[Top] [All Lists]

[CQ-Contest] CW Sweepstakes Then and Now (Long)

To: <cq-contest@contesting.com>
Subject: [CQ-Contest] CW Sweepstakes Then and Now (Long)
From: "Hal Offutt" <hal@japancorporateresearch.com>
Date: Mon, 27 Oct 2008 16:35:58 -0400
List-post: <cq-contest@contesting.com">mailto:cq-contest@contesting.com>
CW Sweepstakes Then and Now


Comparing the 1958 and 2007 CW SS Contests


By Hal Offutt, W1NN


Heavy Reading


Some 10 or 15 years ago I had the opportunity to acquire a huge quantity of old 
QST magazines at a tag sale in Connecticut.  Thinking that these would make for 
some fine reading during my future retirement years, I acted against all common 
sense and lugged this treasure home.  In later years, I had many occasions to 
question the wisdom of this purchase as I found myself having to haul what 
amounts to 200 pounds of solid wood through three house moves.  With all this 
material available on a CD-ROM weighing just ounces, did it really make sense 
to hang on to these musty old mags?  Yes, I told myself, you can’t read a 
CD-ROM in bed, in the bathtub or sitting by the fire.


Fast forward to a couple of months ago when I finally found a little time to 
rummage through these old boxes of magazines.  Not surprisingly, I found myself 
seeking out the issues from my own early years of hamming and looking up my 
first published contest scores.  The passing of that most shocking of 
milestones – 50 years as a licensed amateur – in October 2007 also probably had 
something to do with this walk down Memory Lane.  It was thus that I singled 
out the May 1959 issue of QST and the long-forgotten results of the 1958 CW 
Sweepstakes contest.  


What’s Going on Here?


Although I had operated the 1958 Novice Roundup as my first radio contest, the 
CW SS that year was the first contest for which I had ever submitted a log.  Of 
course, most of the details of that event have long since been erased from my 
mind’s hard drive.  But I knew that my score couldn’t have been much to write 
home about because I had barely a year of ham experience and my equipment at 
the time consisted of 75 watts input to an in-the-attic long wire (in a single 
story house).  Locating the Great Lakes Division listings and then the Ohio 
section, I was thrilled to find my old call and score listed as follows: 


K8HVT 36,563 230-65-A-31  


Counting the calls above my own, I found that I had achieved 41st place in Ohio 
and that this just barely put me in the top half of Ohio entries that year.  
This came as quite a surprise.  Not my puny score but the large number of logs 
that had been submitted:  an amazing 111 entries from Ohio alone.  I was pretty 
sure that there were nowhere near this many entries submitted for CW SS these 
days.  Checking the 2007 results, sure enough, there were only 43 entries from 
Ohio.  This was a drop of 61% from 1958 to 2007.  Curious, I then compared 
total logs submitted for both events.  1,677 stations submitted logs in the 
1958 CW SS, compared with 1,260 in 2007, a decline of nearly 25%.  What was 
going on here?  How could a popular contest have had so much more participation 
50 years ago? 


Doing a little research, I discovered that the decline was even more dramatic 
when looked at on a per capita basis.  The total US amateur population in 
November 1958 was around 185,000.  This had grown to approximately 656,000 in 
November 2007.  So in 1958, one in every 110 amateurs had sent in a log for SS 
CW while the comparable number for 2007was only one in 520.  (I have not 
included Canadian amateur totals, so these participation figures are slightly 
overstated.)  This is a decline of nearly 80%!  

Looking closer, I discovered that Ohio was not the only section to see a steep 
drop in submitted logs.  Nearly all sections in the Northeast and Midwest have 
seen large declines, several even steeper than Ohio.  Logs from NYC/LI fell by 
over 85% and the entire 2nd call district saw a 75% decline.  Logs from EPA 
were down by 72%.  The only exceptions to this trend in the East were New 
Hampshire and Vermont.  On the other hand, logs submitted from sections in the 
South and the West have actually increased, in some cases substantially.  
Thinking about it, I realized that the changes in CW SS log submittals in many 
sections pretty much tracked the major shifts in the population over these 
years, with the areas of rapid population growth in the South and West seeing 
more participation and the regions of slower growth in the East and Midwest 
showing declines.      


