*EDITORIAL* “73 mate”

Overland telegraph

“73”……It’s uttered (or keyed in the case of Morse users) at the end of almost every QSO, by every radio operator and on every band; but what does it actually mean and where and when did it originate?  Furthermore, is it used correctly?

A general consensus amongst DA-RC members is that ‘73’ comes from one of a series of 92 numeric messages conceived for the purpose of cutting down transmission time on the old land telegraph systems.  Here, the basic agenda of the system, of which there are numerous versions or variations, was to reduce standard expressions to symbols or, in this case, figures or numerals.

While the majority of the code has become obsolete, ‘73’ continues to be used by ham and 11m radio operators the world over.  Just as it’s always done, this special code signifies that the end of a QSO is near — a signature or signing off of sorts.  What the expression actually means, however, has not always been so clear cut…

Cable OfficeThe first bona fide use of ‘73’ is referred to in the 1857 publication called ‘The National Telegraphic Review and Operators’ Guide’.  At that time it meant “My love to you!”  Can you imagine some of DA-RC’s big burly dx adventurists using the code if it had maintained this particular meaning?  I think not.

Subsequent issues of the same journal continued to use the same rationalization of the term, despite other numerals conveying a similar meaning (e.g. 88, 30 & 22).

Over time, however, the use of “73” began to change.  In the National Telegraph Convention, for instance, ‘73’ was transformed from the Valentine-type sentiment to a ambiguous sign of fraternalism.  ‘Manned up’ or made more masculine if you like!  Here, “73” became a greeting, a friendly word between operators and it was, reportedly, applied this way on all wires.

In 1859, the Western Union Company established the standard ‘92 Code’, borrowed from some of the existing codes at the time.  Here, a list of numerals from one to 92 was put together to represent a series of ready phrases for use by operators on the wires.

In the 92 Code, “73” changes from a fraternal sign to a very baroque “accept my compliments”, which was in keeping with the florid language of that era.

Over the years from 1859 to 1900, the many manuals of telegraphy show variations of this meaning.  The ‘Twentieth Century Manual of Railways and Commercial Telegraphy’ describe it in two ways, one listing as “my compliments to you”; but in the glossary of abbreviations it’s purely “compliments”.

Dodge’s ‘The Telegraph Instructor’ shows it simply as “compliments” while Theodore A. Edison’s ‘Telegraphy Self-Taught’ illustrates a return of “accept my compliments”.

By 1908, however, a soon after edition of the Dodge Manual gives us today’s definition of “best regards” with a backward look at the older meaning in a further part of the work where it also lists it as “compliments”.

Ever since, “best regards” has continued across the ham bands, as well as 11m, as the official meaning of “73” but it’s also acquired connotations of much warmer meaning along the way.

Today, ham and 11m band operators use it more in the manner that James Reid, ‘The Father of the Telegraph’, had intended — and that is as a ‘friendly word between operators’.

Correct Usage

While ‘73’ is one of the most commonly used of all radio codes, it’s not always used accurately in both ham and 11m circles if one stays true to the original code.

Essentially, the error occurs when the number is made plural (i.e. 73s) and this error is made both on the air and also quite regularly on QSL confirmation cards and other print material, including the signature on emails and forum posts.

Since it’s already plural, to say or write ‘73s’ would mean ‘best regardses’ and 88s would mean ‘love and kisseses’.  Even if you apply previous meanings such as “accept my compliments” which would become “accept my complimentses” or “my compliments to you” which would translate to “my complimentses to you”, adding an ‘s’ to the code makes no grammatical sense whatsoever.

I hope this info provides some insight into one of the most commonly used codes in our great hobby!

73 — without plural 😉