Posts Tagged ‘Amateur Radio History’

A Living Language? Or Eu tu, Brute?

One of the most popular phrases from the dead language of Latin is Et tu, Brute? It is a Latin phrase literally meaning “and you, Brutus?” or “also you, Brutus?”, often translated as “You as well, Brutus?”, “You too, Brutus?”, or “Even you, Brutus?”. I’m sure we’ve all used the phrase at one time or another.

dead language
a language that is no longer spoken by anyone as their main language:
Latin is a dead language.

It’s largely locked in stone as to what the Latin phrase is but, as noted, there is some variation as to how it is translated into English. So even “dead” languages can have some variation in translation to other “living” languages. Ask any Biblical scholar on translations from Aramaic or Hebrew to English. It’s a critical part in setting apart various religious traditions. Part of this variation is because living languages are continually spoken, written, and otherwise propagated among people throughout a given culture. It’s how slang becomes mainstream. There is little in the way of formal grammar to stop this element of social change especially among newer generations. For the stern grammarians in the room: sorry, gag me with a spoon.

living language
a language that is still being used and spoken by people

I was thinking about dead vs living languages recently when I read my friend Thomas K4SWL’s post on his popular blog. His post was encouraging low power operators to sign not with the famous “73” but “72” instead. To use a current slang term, what up with that? I’ll quote K4SWL directly on this:

“72” isn’t a new ham radio abbreviation but according to my light research, it doesn’t date back to the earliest days of wireless either (please correct me if I’m wrong).

The late and great George Dobbs (G3RJV) notes in his book “QRP Basics” that 72 has been in use since the late 1980s as a way some operators identify that they’re running QRP or low power (generally 5 watts or less).

Thomas K4SWL was not creating something entirely new. The QRP icon George Dobbs G3RJV had acknowledged that the practice originally had currency in QRP circles in the 1980s. That’s over three decades ago. This was hardly a shockingly new revelation but something that Thomas was advocating in today’s rising popularity of QRP operations, especially in parks and on mountain peaks. Use 72 to promote QRP operations!

I commented on his post, perhaps channeling my “inner Onno” from Aussie-Land. I teased Thomas that he was dangerously treading on the controversial “living language” paradigm in amateur radio. The Grammar Police will surely track him down online, lol. I added a few comments about this monkey business on the cultural icon of using “73” as a QSO closing (or in any other communication in ham radio). I thought I’d amplify those comments here. Don’t read if you aren’t willing to spend the time with the argument I present. It’s lengthy. Or if, as the old Tareyton cigarette commercial slogan stated, you’d “rather fight than switch.”

Would you rather fight than switch your tolerance of a living language?

One of the persistently divisive themes in the culture of amateur radio, especially in the United States, involves language. Yep, words. How we use them and what others think they mean. The most divisive one emanates from a cultural artifact created at the beginning of “the wireless.” By importing some of the shorthand codes from the wired telegraphy industry, wireless ham operators started using 73 in the version of Morse Code they adopted to end a transmission. This was clearly for the sake of making transmissions more efficient. I’ll note that, frankly, there were many sets of “codes,” each reflecting what a sound should be interpreted as in terms of letters or numbers or punctuation:

A telegraph code is one of the character encodings used to transmit information by telegraphy. Morse code is the best-known such code. Telegraphy usually refers to the electrical telegraph, but telegraph systems using the optical telegraph were in use before that. A code consists of a number of code points, each corresponding to a letter of the alphabet, a numeral, or some other character. In codes intended for machines rather than humans, code points for control characters, such as carriage return, are required to control the operation of the mechanism. [Source:]

In fact, there were many different sets of codes! An extensive number of the early “code books” can be found in the website page below. I must say, wow, what a “living” language they were creating! From 1880 thru 1957 — some 77 years — there were continually new sets of codes and modifications of previous ones. Latin, it wasn’t!

