[time-nuts] A little telegraph history, slightly off topic

F Mitchell mitchsfm at gmail.com
Thu Jun 23 00:09:33 EDT 2016

A little history about telegraphy and identifying operators and

As the former owner of Vibroplex (1994-2009) I spoke with thousands of hams
and hundreds of former railroad and WU telegraphers at hamfests over the
years, many at the Dayton, OH hamfest.

Also, one of my friends was Harold Kaplan, W4KVO (sk), who was a Signal
Core intercept operator in WWII. Harold spent three years in Newfoundland
copying high speed German telegraphy. The monitoring station had rhombic
antennas aimed at the North Atlantic, Europe, Africa, and the South
Atlantic, with banks of Hammarlund receivers, state of the art at the time.
The Germans had mylar tape recorders (Ampex after the war), they recorded
code at 35-40 wpm, 5 letter code groups, and retransmitted the code at
70-100 wpm. The Signal Core recorded the German transmissions on wire
recorders, slowed the code down to 30-40 wpm to copy and put the copied 5
letter code groups on a landline teletype circuit to a decryption facility.
Some of the operators could copy the code directly off the wire recorder at
50-60 wpm straight to the teletype without having to transcribe!

Of course, the intercept operators were copying 5 letter code groups for
many hours a day, for months on end. They became very proficient.

Harold related to me how they could identify individual German operators
sending the code, and occasionally would get personal information on the
operators and their locations when the operators would chat with each
other. They assigned all of the German operators nicknames, based on the
particular operator’s “fist” and the characteristics of their transmitter.
So even with a new German operator, the characteristics of the transmitter
‘sound’ could give away the transmitter location.

As a new general class ham in 1963, I joined Army Mars – that was how I met
Harold. The first thing the local Mars director did to a new member was
assign them as net control for a cw net. And, what a way to get your code
speed up. Some of the net members would ‘check in’ to the net at 20-25 wpm,
some at 50-60 wpm, almost all using Bugs. As the protocol of the net was
fixed, you could muddle through as net control if you could copy at ~20
wpm. However, it only took a couple of months and you were up to at least
30-35 wpm for self preservation. Also, by the time a net member sent their
first character or two of code, you knew who the member was. Identification
was a combination of the operator’s fist, and the characteristics of their
transmitter. There would be a slight signal chirp, key click, power supply
hum, etc. etc. on the signal. All of the transmitters were tube, of course,
and they all sounded a little different.

The old time hams and telegraphers who came by the Vibroplex booth at
hamfests always stopped to chat and send a few characters on one of the
display bugs. And every single one of them would say, “this bug needs
adjusting”, and proceed to make adjustments. That is one of the reasons
each operator sounded different on the air, their bug was adjusted just the
way they liked it. I spend a lot of time readjusting bugs! A favorite
diversion of mine was to have a left handed display bug.  People would come
up to the display, not notice that the bug was left handed, and try to send
with it. They would complain, something is wrong with this bug. I would
reach across the table, the bug being ‘right hand’ for me and send a few
characters, and say no, this bug is just fine.

Not many people left who know how to properly adjust a bug, it is a simple
1, 2, 3. I need to make a YouTube video on how to do it. J

Mitch W4OA

More information about the time-nuts mailing list