Two Contests

In the fall of 1929, mounting interest in another message handling contest prompted a repeat of what ARRL Communications Manager F. E. Handy dubbed an “International DX Contest” like the one held in February 1928 that had been so popular.1 Since there had been both worldwide and US- and Canada-only events, there were many proponents for each kind. So, Handy and the others in the Communications Department decided that both would be held this time.

Today, test is considered shorthand for an on-air contest. But the term actually arose from more than simply shortening a word. These first contests had their roots in the various organized tests that had been run for more than a decade. So although they were the direct antecedents of modern contests, with rules, scoring and prizes, the early ones were meant to help develop a community understanding of propagation on the shortwave bands and push equipment design to improved levels of performance. Those amateurs at the leading edge of the art were motivated to more efficiently and effectively use the recently trimmed-back amateur bands, a motivation that continues in full force today. The friendly competition of the tests was an additional, more broadly appealing incentive. It was the same combined incentive that had driven Leon Deloy to research and build his station to be the first in Europe to contact North America. A single QSO was enough to win first place in 1923.

If previous test activity was any indication of the potential of new ones—each of the last two successive events had seen increased participation—they should certainly serve to stress the capacity of the new band limits. They would also challenge amateurs seeking to test out their 1929-type stations. Modern equipment combined with good operating practice would be the essence of a winning effort. Intelligent use of all the bands would also be essential, but no one quite knew how to do that yet. The contests would help amateurs develop a better understanding of the new bands’ individual personalities, especially a wider appreciation of the underused 14,000-kHz band.

Handy predicted,

New contacts and friendships will be made. The first contest will put each participant in touch with others in many parts of this continent. The second will promote international friendships. Courtesy (or QSL) cards will follow in quantity if the experience of our forwarding bureau is any indication. Several months were required to clear the hook of the thousands of cards that were received to be sent through Headquarters after our last test.

Though they did not yet recognize its significance, solar cycle 16 was now more than half way through its declining phase. The two contests would run under less than ideal conditions. Whatever hams would learn about the nature of the new higher frequency bands would only hint at what would eventually be possible.

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In the first event, running from 18 through 31 January 1930 (GMT), stations in the US and Canada could work each other and exchange test messages in standard ARRL format. Named the All-Section Sweepstakes Contest, it was the progenitor of the November Sweepstakes that runs today.2

Each station could be worked only once regardless of band and each test message had to be different and contain at least ten words. “Rubber stamp” or trivial messages would not be credited. “This will call for individual originality in making up messages to be sent to each station worked,” reiterated Handy (certainly an understatement!) to ensure there was no misunderstanding. The two messages for a specific station (to and from, the origin of the Sweepstakes’ two-point contacts) did not need to be handled during the same contact. In 1930, loose coupling evidently applied to QSOs, too, not just transmitter-antenna connections.

As you might expect, requiring two original messages in each QSO prompted lots of questions about what would not be considered “rubber stamp” or trivial. Handy replied to a published question from VE3ZZ with some suggestions:

… questions or facts pertaining to the apparatus in stations, localities, opinions regarding conditions, DX, traffic or radiophone operation, comments on the characteristics of different amateur frequencies, off-frequency operation, regulations, the interference question, high quality signals, beginners, broadcast or ship operating, organization work, Army or Navy Net operation, station descriptions, QST articles, message procedure, laws, etc. would make excellent, texts for messages to be originated in the contest, not to mention the variety of non-radio subjects that could be called upon when operators in remote districts may find themselves short of regular traffic.

Clearly he had no problem with this requirement, oblivious to the scaling-up problem that could present itself in years to come as QSO totals increased.3

A final score was calculated by awarding one point for each message sent or received multiplied by the number of sections worked (a maximum of 68). “This will make our contest more interesting and general in its character,” wrote Handy. But since a valid contact must contain both a sent and received message, half-done QSOs would not count at all.

Pre-arranged skeds were permitted but, it was thought, would not be of much advantage. “Hit-or-miss work over the air will be necessary in any case to run up a score as fast as QSO’s can be made and messages put through in both directions.” But stations heard operating outside the bands would be disqualified as in the previous contest.

Advance registration was not required this time, probably to encourage more participation. Copies of each message sent and received for the contest had to be submitted as part of a valid entry, and would serve as proof of a valid contact. A log needed to be submitted along with the messages showing a list of stations and sections contacted (not necessarily in chronological order as required today). Entries had to be received at headquarters by 20 February 1930, three weeks after the end of the contest. Certificates would be awarded to the high scorer in each ARRL section. As before, ARRL headquarters stations and staff would not be eligible for awards but would participate.

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The second event, involving the entire world, would run from 15 through 28 February 1930 (GMT) and was called the Third International Relay Competition, a progenitor of today’s ARRL DX Contest. American and Canadian stations, including stations located in US territories, would work everyone else, and needed to register in advance for participation. Stations around the world could simply participate at will but could work only the US and Canada.