As the ARRL’s website claims, “The first authentic use of 73 is in the publication The National Telegraph Review and Operators’ Guide, first published in April 1857. At that time, 73 meant “My love to you!” Succeeding issues of this publication continued to use this definition of the term. Curiously enough, some of the other numerals then used have the same definition now that they had then, but within a short time, the use of 73 began to change.” I don’t think the Beatles used this meaning of 73 to pen, “PS: I love you“!

This rendition of the history of the shorthand code, 73, clearly places it in the domain of a “living language” artifact. The Dodge Manual listed it as a code for “Best Regards” which has become the point of divisiveness among far too many amateur operators, for far too long. The ARRL site tries to resolve the matter by ending with, “Today, amateurs use it more in the manner that James Reid had intended that it be used –a “friendly word between operators.” Hmm. Could those words be whatever the operator wanted as long as it was friendly?

As CBS TV News Anchor Walter Cronkite used to say at the end of his newscast, “And that’s the way it is!” Mr. Cronkite, as the reader likely knows, was a well-known amateur radio operator, too. Many hams do take the 73 as “Best regards” in the spirit of Cronkite’s newscast signature, seemingly prefering to fight rather than switch.

When, my friend Thomas K4SWL posted his article, he was doing what many of those groups did at the outset of “CW” operations: proposing a new numerical shortcode with a specific reference meaning. With tongue-in-cheek, I pointed out that in the Comments section on his blog post that he had strayed into the “living language” territory for ham radio grammar. The 3rd rail of the “dead language” view is using 73 with a plural notation: 73s, 73’s, etc. Even though Maxim used 73’s at the time, the Dead Language enthusiasts (think Latin) tend to rage about this usage. I’ve continued to puzzle over why is this so?

I taught engineering students in statistics and related classes (GIS, remote sensing) over several decades. As they wrote research papers in my courses, I noticed a tendency for some to approach writing as an engineering problem with an equation-like process. As the TV character Barney Fife might say: Obey All Rules! Now, not all of my engineering students had this viewpoint but enough did for me to remember. (See, by contrast, Bob Witte K0NR’s wonderful writing as an engineer and ham operator. Or Rob Sherwood NC0B’s clear and well-written articles.)

Moreover, engineering students were not the only ones who had such an approach, such as the social science student who told me that there was only one way to write a specific paragraph. Goodness. That flew in the face of this former radio News Director who rewrote news stories for the top-of-the-hour newscast back in the day. My gut told me that this hardening of the categories in writing came from previously struggling in English composition classes so the “rules” were clung to like a life raft but that’s just one person’s sense. I have no way to generalize that so it’s just my impression based on my personal experience.

Here’s an example from a well-known ham operator who is an expert in propagation, certainly imbued with a clear background in things involving solar science (and one whom I read often and respect a lot). Here is Tomas NW7US’s blog post on this 73 grammar “travesty”:

My pointing out this post isn’t a personal criticism of Tomas NW7US. It’s an intellectual statement about language use in amateur radio with Tomas’s public post as merely one clear example. Merely reviewing the Forums on or reveals many others who make the very same argument. It IS a strongly held belief by a significant group of hams. But why? Especially since the history of these two-digit codes were so dynamic during their development.

Here are my observations on this as a professional sociologist and statistician. Scientists and engineers may well understand the grammar training they received but they are not experts in social linguistics. Those professionals are indeed schooled in how language is organized, operates, and changes over time. Sociologists often use social linguistics when they study social change as cultural shifts are always part of that process. And how these beliefs are stratified across a social group like the ham radio community is prime intellectual real estate for us. Many sociologists who specialize in analyzing social action (using dramaturgy) carefully analyze the meanings sent and received by social actors in a setting or context.

