Radio Boulevard
Western Historic Radio Museum

Radio Telegraphy -  From Straight Keys to Bugs

Contents of Part 1

Straight Keys -
Spark Keys, Radio Hand Keys, Military Hand Keys, Flame-Proof Keys, Leg Keys

Semi-Automatic Keys (Bugs) - The Vibroplex Company, Standard and Deluxe Models 1912-1960

Contents of Part 2

Semi-Automatic Keys (Bugs) - Signal Corps J-36, Speed Bug, Buzza,
Speed-X (Electro Mfg., Stewart Johnson, Les Logan, E.F. Johnson,) McElroy Mfg Co.,
 73, Kenco, Dow-Key, Cedar Rapids Bug, Hi-Mound -   1926-1960

Learning Tools -  Marconi Code Course, Oscillators, Instructographs

Wire Telegraphy - Small sample of some Land Line and Wire Telegraph gear

by: Henry Rogers WA7YBS/WHRM



 

photo from: QST - Cover -  May 1942
 

At one time, the language known as International Morse was just about the only way the radio communications could be carried on. Every radio operator from Commercial ops to Radiomen in the Navy, the Army and the Coast Guard and ALL Hams knew and used International Morse. It was a LANGUAGE that was understood by both young and old radio operators who had the interest, the desire and the discipline to learn and become accomplished at conversing in this most reliable of communications modes. International Morse Code's ability to allow 100% copy in the most difficult of conditions that would leave any spoken language incomprehensible is legend.

PART 1
 

Spark Keys, Radio Hand Keys, Military Keys & Flame-proof Keys

Used by professionals and amateurs alike, the Hand Key dates from the nineteenth-century. Several versions are still currently in production and are still being used. Simple to operate and virtually incapable of making errors, the Hand Key is the basic tool for the radio telegrapher. Hand Keys are also known as Straight Keys in the ham world.  The following Hand Keys are categorized as "Spark Keys," "Radio Keys," "Military Keys," "Flame-proof Keys" and "Currently Manufactured Hand Keys."

Spark Keys

L. S. Brach Supply Co.

U.S. Army Signal Corps  J-6

The J-6 was used by the Signal Corps for the small airborne spark transmitters that were in use at the end of WWI up into the early 1920s. Usually the spark transmitter very low power and the high voltage was supplied by an air-driven generator that was mounted in the struts of the landing gear. The receivers were powered by batteries. Communications was primarily for aiming ground artillery during late-WWI. The J-6 key is mostly brass construction and is mounted on a hard rubber base that was mounted by screws to the wooden frame work of the airplane. The knob became the standard for early radio telegraph keys for the Signal Corps, especially those keys from Brach - see the Brach J-5-A below in "Flame-proof Keys."

Of note on the J-6 is the location of the return spring. It is behind the trunnion pivots and "pulls the lever down." When pressing the knob down, the key contacts make no noise. However on the release, you will hear a "click." This is the opposite of nearly all other Hand Keys. The resulting aural message results in user confusion and difficulty using the key. But, the J-6 was usually installed in an open cockpit biplane and the "spotter" wore a headset so the opposite "clicking" wasn't even heard during normal operation.

 

WWI British Marine Spark Key

"KEY  PATT. NO. 2426"

The builder of this spark key is unknown but it's likely that it's British and its unique patina makes its end user's location pretty obvious. The use of the brass box almost entirely enclosing the key was common with early shipboard spark transmitter operation. The box provided protection for the radio operator from the high voltage and high current that was present on the key when used with the large, direct keyed spark transmitters installed on ships at that time. Internally, the key mechanism is very similar to the L. S. Brach J-6 but mounted on a much larger, hard rubber base. The spring tension adjustment is identical to the Brach key. This spark key has dual contacts in that one large set is located at the front of the lever while another smaller set is located at the rear of the lever. This provided the user with a set of normally-closed in receive that opened when the key was pressed down. Of course, the front contacts operated as normally-open in receive and closed to transmit. The cabling to connect the key exits from the rear of the box where large cable clamps are located to secure the wiring. "KEY PATT NO. 2426" is stamped on the tag riveted to the inside of the box just in front of the key base. When in use, the key was probably screwed to the operator's table (countersunk holes in base go thru the box.) To examine or adjust the key would require lifting the hinged top cover. Under the inside of the lid is a multi-layered section of mica for preventing contact between the lid-box and the high voltage key contacts. Also the key base is mounted to the box on several layers of mica sheets. Only the key knob protrudes out of the opening in the lid which allowed safe operation of the key. The former owner of this key, W7SK, told me he found it in Bulgaria.