1958 Rules  


While today’s contester would certainly recognize the 1958 Sweepstakes, in many 
respects it was very different.  Back then, participants could operate for a 
maximum of 40 hours spread over two successive weekends.  The contest began at 
2300Z Saturday (or 6 PM EST) and ran through 0800Z on Monday (3 AM EST Monday) 
of each weekend, providing a total of 66 hours of operating time.  (I suppose 
not too many people on the East Coast operated the last 3-4 hours of the 
contest, given that the next day would be a school or work day.)  


The exchange was also quite different.  The check was RST, not your license 
year, and there was no precedent then.  Instead, after the section (the 
abbreviations for which were usually longer than today), you sent the time and 
date of the QSO (in local time!).  So the entire exchange went like this:  NR 1 
W1AW 589 CONN 1812 Nov 8.  The total number of letters and numbers in the 
exchange was thus nearly twice what we send today.  A rate of 40/hour was 
considered to be very high.  


The scores posted by 1958’s participants were quite impressive by today's 
standards considering the lengthy exchange and the much simpler equipment and 
antennas most hams were using.  Winner W4KFC’s QSO total in 40 hours of 
operating was 1,296, or an average of about 32 per hour.  More than 30 stations 
managed to top 1,000 contacts.  Most ops were using semi-automatic keys 
(“bugs”) and probably quite a few were still banging out their contacts on 
straight keys.  Separate receivers and transmitters were the norm, so the 
receiver had to be muted with a relay while transmitting, and when in S&P mode, 
you had to zero beat your VFO to the CQing station’s frequency.  There was 
quite a bit of physical work involved in making every contact.  The New 
Hampshire winner, W1HKA used a Heathkit AT1 which produced about 15 watts 
output and a Zepp antenna.   About one-fourth of section winners were using 
homebrew transmitting equipment.  


Another surprising thing about the 1958 contest was the domination of the top 
ten by stations in the East.  The only station to make it into the top ten from 
west of the Mississippi was W0YCR from Minnesota, who managed to place sixth.  
The rest were from VA (1), EPA (3), MDC (2), TN (1), OH (1) and WI (1).  The 
top scoring California station was K6SXA in 12th place, and the top Five was 
W5YDC in LA in 14th place.  The population of hams was highly concentrated in 
the east at that time, so you would think that this would favor stations in the 
west and southwest, but it did not.  The only reason that I can think of to 
explain this is that high band antennas at the time were not nearly as large 
nor as high as they are today, so there may have been a lot less use of the 
high bands.  40 meter beams were pretty much unknown then, so the Fives and 
Sixes may have been a lot weaker on that band.  I wonders if those perennial 
winners from the fifties, W2IOP and W4KFC, would do as well if they were 
operating today.     


Log Hassles 


Spreading the contest over two weekends might have had the effect of producing 
more participation than we have today with only a single weekend, but the 
hassles of log submittal in those days must have had the opposite effect on log 
submittals.  These hassles began even before the contest when many ops mailed 
in requests to the ARRL asking for pre-printed logsheets and submittal forms.  
(The League received and responded to 600 such requests during the week before 
the 1958 event!)  But the real work began after the contest.  Submitting logs 
in those days took a great deal more effort than it does today.  You either 
made a copy of your log using carbon paper (if you remember using that, you’re 
an OT) or recopied it by hand (remember, 1958 was before the Xerox machine era) 
and then mailed it in.  I can imagine that this was so much work that many 
participants simply didn’t get around to completing this task.


In 1958, the contest did not have different power categories but rather just 
one all-encompassing category for single ops in which everyone competed.  Those 
running less than 150 watts received a low power multiplier of 1.25 and all the 
scores were bunched together.  The vast majority of submitted logs claimed this 
multiplier, and 63 of the 73 section winners (including the overall winner 
W4KFC) won using low power.  With only one category, the chances of earning a 
certificate or plaque were considerably poorer than they are today. 