Why the strongly held beliefs today about how the two-digit code “73” should be used in oral and written communications? These ham operators invariably impose grammatical substitution rules to take the original shorthand definition of 73 as “best regards” to infer that 73s/‘s is the same as saying “best regards’s,” a silly thing to do as Tomas NW7US says. Something that only the Cat in the Hat might do, for instance. This rigid grammar logic assumes that early telegraphy shorthand is a completely dead set of denoted abbreviations. Dead such that the only meaning imputed to them has been fixed and, therefore, cannot violate the substituted grammatical expressions held by these ham operators. Somehow, the Soup Nazi episode from the TV show Seinfield comes to mind. For is is not a dead expression of telegrapher’s codes as there were indeed many varying expressions associated with this two-digit code. Thomas K4SWL’s declaration about 72, reflecting some quarter century in use, is just one example that our hobby language follows a “living” model.

I’ve searched high and low in the academic world of linguistics about what are common understandings about the grammar of such symbolic representations. The Linguistic Society of America told me that they have NO members who claim expertise in the grammar of such symbols. Not one. Even my social media contact Grammar Girl declined to weigh-in on this matter! She said she wasn’t not aware of any grammatical rules that would apply.

What is Linguistics?
In a nutshell: Linguistics is the scientific study of language. Linguists apply the scientific method to conduct formal studies of speech sounds and gestures, grammatical structures, and meaning across the world’s 6,000+ languages.

Thus, THERE ARE NO ACCEPTED RULES for conjugating ancient telegraphy symbol representations by anyone who has actual expertise in the matter of linguistics or grammar. These “substitution rules” used by some ham operators are created out of thin air. And they ain’t in Strunk & White either! To repeat, these hams are treating two-letter codes as if they are part of a “dead” language whereas they may have never been, given the dynamic history of telegraphy ciphers.

So, are these codes actually part of a living language set of cultural artefacts in today’s amateur radio?

I’ve done keyword searches periodically in eHam and QRZ for “73” versus “73s” or “73’s”. I was careful to isolate 73 without the s or ‘s. The results always show between 40-55% of the post authors using a plural form of 73. There is clear evidence of a living language cultural usage pattern by contemporary amateurs in those Forums. While not necessarily representative of all discourse by ham operators, it is enough evidence to demonstrate the differing patterns of usage existing in modern times for the two-digit symbol of 73. Even the icon Hiram Percy Maxim used 73’s in his QSL cards back in the period where this symbol was getting used frequently:

From the outset, it seems that even prominent hams had grammatical issues with how to express the underlying meaning in written language with the two-digit code, 73. Once more, how come? There appears to be a straightforward answer that has not been presented heretofore from my extensive reading in the amateur radio literature.

One academic social linguist who didn’t want to go on record with an official quote because of the lack of published evidence in the matter offered me an interpretation that as a professional sociologist I agree has merit. It ties together the existing cultural conflict and the dead vs living language distinction into an explanation.

The original use of 73 was not intended for spoken or written language but solely for the mode of Morse Code communication efficiency. It has various meanings associated with it in various “code books” early on. But it was never meant to always be a literal translation, only a shorthand for a common closing, much like the gentle wave of the hand to generally acknowledge another person. To illustrate a distinction by converse, try using SSB in a QSO but only say letters instead of enunciating full words. Clearly, this would be a different language format, one that would likely end the QSO with the other ham quickly! Why? It’s not meant to be communicated that way in voice modes.

But once in common (and understood) usage, the SYMBOL of 73 began to stand on its own, only mildly tethered to the original cheat sheet reference for these early shorthand representations. Recall the ARRL’s version of the history of 73, regaling us with the meandering underlying interpretations of the cipher. Remember, they were created solely to save the poor telegrapher’s ligaments and time hogging the party-line telegraph circuit. Thus, the substitution method invoked by some hams has NO grounding or support that I can find from professionals in linguistics or the most famous grammarian of the day, Mignon Fogarty (aka Grammar Girl). It truly is an argument made up in whole cloth by would-be grammar police. (Hmm. I wonder if they’d try to correct the rock band, Police, in their 1980 hit song, “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da”?)

