The Art & Skill of Radio-Telegraphy

-Second Revised Edition-
William G. Pierpont N0HFF

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Chapter 34 - Examples which Illustrate the Nature of Real Skills

The following are samples taken from the literature to show various  skills some operators have achieved.

They illustrate clearly the automatic, subconscious nature of real skill in telegraphy, that it is a habitual form of behavior, done without conscious intervention or effort.  They also show what can be done by what has been done.  People who do things well do not struggle with them: they enjoy doing them.  It can be seen that there is a hierarchy of skill habits, ranging from lower degrees to very high degrees of skill, each step leading to greater freedom of action than before.

Both in the past and in the present there are very many examples of sending or receiving while speaking or doing other things at the same time.   Old land line operators typically could do this at speeds up to 35 to 40 wpm.  Some hams today can and often do the same things.

Sending and writing at the same time:-
Almost all old Morse operators developed this kind of skill to some degree, and usually were able to send with one hand while writing on the message blank the number, time, date, etc., with the other hand.  Pressure of work almost demanded it in a busy office.

Sending and receiving simultaneously:-
A regular RR agent-operator at a small town near Salina, KS, was observed to be sending a bunch of RR manifests (lists of freight cargo, giving details) when he was called on another wire. Without pausing, he opened his key with the other hand, sent an acknowledgement, closed the key switch, picked up a message blank and slipped it into the typewriter, rolled it into position and proceeded to copy the message with one finger of his left hand while continuing to send the manifests with his right hand.  This was not at all unusual for regular operators: there are many examples.  A slightly different example is with the many old RR operators who regularly would copy down an incoming message with one hand and simultaneously send it on down the line with the other hand.

Receiving two or more messages at same time:-
One ship operator offshore of California had the amusing experience of simultaneously receiving the identical message for him from two different shore stations, KPH and KPJ.  Both called him at same time, and he told the one to go ahead, but instead, both began at once to transmit.  He tried to copy them both. This became very easy when he discovered they were both sending the same message.   The climax came later when both of them billed him for the same message!  In 1924 in the Boston Postal Telegraph office a wire chief claimed he could simultaneously copy one message in French with one hand and another in English with the other hand.  His chief operator took the challenge, promptly went out and picked up one message in each language, provided pencils and pads to the wire chief, and had the two messages sent to him simultaneously at the usual keying speeds.  The wire chief made good on his word in the presence of all the other operators in the office, and made perfect copy on both.

A former Navy operator claimed that while copying one message, he often could mentally note other messages which were interfering with the reception of the one he was copying, and do so accurately enough to write them out later.  He said that, especially when he was copying some particularly dull and uninteresting material, he was always fully conscious of the content of messages heard at the same time on adjacent frequencies concerning shore leave, pay or other interesting aspects of these transmissions.

One expert operator in San Francisco is credited with having received three separate dispatches at the same time, writing each of them out correctly by memory afterward.  That looks a little hard!  Using both American Morse and Morse Internaitonal codes simultaneously:-  Robert (Dick) Johnstone of old KPH  was a phenomenal operator, said to be one of the best of his day.  He could send one message in International Morse while simultaneously sending another with his other hand in American Morse.  Similar claims have been made by others also.

Comparison with other mental functions and discussion.
Can't we compare this to a certain extent with other habitual activities, such as driving a car while thinking of something quite different?  (Later wondering, e.g,, "Did I stop at. . . , or did I drive on?")  Or like the stenographer who looked at her notes after taking dictation and was startled to see she had written a joke being told in the same office while she was taking dictation?

Doing two things at once, one subconscious or automatic and the other conscious is relatively commonplace.  For example, I can read aloud from printed matter while consciously thinking about something quite different, and still read so that it sounds meaningful -- yet afterwards have little or no recollection of what I had read aloud (and sometimes wondering if I had included anything of what I had been thinking at any point along the line.

As for the operators who could copy two messages simultaneously, is it possible that both actions were automatic?    Were they hearing one with the right ear and writing it down with the left hand, while hearing the other effectively with the left ear and writing it with the right hand, or what?    Or, was the one automatic and the other conscious, although done at fairly high speed?  If both were automatic, were they free to think of or hear something still different at the same time?  This seems possible from the experience of a few who have said that they were attending to two messages and yet hearing salient points of still a third, or voices in their environment.  Or, is this something like the "sandwich" operation of a large computer where each of several different people seems to be doing his job as the only one in control, yet the computer is apparently handling them simultaneously.  Actually the computer does this by dividing the jobs into parts which are scheduled and processed in an interwoven manner by a schema for optimum usage of computer functions,  time-slicing and controlling to keep each one separate, and only seeming to give each operator sole control.   For a human example, how does the traffic control officer of an airport keep alert to the arrival and departure of many aircraft all at the same time, seeming to give each "simultaneous" attention?    Very interesting, isn't it?