photo below: WWI Marine Key with the lid up exposing the key mechanism. Note the high current contacts are rectangular with a "domed" surface on the bottom contact and a concave surface on the upper contact. Note the cable clamps at the rear of the box. Also the insulating mica sheets on the underside of the lid. Note the riveted tag that is just in front of the key base. Stamped into this tag is "KEY PATT. NO. 2426"

photo below: WWI Marine Key with lid closed showing the operating set up that affords complete isolation for the operator from the high voltage on the key contacts. Although the knob appears to have been salvaged from a wooden dresser drawer, it seems to be original as it is "pinned" to the threaded rod that exits the bottom of the knob and protrudes thru the finger rest and threads into the lever. The box exterior appears to be copper but it's actually brass.

 

Wireless Improvement Company

2KW Auxiliary Hand Key - Type SE68A


The SE68 Hand Key first appeared during WWI. Many were built by the Navy Shipyard at the Boston. After WWI ended, the SE68A appeared and is virtually the same as the "non-A" version. These keys, with their enormous 5/8" contacts (that were easily replaceable when worn) were ideal for powerful, direct-keyed spark transmitters in use at the time, both by the Navy and by commercial ships. The SE68A shown is a post-WWI example made for U.S. Shipping Board on a contract that dated from 1920. These keys have a cast brass lever and cast brass bearing yoke. The base is made of hard rubber. Originally, the SE68 and SE68A keys were what was called a "leg-key," that is, they had long threaded rods (~ 4" long) on the bottom of the key base. The key was mounted to the table with four screws (holes at each corner of the base) while the rods protruded through two larger holes in the table. The transmitter keying wiring was connected to the rods with the wiring being routed under the table. It's common to find these keys today with their legs removed. Also, originally, the lever and the yoke were painted black. Again, it's common to find the paint scrubbed off to reveal the metal's cast brass color.

On the key shown below right ("as found,") many of the brass parts have "brass paint" over the vintage patina. For some reason, the data plate seems to have escaped the crude restoration mayhem and appears to have its correct patina. Originally, there was a small braided wire cable connected to the screw on the bottom of the lever and then connecting to the screw on the yoke. The return spring is an incorrect gauge size wire with too few turns. At least,  the Navy "Finger Rest" type of knob is the correct style (but is of more recent manufacture.) The SE68A keys were later sold as surplus to hams and are advertised in the back section of the 1937 ARRL Handbook (for $7.50.)

Return to Authentic Appearance - Normally, telegraph keys shouldn't be restored. However, this only applies to keys that are in original condition, complete and with the original patina. When a key has been the victim a non-authentic or a crude restoration, such as the example shown, I advocate that the key should be returned as close as possible to its original appearance. Many times, accurate replica parts have to be made. Authentic finishes have to be used, such as nickel-plating or painting with nitrocellulose lacquers. Attention to detail will result in the key looking authentically correct even though it will never be an "original example."

This SE68A was disassembled to allow returning the correct finishes to the metal pieces. Some sort of brass plating or epoxy paint was applied to several of the pieces and this proved to be difficult to remove. I used a powered rotary brass bristle brush to remove this non-original coating. I needed the brass base metal to be exposed to allow applying "brass patina" to these pieces. The patina is a liquid chemical treatment that darkens the brass to impart an "aged patina" appearance. Once these brass pieces were treated, then the lever and yoke needed to be returned to an original finish. After examining several SE68A key photos on the internet, it appeared that most had the lever and yoke painted black. I assumed (from the time period) that this was probably Japan finish which is black nitrocellulose lacquer. I painted the pieces with nitro-lac and then an aged appearance was imparted by scuffing the paint with various grades of abrasives (from steel wool to scrapes with metal tools.) Exposed metal was then treated with patina to age the "paint chip."  I had to make the braided wire cable that connects under the lever and to the yoke. I used copper braid harvested from RG-58 coax. The ends were soldered to allow these ends to be flattened and a hole punched to allow the connections to be made. The braid was given the patina treatment to age its appearance.  Also, a conical spring was wound using "hard drawn" 16 gauge steel wire. The appearance of the spring was based on photographs of original SE68A keys.