The fact that many proficient CW ops don’t “hear” letters but words or abbreviations in the dits-and-dahs underscores the living vs dead language distinction. The dits and dahs are mostly heard as clusters of sounds representing a letter, number or punctuation mark. Moreover, there are “pro signs” that supercede the use of formal words in order to be more efficiently transmitted and received, the original intent of all of the telegrapher’s ciphers. So when the symbol, 73, is used, other hams understand the “positive feeling” being expressed, not strictly one example used in the past, such as best regards.

A contemporary analogy is the emoji. It’s a symbolic, cartoon-like figure that represents a expression, sentiment or other cultural objects. How “should” we conjugate an emoji symbol? There is no grammar syntax for doing so now or perhaps in the future because these symbols are very much only VAGUE representations of “emotions.” Any claims right now by supposed emoji grammar police would quickly get rebuffed as illegitimate. This is an analogy for the two-digit cipher of 73 meaning a “positive feeling” being expressed.

Emoji are a slightly more recent invention…If it’s a little cartoon figure that is free from the binds of punctuation, numbers, and letters, it’s an emoji.

I’ve facetiously written from time to time, just to aggravate the Grammar PoPo: 73’s, one to each of you! This ties in knots the logic of the substitution method since each and every single person technically gets one “73” (by substitution, best regards) while acknowledging that there are many recipients being spoken to. (This method in the sociology specialization of ethnomethodology is a well-known procedure of intentional rule-breaking to identify the taken-for-granted structure of meaning in communication.) Clearly, this is nonsense that only Dr. Seuss would embrace.

But Hiram Percy Maxim embraced the distinction between CW symbols and using them in written form as stand-alone terms in his widely reproduced QSL cards. From the keyword searching results I cited above, about half of the hams today understand that it’s a stand-alone symbol, detached from the specifics of “Best regards,” much as it was in the original period where these codes were formulated. It’s a grammar that largely never really was.

To conclude this set of analytical thoughts, behavior over time will eventually override previous rules. Ain’t isn’t a proper contraction according to grammar books. But it is in frequent use. The use of 73 to end a communication has not had in practice an explicit and sole connection to the telegrapher’s code list for a century now. As James Reid had intended that it be used, “friendly word between operators,” it has become just that. No more and no less.

So in my post comment, I give congratulations to Thomas K4SWL on promoting the use of 72 to represent QRP transmissions. Symbols like this are living language artifacts based on cultural change. Thanks K4SWL for helping to move this along! Viva le 72! (Hmm. Is this really gendered?)

To the Grammar Police: be like Elsa and let it go!

Best Regards’s,

Frank K4FMH

Taking a stroll through transceiver time…

Something that has made me drift into periods of wonder for a long time now is to look through the websites or other historical sources of radios and transceivers manufactured for amateur radio. By just perusing radios over a lengthy period of time, one can gauge how and when the hobby made changes in the technology. As the author William Faulkner has said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” If coverage of the 2022 Xenia Hamvention bone yard is any indication, Faulkner is indeed right about the technological past not even being past!

Anthropologists of technology tell us that:

Social change is driven by — and depends upon — technological change.

Tim Ingold, Social Analysis No. 41(1) March 1997, p. 106.
The past isn’t even past, said William Faulkner (Oxford, MS)

Our technological change in transceiver technology lends itself to the social change in how we practice amateur radio. I’ll focus on just one element that has emerged in the last decade, the panadapter effect, in a later post. But for now, let’s just get a grasp of the bigger picture. For it may not be what you thought, if you’re a long-time amateur radio operator. The pending demographic changes that I’ve written about unmercifully suggest that some won’t see the changes that tech imposes on cultural shifts.

But technology moves onward. The changes that improvements and revolutionary creations do begat collective change, even if the past still is among us in terms of usage or just in our hearts and minds. Those images and feelings are demographically rooted, however, in the time in which our early years are imprinted in our memories.

