Rare International Sport

The Transcons, Transatlantics, relay speed record attempts, short wave tests, and the other group-oriented on-air events all owed their popularity to shared goals and objectives, but they were also simply fun to operate and involved an element of competition. The festive atmosphere generated by all the radio bugs coming on the air at once was not lost on the organizers who named these events parties.

Described as a “worldwide contact contest” the ARRL planned an International Relay Party for spring, to run from 0000 GMT 9 May to 0000 GMT 23 May 1927. True to recent tradition, this one was designed to both be fun and provide useful information about who was capable of message handling internationally.1 Each station in the US and Canada would transmit prewritten messages provided by the ARRL to as many foreign countries as possible, but only one to each country. Each foreign amateur who received one was then required to compose a reply of eight or more words and send it to a US or Canadian station other than the one from which it was received. Thus, a US or Canadian station could send a message to only one station in each country, and receive only one reply from any single station, as long as it was not a reply to his own message. Operation could be on any amateur band.

Cartoon from October 1927 QST.

Passing messages during the event determined a contest score. For US and Canadian stations, sent messages counted one point and received ones counted three. In reverse fashion for foreign participants, received messages from the US and Canada counted one point and replies counted three. This asymmetry seemed to emphasize the handling of replies, perhaps regarded as more difficult, or needing extra encouragement. An entry consisted of copies of all messages sent and received along with information as to time, date, wavelength and call sign of the worked station for each message. No deadline for submission was specified; the rules stated simply that they should be mailed promptly at the conclusion of the contest. American and Canadian participants must register ahead of time by sending a QSL card to Headquarters. They then would receive a list of assigned messages just before the start of the contest. They could choose messages at random from this list to send to each station they contacted.

The event ran as scheduled and was considered a success; participation was quite enthusiastic.2 But this was a new style of operating and the organizers failed to realize how ponderous the entry requirements really were. Collecting copies of all the messages, two of each in fact, from a worldwide group of participants and then checking them all was more time consuming than they anticipated. Patience began to run short as the summer wore on and the League was bombarded with letters from partygoers asking about their standings in the results.

They were finally rewarded in October QST in which Assistant Communications Manager Lawrence Jones published the full results. Everyone “enjoyed the party more than any other one that has ever been held,” reported Jones. “Comments like ’The whole test was a wow,’ and ‘The tests surely were the berries,’ are to be found in practically every report,” he wrote.

One of the first lessons from the experience was that the rule limiting US and Canadian stations to sending only one message per foreign country put a severe, unnecessary damper on activity. It resulted in foreign stations holding onto their reply messages until they could find a station that could send them a new one in return. But North American stations could receive more than one message from a single country, as long as they were from different stations. So the only way a North American ham could distinguish himself from competitors would be to receive multiple messages from any single country while originating only one. Thus, the objective for US and Canadian participants logically contradicted the objective of those in the other countries!

A dozen certificates for Official Foreign Contact Station were issued to amateurs who amassed the most points with a single country and thus demonstrated that their station was the most reliable for handling traffic into that particular country. 2AHM took the top spot in overall score with 90 points and a certificate for Great Britain with sixteen points (one message sent, five received). Don Wallace of 6AM was the only one to take two certificates, one each for New Zealand and China. And 4IZ got one for being the only contact with Spain—a one-point certificate winner.

Despite many countries being active in the contest, only twelve certificates were issued to North American participants because there were lots of tie scores, including many multi-way ties—not surprising given the inconsistency in the rules. Among these were a 16-way tie for Austria, 28-way for Costa Rica, and 35 for Puerto Rico! But since a tie did not indicate that any one station was most reliable to a given country, the organizers decided that no certificate was due at all. And besides, they judged sending all those extra certificates to be “impossible.” Clearly there was still much to figure out concerning this contesting business.

Among foreign entries the scores were a good bit higher because the structure of the rules favored them; eighteen certificates were awarded. 3AG in Chile had the top score with 232 points. As with the US and Canada stations, foreign tie scorers were not awarded certificates. Australia produced the most entries of any foreign country.

The HQ staffers were not eligible for awards, but operated from their own stations nonetheless. Before the contest they designed their own unique certificate, signed by all of them, to be awarded to the high scorer in their group and neatly framed by the low scorer. 1BDI ended up getting the certificate with 1KP doing the framing.

Even with all the complications, the contest or on-air party concept had proved to be very popular. Later that year, responses to a questionnaire on various subjects indicated overwhelming support for another International Relay Party.3 In response, ARRL Communications Manager F. E. Handy announced that the next ones would be held in February 1928 with some changes to the rules to fix the problems caused by the one-per-country limit on originated messages.

Prizes donated by radio manufacturers would go to high scorers in a number of categories, both within the US and worldwide localities. The definition of international localities was determined by the current list of IARU intermediates, more like the role of prefixes today.

As before, entrants from the US and Canada were required to register ahead of time and received test messages to be sent, each of which carried a serial number and distinguishing letter group. This time, a US or Canada station could send and receive a message only once with each foreign stationmuch more reasonable than the one-per-country rule. A reply message of at least ten words of five characters each must then be sent to a station different from the one who originated the test message, and would carry a serial number matching the message to which it replied.

This change meant that stations around the world would be trying to work as many US and Canadian stations as possible. The two-week-long contest would run from Sunday evening at 0000 GMT 6 February to 0000 GMT 16 February 19284, and the closing date for registering to enter would be 1 February.

Among its stated objectives were to “promote international fellowship” and “create opportunities for making new records.”5 It also offered a chance to “win valuable apparatus prizes at the same time you engage in two weeks of rare international sport.”

