, but you do have to change the approach...from visual to auditory...   Once you have mastered this consciously, your sub-mind will handle that detail, and do a faster, better job than your conscious mind possibly can."

    Critique:  We must remember  that he and most of his students had already "learned" visually,   and  now  this must be REPLACED  by direct auditory recognition.   Here  was the real reason  they all had gotten stuck at some slow speed.     This traditional approach must have blinded his thinking  so that it did not occur to him to START THE BEGINNER WITH SOUND ALONE, and so save the beginner from having to cross that annoying hurdle with its discouragement.

  2. Your sub-mind will only do what you have consciously trained it to do. Therefore, teach it the RIGHT WAY and the SAME WAY consistently from the beginning.  Think and act POSITIVELY: (The "I can do it" attitude).  If you maintain a positive attitude as you think and consistently practice,  the sub-mind will take over the task more quickly, and it will become easier each time you do it.  Conscious effort is needed until it becomes automatic.  First you learn by consciously employing the principles in your regular daily practice.  Then gradually, if you practice as directed, your sub-mind will take over the job with less and less conscious effort, and you will make good progress.

  3. Learning to READ CODE, to RECEIVE, is the important thing. That is, to understand without having to write it down.  Reading means listening and understanding what is being said, just as in reading ordinary print or when listening to someone speak. Reading code must never depend on copying.  As soon as you have learned all the letters, start listening to good code on your receiver (or nowadays, practice tapes, etc.) for 5, 10, 15 minutes at a time, or until you become tired -- even if you cannot put together enough consecutive signals to form  words.  Keep on, and soon you will be catching small words and then larger ones.  But do not practice too long at one time - never when fatigued.

    "I am acquiring the ability to read words subconsciously now.  When reading code, I know, as soon as a word is sent, what the word is, although I didn't consciously spell it out to myself as it was coming in,"  wrote a student.

  4. YOU CANNOT WRITE DOWN WHAT YOU CANNOT READ (RECEIVE).  This is step two after learning to receive.  Writing down what you receive is a routine matter that will take care of itself if you are properly trained.  Of course, in the initial stages of learning the alphabet and numbers, etc., you must copy letter by letter, slowly, just as you had to learn to read that way. After this stage,  stop until:  When you get so you can listen to code and read it at 15 to 25 wpm without copying, you must begin copying some at each practice period.  Commence this way:  each day copy for 10 - 15 minutes, striving to copy one or more signals behind, then spend a similar period just listening to good code without writing.

  5. When you do copy, learn to COPY BEHIND.   If you have been copying letter by letter you must begin systematically to overcome it, and the best way is to listen to good code and form the habit of reading it without copying.  As you acquire the independent code reading habit, by daily practice, you will find it easier to drop behind a few signals without confusion or fear of losing out when you are copying.  You must break the bad habit of copying letter by letter.  Get in the habit of carrying the letters in your mind, forming them subconsciously into words and sentences, without writing them down.         "When I found I could begin to read small words as easily by sound as by sight, I was delighted.  I soon learned to read words 'in my head.  After that, copying them by pencil was easy. Previously, I had been writing words down letter-by- letter: that was wrong!" wrote a student.

  6. Practise intelligently: in the RIGHT way, daily, regularly, in short and well- spaced periods, purposefully.  Never practice error.  Practicing when tired is not efficient use of time.  A good schedule is 30 minutes daily, 15 minutes in the morning and 15  minutes in the afternoon or evening.  The time between practice periods is important - use it to prepare yourself to be receptive by cultivating a positive attitude toward yourself and what you are trying to do.   THE TEN LESSONS  With these statements of basic principles in mind, let us look at the lessons for the beginner.  Note that each new group of code letters was presented in the old visual dots and dashes manner, but the student was told to THINK of the letters in terms of dits and dahs as they sound.  He seems to have anticipated that a typical student would take a week or two to complete each lesson.