As in the previous contest, US and Canadian stations had to pre-register two weeks prior to the event and would send test messages, provided to them just before the contest started, to foreign stations who then would send reply messages to W/VE stations other than the ones from which they were received. Reply messages had to contain the assigned serial number from the original test message and a ten-word text that was different each time, just as in the Sweepstakes. Furthermore, a reply had to actually answer a question posed in the original message!4 For W/VE stations, sending a test message counted one point, receiving a reply counted two, and for the rest of the world, receiving a test message counted one, sending a reply counted two.

A winner would be named from each ARRL section and each area of the world having a different call sign prefix. Going by section, rather than having prizes for the top 25 in the entire US and Canada, was intended to satisfy criticism from West Coast stations that the 1928 contest had favored East Coast stations because of their distance advantage for working the great number of European participants.

But since there was still interest in a national (US or Canada) high-score list, they also devised a handicapping arrangement for weighting contacts with various continents according to whether a participant was located more or less west or east of the Mississippi River (i.e., Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana and Ontario were the western-most states and provinces designated to be in the eastern area.5

The final score was then calculated as the number of message points for a QSO, each multiplied by its appropriate weighting factor, totaled up and then multiplied by the number of continents worked. A foreign station’s score was their message total multiplied by the number of US and Canadian call districts worked (at that time, a maximum of only 9 and 5, respectively).

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Upon defeating the British Navy at Dover in 1652, the appropriately named Dutch commander, Admiral Tromp, “sailed up the English Channel with a broom hoisted at the masthead of his flagship, denoting that he had successfully ‘swept the seas,’” wrote F. E. Handy.6

Therefore, the three highest-scoring entries in the All-Section Sweepstakes, having similarly “swept the air” would receive as a trophy a sweep-broom decked out in black and gold League colors and constructed using radio materials, including a “symbolic vacuum tube” attached to the handle. At three feet long for the top prize, with second and third place brooms each incrementally shorter, the trophies would have the winners’ call signs “inscribed in black on a background of varnished cambric, better known to amateur constructors as empire cloth”7 Certificates of Performance, awarded to the high scorer in each ARRL section, also displayed a small picture of the three brooms as emblems of the event.

In the International Relay Competition, Certificates of Merit would be awarded to high scorers in each ARRL section and as many “foreign localities” as had entered.


The cover of the May 1930 issue of QST was illustrated with a cartoon drawn by Philip “Gil” Gildersleeve, W1CJD—his first cover drawing. Gil had been drawing cartoons for QST since June 1927, beginning a long and popular run of hundreds. Inside, the results of the All-Section Sweepstakes declared W1ADW the winner with a “clean sweep,” which simply meant he had the highest score—different from what it means today, working all ARRL sections. Operating on the 80-, 40- and 20-meter bands, he had exchanged messages with 153 stations in forty-three of the sixty-eight ARRL sections for a score of 13,158.8 Rounding out the top three broom winners were W9DEX and W2BAI, who took third place despite beginning his operation one week late!

Ninety stations from forty-eight sections reported their results. Only one, W9GHI, used phone during the contest, mostly in the 80-meter segment.

Many who entered expressed their enjoyment and asked for more such events to be scheduled. The most common, nearly universal problem they reported was having to explain the contest to more than half the stations they worked. Handy attributed this to an abundance of amateurs who “do not properly read QST.”

Though it ran one month later than the Sweepstakes, the results of the International Relay Competition took three more months to be reported.9 In the US and Canada, W6BAX finished on top with 3,210 points, with W2CXL in second with 2,945, working 83 stations. W6BAX’s QSO total was not reported but it was lower than W2DXL’s despite having a higher score, likely due to the weighting scheme. CM8UF topped the DX entries with 3,564 points.

There would be many more changes to both events in the coming years . The declining solar cycle notwithstanding, contests clearly made the bands come alive and were both fun and useful.

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  1. F. E. Handy, Coming–Operating Activities, QST, December 1929, 37.
  2. The November Sweepstakes dates back to its first running in 1933.
  3. F. E. Handy, Trophies and Certificates for the January and February Contests, QST, January 1930, 82.
  4. Queries About Our February Contest, The Third International Relay Party, The Communications Department, QST, February 1930, III.
  5. The weighting factors applied to QSOs would be (listed as east, west): Europe 3, 11; Africa 1.5, 10; South America 3, 3; Mesopotamia, Iraq and Palestine 5, 15; Asia (China, Japan, Malay States, E. Siberia, Siam, French Indo-China) 20, 10; Oceania 4, 3; North America (Alaska 4, 3), (Mexico and all Central American countries 3,3), (Porto Rico, Cuba, Bermuda, Bahamas, and Antilles 2, 3), (Greenland, Iceland, Newfoundland and Labrador 2, 3).
  6. F. E. Handy, Trophies and Certificates for the January and February Contests, QST, January 1930, 15.
  7. Cotton fabric impregnated with oxidized oil and used as electrical insulation.
  8. E. L. Battey, The All-Section Sweepstakes Contest, QST, May 1930, 43.
  9. E. L. Battey, The Third International Relay Competition, QST, August 1930, 17.

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