Aside from framing the whole event as a friendly competition, its formatted exchanges were designed specifically to foster a spirit of collaboration since it would take two stations with messages going in both directions to complete a valid exchange. Something taken for granted in today’s contests took careful consideration at the dawn of international amateur radio.

“We already hear of plans being made in some quarters,” commented Handy, “for ‘signing on’ a friend as extra op to keep the station on the air more hours per day than otherwise possible.” The concept of multi-operator as a separate entry class was as yet to be considered, and Handy seemed to question the ethics of collaboration of any kind. Furthermore, he continued, “Another individual is scheming to use an automatic transmitter to help him win. A third is entering two stations to better his chances of winning.” His comments foreshadowed computer use decades later (although he never elaborated on precisely how the purported automation would be accomplished) and multi-multi operation. But the organizers’ view held that a station was a station, and—completely describing the philosophy of competition at the time—Handy wrote,

The opportunities for getting a friend to help as op, for tuning the station to the highest degree of efficiency for different useful waves, for working up schedules in advance of the tests, are equal for everyone or as nearly so as we can make them at any rate. Frankly, we must admit we can’t get the viewpoint of the man who surrounds himself with unfair advantages to assure success. We believe in competing fairly or not at all. Every participant is on his honor as a gentleman to abide by the spirit as well as the letter of the rules of the contest.

Beyond the honor system, the organizers backed this principle by considering precisely what might constitute violations of the rules’ spirit. In particular, if one entrant accepted and claimed credit for more than 5% of the total number of reply messages sent to a specific originating station (i.e., containing the serial number for that station), it would be considered “prima facie evidence of either the operation of agreements between contestants or at any rate of unfair means of point-winning thru closely following the operations of particular contestants to too great an extent.” The 5% rule resulted from analysis of the logs of the previous contest showing evidence of such collusion.

Individuals from several ARRL headquarters departments were assembled to form an ad-hoc awards committee that would officiate, rule on irregularities, and decide on disqualifications. They would be assisted by a team of non-participating on-air observers, appointed just before the start of the contest. Three independent observer reports of out-of-band (“off wave”) operation would automatically disqualify a participant. One station arranging a sked for another to handle messages would be considered unsportsmanlike and would likely lose all points obtained this way or might even be disqualified.

League officials approached the radio industry for partial sponsorship; many of their executives were also hams. Readily embracing the idea, a diverse collection of equipment and parts manufacturers donated their products as contest prizes. Just a few weeks before the event, a nearly complete list of donated prizes for the next party totaled between $4,000 and $4,5006 (about $60,000 in 2014).7 The ARRL Communications Department planned to wait until the end of the contest to determine exactly how many prize groups there would be—Handy anticipated between fifty and sixty—which would depend on the level of participation and the number of localities taking part. There would also be a grand prize for each highest scorer in the US and in Canada, prizes for the other twenty-five highest scorers in the US and Canada taken together, and prizes for the US or Canada stations that were the only ones to contact a particular foreign country.

At the high end of the prize collection was an EIO Orthosonic six-tube broadcast receiver, worth $275, described as “balanced circuit, single control, extremely selective, illuminated scale, cabinet of genuine mahogany with walnut inlay, escutcheon plate of dull gold with knobs to match.” At the low end, was a Crosley Bandbox model 601 receiver worth $55. There were also prizes of valuable parts such as an E. F. Johnson “150-mmF type B ball-bearing transmitting condenser with etched scale, pointer, handle and locking device,” worth $49.50, a Hammarlund 29-inch-long, 3-inch diameter coil worth $8, and accessories such as a Bunnell “Gold Bug” key worth $13.50.

QST June 1928 Cover 1MK ARRL HQ station

ARRL Headquarters station 1MK, from the cover of June 1928 QST.

Illustrating the as-yet scant familiarity with the characteristics of the new shortwave bands, Handy baited the participants to push on down in wavelength, writing, “From what we hear, some of the fellows with UX2108 transmitters are planning to run rings around the high-powered 40-meter stations by using 20 meters, where power is a minor consideration.”

This time the results took roughly six months to be published, faster than most computer-assisted contests today (at least in actual print as opposed to on-line reports). 1ASF was the US winner with 305 points, reportedly using “a fifty-watt transmitter and no extra operators,” nc1AR won in Canada with 105 points, and 25 other stations won prizes, all in the US.9 First place in each of thirty-five participating foreign localities also received a prize. Those entries all had higher scores than the North American ones, with British 5BY on top at 573, Belgian 4AU reporting 486, and 4SA in Puerto Rico claiming 405.

With ARRL headquarters station 1MK watching the operations along with Official Observers, several stations heard operating outside the band limits were disqualified. All of them were named in the QST summary; how embarrassing. Some would have placed high in the rankings had they been more careful. Doubly embarrassing!

The International Relay Party would evolve into the ARRL International DX Contest. More about that in a later posting.

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  1. F. E. Handy, “Coming – An International Relay Party,” QST, March 1927, 28.
  2. L. A. Jones, “The International Test Results,” QST, October 1927, 32.
  3. F. E. Handy, “Announcement of Another International Test,” QST, December 1927, 31.
  4. The rules were confusing, specifying the period as beginning at 0000 on February 6 and ending at 0000 GMT on 19 February, but then in the next sentence states it as 6 to 19 February, inclusive.
  5. F. E. Handy, “Re: The International Test,” QST, January 1928, 51.
  6. This was stated as “between $4,500 and $4,000” as if writing about wavelengths while thinking about frequency.
  7. F. E. Handy, “Prizes for International Test Winners,” QST, February 1928, 33.
  8. A type of vacuum tube.
  9. L. R. Huber, “The 1928 International Relay Party,” QST, August 1928, 33.

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