LESSON ONE: Emphasis on sound units.  The first group was  E I S H, to be sent smoothly and in accurate, regular timing by the student with his key,  saying the dits as he pounded them out. Candler recommended that two or more beginners work together so each could send to and receive from the other.  As soon as he can recognize them easily and send them smoothly, he was to form words, such as "he, is, see, his, she."  Next to take the letters  T M O, and do the same way, saying the dahs as he sends them, and then to make small words using both sets of letters, as before.  Lastly the letters: A N W G.  Then practice small words, including as many of the 100 most common words as can be formed from these eleven letters.     At one period Candler either supplied or recommended the use of mechanical senders, such as the Teleplex, with his course for the student studying alone.  This would provide an accurate timing sense as well as good hearing practice.  With a machine or companion, he would be able to listen and, during this initial period, copy letter by letter as he heard each character.

LESSON TWO: Emphasis again on thinking of the letters in terms of dits and dahs as they sound, not as they appear in dots and dashes.  Groups of new letters to be learned the same way: D U V J B;  R K L F;  P X Z C Y Q.  Words to be practiced included the rest of the shorter 100 most common words.  Emphasis on accuracy of timing, and that repetition builds habit (whether good or bad).

LESSON THREE:  Emphasis on knowing you are right, then going ahead and making it a habit by repetitive practice.  Analysis of the letters in code, accuracy of signal, spacing and speed: precision.  Get in the habit of instantly recognizing each and every letter when you hear it, without having to stop and think: automatic association of each signal with its letter.  Also now learn the numbers and commonest punctuation.  When you have learned the letters so that you do not have to "stop and think" of what character any combination of dits and dahs represents, begin listening to good code every day regularly without copying, even if only for 5 minutes at a time. (The radio was his favorite source of good code: commercial press and government stations were on 24 hours a day.  Now we have ARRL code practice, tapes. etc.)  Catch everything you can as you listen.  You may not get much at first, but keep trying and you will soon begin to hear letters and words.

LESSON FOUR: Think of the code as being easy to learn.  Trust your sub-mind to do its work.  Review and practice, especially any characters you tend to miss or confuse, until they are automatic.  Every character must stand on its own feet.  Keep drilling on the 100 most common words, both receiving and sending.  Begin using the "two-column drill" where you set up two parallel columns of three or four letter words, each having the same number of letters; then go down the columns spelling the word in the first column out loud while simultaneously writing down the other.  Then do the same, reversing the columns.  (See Chapter 8, "Conquering Our Fears of Losing Out," third paragraph.)   These are the first easy drills on learning to copy a word or two behind.

LESSON FIVE: practice each letter and character until you know them all so well - whether receiving or sending - that you don't have to stop and think about them at all.  Do the same with the 100 most common words.  Keep up the practice of the two-column exercise started in Lesson 4, going on to words with a few more letters as you find it easier.  This is to HELP DISENGAGE CONSCIOUS ATTENTION from the proper functioning of the sub-conscious mind so that it can do its work unhindered.  Learn to trust it by continuing this kind of practice until it becomes easy.  This is a highly successful method of training to shift the effort from conscious to automatic, that is, subconscious, making it a useful habit.

LESSON SIX:  Development of skill is developing coordination, where everything runs smoothly.  It begins by constant practice listening to and sending consistently and perfectly formed code characters, learning to recognize each code signal instantly, learning to read it all easily, and when copying, to write it down in a uniform, simple style of handwriting.  Watch for any step along the line where there is any hesitation or question, and practice to overcome that block.  Give this your attention, and allow time for it to develop until it becomes automatic, habitual. This is the scientific way.  Do some practice copying mixed five-letter groups, but do not write down any letters of a group until the whole group has been sent.  Have wide enough spaces left between groups to allow you to write it down before the next group starts.  (His emphasis throughout the course is on receiving and copying normal English, not ciphered groups.)

LESSON SEVEN: Emphasis on proper timing while sending.  Start by sending a series of letter E's  with wide spaces between them, first with six counts between letters, then gradually reducing the space to normal one letter space.  Then do the same way with S,  T,  H,  O, etc.  (Here he discussed "counting" as given above under "1 - Sound Consciousness, Critique.")

LESSON EIGHT: A discussion of "glass arm," or telegrapher's paralysis, and its prevention by certain exercises, relaxation and proper warm-up.  Continuing practice of fundamentals.

LESSON NINE:  Obstacles to progress listed as:

LESSON TEN:  Learning to carry words in your mind by continuing the copying behind practice.  Learning to write rapidly and legibly as an aid to receiving.  Learning to copy on the typewriter.  (He had a separate course specifically for this.) Learning by doing until it become second nature.

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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