People — smart, thoughtful people, with relevant backgrounds and domain knowledge — thought that Airbnb and Uber were doomed to failure, because obviously no one would want to stay in a stranger’s home or ride in a stranger’s car. People thought the iPhone would flop, because users would “detest the touch screen interface.” People thought enterprise software-as-a-service would never fly, because executives would insist on keeping servers in-house at all costs.

It’s quite an amazing walk to just browse through the dates that radios in Rob Sherwood’s table of receiver tests were released to the market. I’ve put a simple time line page in the portfolio of Sherwood Tools for the viewer to easily do that. I’ve added links to pictures and details of each radio for a richer experience.

Return to the year you were licensed or got seriously interested in amateur radio. What’s the nearest year in Rob’s Table? What was the technology of that radio? What was your first transceiver? Locate your amateur radio life course regarding transceivers through Rob’s bench test list. Then, check out the other Sherwood Tools to see how it fits into the latest rigs.

After this new page was circulated by Twitter, I received this kind note from a popular SOTA award winner, Ed Durrant DD5LP in Germany:

This is a great work that you have pulled together. I found myself going through the time-line saying, yes, yes, I remember those and then I’d see one I didn’t recognise but in general this is very useful to see which companies were really active at different times…I am in awe of this work, the more I check different links, the more I get pulled into it and I can see how much effort you have put in it.

While it did take a minute, the results are hopefully well worth it. But just taking the Sherwood Table and placing each radio into the year of market-entry, there is a look at over a half-century of technological advancement in this time line. How has it made us change our behavior in operating? How has it changed the organized hobby itself? And what will tomorrow bring? Go take a stroll through transceiver time here.

ICQ Podcast Feature on the Lost Tribe. TSM article now freely available

The historical research I recently published in October issue of The Spectrum Monitor is now available on my companion website, It’s on the home page. TSM allows authors to hold secondary publication rights to articles so I can freely post the PDF now that the November issue is published. Have a look if you don’t subscribe to TSM.

The next episode of the ICQ Podcast, Number 363 that will drop on Sunday November 7th, will feature an audio version of these new research results. For those who’d rather listen than read, this might be a viable option.

One upshot of my research is this: if you begin with the ARRL-published and famous book, 200 Meters and Down by ARRL Secretary Sutton, you are going to be terribly mislead about how amateur radio got organized in the United States. The new website,, amidst other sources such as online historical newspapers (e.g.,, the Internet Archive, the Hathitrust archive, various university-based archives, and other sources, really opens up our ability to more fully understand the origins, emergence and organization of wireless telegraphy which begat amateur radio.

Who is this?

I’ve included a picture from Wikipedia of a person who made voluminous but unheralded contributions to the emergence of amateur radio. This included selling parts to the person who Elmered one of the founders of the ARRL into the hobby. (Did you know there were two co-founders?)

Do you recognize him from this picture?

If not, you’d find the TSM article and the ICQ Podcast feature in the next episode very informative. I’ve included another, one that looks a bit wacky from the day but if you’re familiar with 3D immersive technology, it was “seeing” far into the future of…today! (See the search results using the term, Oculus Quest, if you’re not familiar.)

During a somewhat boring world history class in college, I heard my professor say, “Yes, history is boring to many. Until it touches your life.” He had a point. I was living through some important history of America back in the late-sixties and early seventies. It led me into studying social movements and how they intersect the lives of not only the current participants but those who come afterwards, too.

I hope that the research I’ve done into the early part of the last century on this topic will touch your amateur radio life, so to speak. It has mine as I learned quite a bit from almost a year’s worth of reading and study. I’m delighted that we have an outlet like TSM whose Editor, Ken Reitz KS4ZR, is willing to publish pieces like this.

Guess who? Intelligent Vision was the name of the gadget.

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