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

Randy Thompson K5ZD k5zd at charter.net
Tue Oct 28 10:24:04 EDT 2008

Wonderful article Hal.

I suspect one big difference between SS CW in 1958 and today is the change
in the National Traffic System.  

I was first licensed in 1973 and was always in love with CW.  In the late
70's, it was still expensive to make a long distance call, so the world
wasn't quite as connected as it is now.  The concept of the NTS as an
emergency preparedness tool and the long legacy of amateur radio traffic
handling meant there were active CW nets in every section of the country.  I
think most of the active contesters from that period spent time on the
traffic nets with a goal of working their way up to regional or area nets,
and maybe even a TCC slot.

I recall in SS CW from WPA the idea that you had to be CQing on 80m during
the time after the evening nets were closing.  The traffic handlers would
usually tune down the band and make some QSOs.

Another thing I notice in looking at SS logs is how it is the same calls
every year.  Also funny is how you often seem to work the same guy about the
same time each year.  Another thing I notice in recent years is how many
less of the 1x3 old timer calls that are showing up. 

SS Phone is completely different.  It was never as influenced by traffic
handling and there was always the ability to talk people through the

I guess I am joining the old timers.  My streak of 31 consecutive years with
more than 1000 QSOs in SS CW will probably end this weekend.  :(

Randy, K5ZD

> -----Original Message-----
> From: cq-contest-bounces at contesting.com 
> [mailto:cq-contest-bounces at contesting.com] On Behalf Of Hal Offutt
> Sent: Monday, October 27, 2008 8:36 PM
> To: cq-contest at contesting.com
> Subject: [CQ-Contest] CW Sweepstakes Then and Now (Long)
> 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.
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