Another major difference between then and now was the simultaneous running of 
the phone and CW weekends in 1958.  With only 66 hours available but each 
contest allowing up to 40 hours of operating time, it was obviously impossible 
to put in a full time effort on both modes.  


Participants Then and Now


I think the biggest difference between these two contests can be found not so 
much in the rule differences as in the differences in the participants.  A very 
interesting statistic that I culled from the 1958 results was the fact that 137 
Novices submitted logs in that year.  This was about 8% of all logs submitted.  
The Novice license expired after one year then, so these 137 hams obviously had 
been licensed for less than 12 months.  And the large number of K-prefix calls 
that appear in the results tells us that another substantial portion of 
participants, like the 16-year old K8HVT, had been licensed for just a couple 
or three years.  By present day standards, it's pretty impressive that so many 
young and inexperienced hams manage to participate in such a difficult exercise 
as Sweepstakes back then.  I think it is fair to say that such participants no 
longer exist in meaningful numbers today.  In fact, quite the opposite seems to 
be the case.  Going through my 2007 log, I calculated that only 10% of my 885 
QSOs had checks of 1980 or later, meaning that 90% of participants had been 
licensed for at least 28 years.  We all know that the average age of CW SS 
participants has been creeping up, but it was nevertheless very surprising to 
me to realize just how different we are today compared with when I started out. 


Does CW SS Have a Future?


Getting back to the statistics on total log submissions, it's pretty clear that 
the de-emphasis of CW in our hobby is the main reason why this event has lost 
popularity.  Yes, there are a couple of other factors that probably have 
contributed.  The shorter contest period in 2007 probably acts to reduce 
participation somewhat compared with 1958.  Also, in 2007, the active amateur 
or contester had many more contests and other activities to occupy his or her 
time.  There is a lot more DX to be worked in contests these days (and better 
equipment and antennas with which to work it), so perhaps DX contests have 
lured some away from a domestic-only event like CW SS.  In addition, there is 
probably less awareness of the contest today than in 1958.  QST devoted some 13 
pages to the CW results in the May 1959 issue versus 3 pages in May 2008.  It 
would be pretty hard for an active ham not to know about Sweepstakes back in 
1958 whereas in 2008 I suppose many hams have never heard of it.  But it's 
impossible to escape the conclusion that the declining popularity of CW SS is 
mainly due to the fact that an increasing percentage of American hams today 
have no knowledge at all of CW.      


There is a need for more research.  It would be very interesting to go through 
all the years in between 1958 and 2007 to see when the popularity of CW SS 
began to decline and see how this is related to the licensing system and other 
changes in our hobby.  It would also be interesting to look at phone SS to see 
what has been happening there.  I did take a quick look at the 1958 and 2007 
phone SS results and found that 2007 log submissions were way up over those in 
1958 (1572 vs. 706), but this is not a fair comparison because participants in 
the 1958 phone SS were using AM, which was not a mode that lent itself to high 
QSO totals.  Probably phone participation began to grow once SSB replaced AM.  
But it is interesting to note that 1958 CW SS log submissions were still quite 
a bit higher than the 2007 phone SS log submissions, so it may be that phone SS 
popularity has also peaked.      


The 1958 Sweepstakes happened to be the 25th anniversary of the event, and 2008 
will mark the 75th running.  One of my personal goals has been to make it to 
the 100th Sweepstakes, which would take place in 2033 when I would be 90 years 
old.  It is of course  highly questionable whether I will make it that long, 
but it has never occurred to me that CW SS itself, which has been the highlight 
of the year for me and many of my contemporaries, might not make it that long.  
CW SS seems alive and well today and the bands will certainly be crowded during 
the 2008 contest.  But in view of the dramatic changes in this event over the 
years, we  need to face up to the sad possibility that CW SS might never see 
its 100th birthday and that future generations of North American amateurs might 
never know the fun and excitement of what has been for years one of amateur 
radio’s greatest events.

CQ-Contest mailing list

<Prev in Thread] Current Thread [Next in Thread>