By 1933 it was written that a good commercial operator can and does average about 40 wpm over an 8-hour stretch, handling everything from straight news to tabular matter.  Hand sending was absolutely steady, rhythmic and even, intelligently coded and spaced - a joy to listen to.  On the main traffic arteries of the Associated Press, speeds up into the 60-70- wpm range were said not to be uncommon.  In 1937 WCK had two press schedules, one at about 45 wpm to be copied by ear and another very much faster for automatic recording and visual tape transcription.  Yet Pete Pettit and Paul Magarris, Navy operators, could copy the higher speed press solid, and others were runners up.  Ralph Graham, W8KPE, a landline telegrapher, demonstrated at Smithsonian during AWA conference before ten witnesses, copying a 79.4 wpm.  --   George Batterson W2GB (first AWA president) at age 94 could still copy 50 wpm, but complained that  his sending speed had slowed down to only 35.  Mike Popella KA3HIE could copy 45 wpm by hand on paper.

Jim Farrior W4FOK wrote this way:- "When I was a boy of 13 I lived in a small town in AL.  The RR telegraph office was one of the few things in town that interested me. One of the three agent telegrahers gave me his sounder and telegraph key. The night agent usually had little work to do and often helped me by sending to me and telling me about operating procedures., etc.  The sounder there was nearly always active, and I gradually became able to copy directly from the wire.  I guess I learned it pretty much like one learns to speak, because I don't remember trying to learn. I was told that it was really very easy, and I guess I believed it.  I was just having fun, and dreamed that some day I might become a telegrapher."

In 1856 seven year-old John O'Brian delivered telegrams for his brother Richard, who at age 15 was the telegrapher for the local RR office.  After two years of this John prevailed upon his brother to teach him how to operate.  So, while still only nine years of age John became a good operator and was eager to have a job of his own.  The RR offered him the position at a nearby town, and he snapped it up.  People in those days were used to seeing young telegraphers, but not this young!  Very soon, however, they became so pleased with his work that no more questions were asked.

Those youngsters were motivated and quick to learn.  When the Civil War began he volunteered along with many others, became their youngest operator, and by early 1862 was already the assistant operator at the important military station of Ft. Monroe, VA, and considered an expert.  When the Commander, General Wool, first saw him he was astounded.   On a subsequent military assignment at Norfolk, VA, on one occasion John scrawled down two incoming messages while he was actually asleep, writing them down in a book he had been reading.  (Civil War operators often worked impossibly long hours under difficult or dangerous battlefront conditions, and when things let up a bit, easily dropped off for a few winks of sleep.)

James H. Bunnell became an operator at age 13.  He was so short that he had to sit on a stool to reach the telegraph instruments.  At age 16 he was one of the best operators in the country, noted for his speed of 38 wpm (by actual word count).  These are just two examples of the many, many boys who quickly became skilled telegraphers in the mid-1800's.

At the lowest skill levels: Four-years-olds, barely able to write even block letters have been able to pass the code test. How many of us are willing to admit a four-year-old can outperform us?

Then consider these higher skill levels:-  In 1909-1910 Don C. Wallace learned the code with a friend, John Cook, and the help of the operators of Commercial station PJ in San Pedro CA.  In 1910 he set up his first station.  In 1915 he passed the test for a first class commercial operator's license, said to have required demonstrating ability to handle 25 wpm in Continental code and 30 wpm in American Morse code.  Later with Tony Gerhardt he played a game they called "burnout."  One would send as fast as he could with speed key (bug) while the other copied on a typewriter, the idea being to see who could go the faster.  This continued wherever they were until Don could send in excess of 45 wpm and receive about 55 wpm

Later he needed a staff of 35 assistant operators of about his own speed capabilities.   Within a short time he found them among Navy personnel where he was stationed, and did it this way: by sending his requests at these speeds and seeing who responded to what he sent.  Here were at least three dozen men with high speed skills before 1920. They were men who enjoyed the code so much they achieved high goals.  Moral: If you want to do it, you probably can.

Arnie's  Father was chief telegraph operator at a RR station and had once won a 60 wpm award in a contest for RR operators.  His son, age 8,  Arnie hung around the station all his spare time. He didn't say how, but he learned Morse on his own and soon had learned to send and receive at about 25 wpm.  When dad was out he copied down the train orders for him.  He wanted a job as operator.  After much pleading, his dad said he could operate the station all by himself when he reached his 9th birthday.  So he did, all day, while his dad looked over his shoulder and smiled a time or two. Arnie begged the RR to let him be a secondshift operator after school and weekends for 50 cents an hour as second shift operator.  He was required to pass the cooked-up special qualifying test: of sending a train order at 25 wpm using one key with his left hand for the dashes and a second key with his right hand for the dots.  He succeeded in doing  it some months later, and finallly was given a job as sole operator on second shift all summer.

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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