What are American and European “styles?”

American and European (or British) “styles” are techniques for sending Morse code with a telegraph key, but they can also refer to the design of the key.In the American sending style, the key is placed toward the rear of the operating table or desk, away from the operator. The operator’s forearm rests on the table, with the hand and wrist flexed slightly upward to grasp the knob, which is usually no more than an inch above the table-top. American style keys will have a bent lever, or a lever that is very little higher than the base of the key. Ideally the wrist is kept stiff, and the keying motion is supplied by rocking the forearm up and down slightly. In practice, however, it is very difficult to send without some slight flexing of the wrist, which can cause repetition strain injury (e.g. carpal tunnel syndrome) if done for long periods. American style keys tend to have flat knobs, which tends to lower the overal height of the knob above the table. Where a “navy knob” is used, that is, a rounded knob with a flat skirt beneath it, the tendency is to rest the index finger on top of the knob, while the thumb and middle finger are in contact with the skirt, doing most of the work.

Around 1910, during the heyday of manual telegraphy, it was common for telegraphers to spend entire shifts either sending or receiving, and the incidence of RSI or “glass fist” became a serious problem. The solution was the “bug” or semi-automatic key, in which the keying motion was horizontal rather than vertical. Introduced at about the same time was the “sideswiper” (also known as a “cootie key”). With a horizontal keying motion, the thumb and fingers do not flex and the hand is rocked back and forth on the “heel” of the palm. Since there is no flexing of fingers or wrist, there is very little chance of RSI.

In contrast, the European style has the key placed at the front of the table, with the operator’s forearm in free space. Ideally, the forearm is parallel to the floor, just as it is when using a keyboard under ideal conditions. The fingers and wrist do not move, and the work is done by the weight of the forearm in conjunction with the mass and inertia of the lever. European style keys usually have a round, relatively large knob, with or without a skirt (the skirt on a European style key is to keep the fingers from coming into contact with the lever, which could carry a significant voltage). They are also characterized by relatively long, straight levers, often with a considerable mass. European style keys are usually adjusted with considerably more spring tension, which helps to control the motion. With a properly adjusted European style key, operated correctly, there is little or no risk of RSI and higher sending speeds are possible. Because there was no RSI problem to solve, countries that used the European style did not produce many bugs.

The European style is sometimes called the British style because it was used in all countries that were culturally and technologically associated with England. Countries that were significantly influenced by American technology (notably Canada and Australia) adopted both both keying styles– which is why you will find both styles of keys from those countries, and a considerable number of bugs were developed in Australia.

Which style should you use? That’s one of the few easy answers you will find here, because the two styles are essentially interchangeable. Learning to use one style will have virtually no effect on your ability to use the other. An American style key can easily be placed at the front of the table and used European style. And a European style key can be moved to rear of the table and used “American”  by resting your arm on a book of the right thickness. The only caveat here is that if you already have wrist problems from using a keyboard or mouse, you might want to use the European style and avoid the risk of further damage.
To compare the two styles of keys, look at GHD‘s GT-503 and GT-504 models, which are identical apart from the bent lever of the GT-503 “American style” key.

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