The Telegraph Office

 by Neal McEwen, K5RW

[email protected]


by Tony Smith G4FAI

Extracts from "Morsum Magnificat"

Copyright © Morsum Magnificat

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In 1942 Harry Turner became the world champion hand key operator. His record of 35 w.p.m. using International Morse has never been beaten and his feat has been noted in every issue of the Guinness Book of Records since 1981.

Harry, now living in Alton, Illinois, was born in the small town of Lowder, in the same State. His two brothers worked on the railroad, and by the time he was ten years old he had learned American Morse.

He went to work on the railroad himself at the age of 14, working "extra" (relief telegrapher) up and down the line until 1934 when he resigned. "I never stayed in one job very long as I didn't want a steady position, being young. I gained a lot of experience on the various jobs and liked it better that way."


In 1936 Harry joined the U.S. Navy and was discharged in 1940. The following year he joined the army and saw service as a M/Sergeant with his radio section in the Pacific war zone, including Guadalcanal, the Solomon Islands and the Philippines.

An article in 73 Magazine, Jan. 1976, by Harrison Church, W0KXP, describes one of Harry's exploits in the Solomons. On one particular island the Americans were at one end and the Japanese the other, while "in the vicinity lived an assortment of headhunters and a missionary."

The Americans wanted to call in their bombers to "soften up" the enemy but had trouble getting through on the radio because of jamming. Harry went on the air with a Millen "Variarm", a variable frequency oscillator with its variable function controlled by a movable rod extending from the unit.

Attaching an antenna directly to the oscillator he keyed at high speed, gradually pulling the Variarm down to change the frequency of his output.

The Japanese were following and jamming this seemingly unstable transmission and when Harry reached the limit of the oscillator's range the operator next to him called for help on the original frequency.... Recalling this incident for MM, Harry says "When I fooled the Japs I was using American Morse as I didn't think they knew that code - and it turned out that they didn't!"


Harry attended the Signal Corps School, Camp Crowder, Missouri, in October/November 1942. "Having known both codes and worked with them, I graduated in one month, however, the army did not teach me any of it."

November 9th, 1942, was the big day. Harry describes what happened. "The day I set this record General Ben Lear, Sixth Army Commander, toured the School and was present while I was sending the code at 35 words per minute. One was also required to copy back what one sent.... the machine used for sending and recording on tape was an army machine and would only record at 35 words per minute.

"It could have been that I sent faster than what was recorded.... also the tape was inked and run back through a receiving machine, and one copied the code back from that machine.... the machines were accurate. I sent for the full five minutes and then copied it all back, no mistakes. I have a certificate from the U.S. War Department regarding this record.

"I really did not try for a record. I was just putting on a demonstration for the General. It made him feel good to think the School was turning out such fast operators, but the top speed of the operators that the School really did turn out was not over 20 words per minute sending and receiving.... they were taught to print. I copied my test in longhand. That was what we had to do on the railroad, everything copied on a typewriter or in longhand."


Harry obtained his ham call, W9YZE in 1936 and at 82 is still active on the amateur bands with CW. At one time he was Editor/Secretary/Treasurer of the QRP Amateur Radio Club International. Today he is Secretary/Treasurer of the Alton Ill, Chapter of the Morse Telegraph Club. He still uses International code on the amateur bands but he has not forgotten American Morse.

He participates in the annual MTC celebration of Samuel F.B. Morse's birthday which for one day a year recreates the original wire telegraph system across the U.S. and Canada. He is controller, on 7144 kHz, of an American Morse net, mainly for novices learning the code, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Like many other MTC members who still use the "mother tongue" he uses a sounder for reception, activated by a home built converter.

As reported in the last issue of MM, the BBC "Record Breakers" program has issued a challenge for someone to try to break Harry's International Morse record. The widespread use of electronic keyers and semi-automatic bugs for fast work has long destroyed the old competitive spirit in this field, and it seems unlikely that there are any high speed hand key operators about nowadays who could attempt it.

Harry would like someone to try but as he says, "they would have to have a lot of practice." Who knows, there might be someone out there - somewhere!

(Harry Turner W9YZE, world champion hand key operator, died on December 21, 1994, at the age of 88. As far as is known, no one has ever beaten his record.)

(From Morsum Magnificat #12, Summer 1989)

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Neal McEwen, [email protected]