The Telegraph Office

by Neal McEwen, K5RW

The Banana Boat Swing and Other Distinctive 'Fists'

"CW Notes With Character", by George F. Franklin, W0AV

Copyright © 1996, George F. Franklin

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Back in the thirties, when I got started in ham radio, every CW signal had at least two, sometimes three, characteristics, not all of which could be described by using the RST system. Incidentally, RST then maxed out at 559, not 599 as now; easier to manage in those days.

First of all, there was the "fist", i.e. the operator's manner of sending. The old pump handle straight key was pretty much the standard, and predominated on the bands. Next in popularity was the Vibroplex, commonly known as the "bug", with manual dashes and "automatic" dots. Here was where the individual sending style really came into play. There was the sea-going sparks sporting his "banana boat roll", with the exaggerated dash length. you could easily visualize "sparks" holding on for deal life in his shipboard shack as the vessel slowly listed from port or starboard. Once acquired, the BBR was usually retained even after sparks returned to dry land; it was a badge of distinction, so to speak.

Of lesser popularity, but even more distinctive, was the style of an operator using a classic "sideswiper" key. The dots and dashes were both made manually by horizontal movement of the blade to which the finger grips were attached. The resulting CW, though eminently copyable, has to be heard to be appreciated as it defies word description. Yes, there are still a very few OT's on the bands using sideswipers, but they are most certainly a vanishing breed.

No discussion of fists would be complete without mention of the so called "Lake Erie Swing", which originated with bug using marine ops on ships plying the Great lakes. The LES was characterized by the very generous use of dots, usually much faster (relatively) than the dashes. It made for a somewhat fluttery, whimsical style of sending, not unpleasant to copy once one got the hang of it. This style was later adopted by many airline and police CW operators, with equal success.

Vying for importance with the operator's fist, was the matter of his rigs CW "note", the T in the RST system. Here you encountered an endless variety of sounds, ranging from the raucous to the coveted PDC (pure DC) to somewhat rare T9X (PDC, crystal). There were many one stage, "self excited" rigs used on CW in those days, in spite of the dire FCC and Handbook warnings against coupling simple rigs of this type directly to the antenna. Many of us thought that as long as you used a "blocking capacitor" between the lead in and the tap on the rigs output coil you were OK. After all, it wasn't direct coupling, was it? Simple keyed Hartley oscillators using the popular type 210 or 45 tubes were generally identifiable by their pronounced "chirp", usually caused by poor supply regulation. Someone has said that they sounded like a stepped on frog; an apt description.

The TNT circuit (my favorite) was often a one tube affair using a tuned plate tank circuit and an untuned grid coil, hence TNT (tuned, untuned). These rigs all to frequently emitted a rude sound which sounded like a nose being blown, or worse. A few made downright obscene sounds, probably because of inadequate power supply filtering.

A TNT rig with a poorly filtered, poorly regulated power supply was a frightful thing to hear on the bands. Strangely enough, the raunchier the note, the wider and more potent the offending signal seemed to become. One thing, though, it did attract attention from DX stations. Unfortunately, it frequently annoyed the FCC monitors, who responded with the fearsome "Green Ticket". Of course, there were the purists who always managed to emit a T9X signal. They were sort of an elite bunch, however, who looked down upon the lowly users of Hartley and TNT rigs. They did stoop to respond to such offensive CW signals, but only if they originated off shore and could be classified as DX.

And then there was the special breed of CW operator, usually a high power fanatic in southern California who sported a crystal controlled KW+ rig, the signal from which was modulated at 120 (or 100) cycles (there were very few Hertz around in those days). This resulted in a very distinctive note which seemed to cut through the pileups, assisted by the big jugs pumping out the KW's, of course. I was told that the modulation was the result of using "resonant filters" in the power supply, in lieu of the typical brute force filter capacitors, which cost big money at 5 KV or so. These resonant filters did reduce the ripple significantly, usually just enough to meet the FCC criteria of the day. Sneaky but effective, wasn't it?

Oh, yes, there was the matter of S in RST, the signal strength factor. If you had sufficient power and a good antenna you could work the world on CW, even if the guy on the other end used a one tube regenerative receiver and a pismire transmitter. On the other hand, if your fist and/or your note were "distinctive" enough you could work plenty of stations, including DX, even if your signals weren't all that powerful. A good chirpy (birdlike or squishy) or buzz saw signal could often cut right through a T9X pileup, especially if assisted by a good Banana Boat Roll or Lake Erie Swing.

I suppose some mention should be made of the atrocious frequency drifting of those classic CW rigs. Well, look at it this way. There was a fifty-fifty chance that one would drift away from the QRM. On the negative side, it was not unknown for a drifter to slide right out of the band and into outer darkness before the end of a long-winded transmission.

Ah,... those were indeed the good old days of CW. Contrast those sounds with the sterile, electronically generated dots and dashes which dominate today's ham bands. No Character there! 

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Neal McEwen,