Sunday, May 15, 2005


Ifn u cn rd ths, u mite b a ham

"Ifn u cn rd ths, u mite b a ham"
By Michelle Thompson W5NYV

Which do you think is faster at transmitting a
message? Morse code? Or text messaging on a cellular
phone? There have been several interesting match races
appearing in the media over the last few weeks, with
CW winning handily over the hip-and-happening text
messaging crowd. A mid-April 2005 battle sponsored by
Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia pitted
93-year-old telegraph operator Gordon Hill won against
13-year-old text messager Brittany Devlin. Gordon Hill
won in all four heats. Furthermore, Gordon sent the
full text of the competition message, while Brittany
was allowed to use abbreviations.

Abbreviations are common in traditional telegraphy and
in amateur radio CW. Most everyone is familiar with
the Q codes (e.g. QST, QRZ, QTH) and some are familiar
with the telegraphy abbreviations (abt=about,
agn=again, ant=antenna) but text messaging compresses
any word that can be compressed. Some of the
abbreviations are reinventions of the telegraphy
shorthand. Other common text messaging abbreviations
seek to eliminate the letters that are on the same
number key, in order to take advantage of the
automatic next-letter jump when going from one key to
another in text mode. Other abbreviations eliminate
unpronounced letters. Some examples of common text
message abbreviations are ur=your, ty=thank you, and
pls=please. See
for an entertaining list of many additional text
messaging abbreviations.

Perhaps the most widely seen contest between text
messaging and Morse code was the recent segment on The
Tonight Show with Jay Leno. To see the segment, follow
this link.

The show ran on the 13th of May, 2005. The Morse code
team was Chip Margelli, K7JA and Ken Miller, K6CTW,
dressed in traditional telegraphy garb. They sure
looked spiffy in their green shades, white shirts,
black slacks, and old-school armbands. The costumes,
Ken Miller says, were the producer’s idea, but both
Chip and Ken had fun wearing them.

Ben Cook and his friend Jason were the text messaging
team. They were hip and cool in their jeans and
T-Shirts. Ben had established his reputation as
fastest text messager by at some time previous to the
contest by typing 160 characters in 57 seconds. In
English, five characters per word is the standard used
to measure typing speed in words per minute. Using an
average of five characters per word, that’s just about
32 words per minute. Knowing that text messagers might
be able to use abbreviations to lower the letters per
word, that could raise the words per minute rate by
quite a bit. By cutting out only one letter in every
other word in a text message, you can increase your
words-per-minute rate to nearly 37 words per minute.
In other words, the word-per-minute rate might be
expected to be in the ballpark of Morse code. However,
that’s neglecting the time it takes for the text
message to propagate through a cellular phone system.

For the contest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, the
sending members of the team sat at one table on the
left-hand side of the stage, and the receivers at
another table on the right-hand side of the stage. Ken
Miller decided that he would be the Morse code
receiver because he was less bothered by the crowd
noise. A card with the message to be sent was placed
face-down on the table. At the word Go, the sender
turned the card over and began transmitting the phrase
on the card to the receiver, each using their
particular technology. You could see the small radio
and key that Chip was using to send as well as the
small radio and speaker that Ken was using to receive.
The Morse code was clearly audible in the studio. Jay
Leno continued talking during the contest, but that
didn’t seem to bother either team, as they were
completely and totally focused on the task at hand.
Ken writes, “The radios were FT-817's provided by
Chip's company Yaesu and HRO. Reason for that choice
was that we needed the most frequency agile radios we
could get. When I talked to the technical folks, they
recommended we START at 2 meters and go up because of
all of the lower frequency noise and RFI from the
other TV equipment. When I got there, we took out a
spectrum analyzer and studied all of the interference
possibilities. I ended up choosing 432.200 MHz
because that guaranteed no RFI from their equipment
and we were high enough not to overload their front
ends either. This was then verified and it was what
we were using at the FT-817's lowest setting.”
Ken continues “Also, since we did not have the time to
set up headphones, I just added some extra volume for
me, had the stage folks cut my mike (to prevent
feedback and overload) and copied off of the speaker.
To re-emphasize the point, I'm just an average CW op
who occasionally operates the CW SS QRP, with my K2 of
course, and really enjoys CW, and traffic handling.”

Therefore, the contest was between someone who
considers themselves an average CW operator against
the fastest text messengers the Tonight Show could
find to fly in for the show.

Ken explained that he was confident that 28-30 wpm
would easily keep us in front of even the current
world record holder of fastest text messager, and also
it is the fastest speed that he could make nice
readable copy on paper with a pencil, which is what he
used to write down the message.

Interestingly, Joe Drago, who is a props manager for
the show, is
KF6OCP. There were three rehearsals for the skit.
Morse code won every time. In the segment that aired,
Ben Cook was getting ready to enter the last two words
when Ken and Chip finished their transmission. The
text was not revealed to either team beforehand and
was different in each rehearsal as well as for the
live event. Ken’s wife Connie was very much
responsible for the producer deciding to go ahead with
the segment, as she talked up the concept on the phone
and sold the idea of the segment working. Ken says
that without her efforts, the segment would never have

If you enjoyed the segment, PLEASE email, write, etc.
to let "The
Tonight Show" know about it. Exposure for our hobby is
a powerful tool for protecting it, increasing
awareness of it, and attracting new members to it.
Think of the number of people in the studio audience
alone that day that were introduced to Morse code and
ham radio in an entertaining, accessible way. Give the
show some feedback! Send them your QSL card and tell
them thanks for airing this segment. Here is the

Tonight Show with Jay Leno
3000 W. Alameda Ave.
Burbank, CA 91523

Very special thanks to Dennis Vernaccia N6KI, Art
Wallace W6KY, and Roger Thompson AD5T for contributing
to this article.

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