photo above
: the SE68A "as found" condition

From examination of photos of original SE68A keys it appears that the legs were removable in that the threaded extension rods could be de-soldered from the base couplers. These couplers appear to be brass tubes about one and a half inches long. One end of each coupler is sweat-soldered to each of the base connection extensions that are 1/4" diameter by about 5/16" long. The threaded rods are then inserted into the couplers and sweat-soldered. This allowed the connections from the key to the transmitter to be located under the table. The key base was mounted to the table top by four screws. This left the legs protruding through the table only for the purpose of providing the electrical connection from the key to the transmitter. The key lever is normally the ground connection so the only part exposed with possible potential on it would be the lower contact.

 

The finished "return to original appearance" results are shown in the photos above-left and to the left. The photo above-left shows the legs and how they are sweat-soldered to couplers. The photo left shows the top details with the braided lever to yoke connection and a more accurate return spring. Also note that the shaft pin lock is a true set screw now. The SE68A now not only looks authentic and original but it also now functions correctly with a nice feel and precise accuracy to its sending ability.

 

Clapp-Eastham Company

 Boston Key

 

Boston Keys were large hand keys built by several wireless equipment companies from around 1915 up into the early twenties. The design was based on the type of keys built by the Boston Navy Yard before WWI. Boston Keys had large keying contacts for use with spark transmitters that were directly keyed. All Boston Keys had side connection terminals. All keys were originally fitted with Navy-type finger-rest knobs. These types of keys always had large, heavy bases.

Clapp-Eastham (C-E) began building X-ray equipment around 1906. Since a lot the X-ray equipment parts were exactly the same components used for spark transmitters, the company began to supply that end of the market. Melville Eastham started General Radio Company in 1915 and left C-E around 1917. C-E  was out of business by the mid-twenties.

The C-E key shown to the right is their Boston Key with the Condensite base. This material was also known as "hard rubber."

The C-E key shown to the left is their Boston Key with the marble base. Note that the "CLAPP EASTHAM CO." is stamped in an arc pattern on the top of the lever. The use of marble as a base material provided insulating qualities along with substantial weight.

The selling price of these keys was dependent on the size of the contacts. The keys were rated in maximum amps that the contacts were capable of carrying. The following are the 1915 prices for marble based C-E Boston Keys:

10A - $6.50

20A - $7.75

30A - $9.00

50A - $12.50

 

Clapp-Eastham produced Boston keys from about 1915 up into the early twenties. Many were sold to commercial users because the C-E quality was hard to beat. Hams also bought many of the C-E Boston Keys. They were well-made and capable of sending excellent Morse.

 

A.W. Bowman Co.  for  Sears & Roebuck Co.

"Meteor" Boston Key
 

A.W. Bowman started producing this large hand key around 1915. Like Clapp-Eastham's key, Bowman's was also based on the keys produced by the Boston Navy Yard. Since both types are based on the same style of key they are very similar in design. About the only deviation between the two builders is the flat bar stock that Bowman used for the key lever and the adjustable trunnion screws that are absent from the Clapp-Eastham Boston Key. Bowman's key used marble for the base giving the key substantial weight and stability.

Around 1920, Bowman contracted with Sears & Roebuck (and possibly Montgomery Wards) to produce the same key for them to sell as the "Meteor" key. The "Meteor" key is exactly like the standard Bowman except there isn't any manufacturer identification on the Sears version. The standard Bowman keys had "A. W. Bowman" stamped on the top-rear of the key lever. Contacts are 3/8" diameter. Once the Bowman-Sears Meteor key has been properly adjusted it has a really nice comfortable feel and it's very easy to send excellent Morse at a moderate speed.

 

J. H. Bunnell & Co.

Straight Line Radio Key

J.H. Bunnell & Company was formed in 1878 by Jesse Bunnell, who had a long history (even at that time) in the telegraph world. The company was located in and around New York City but changed locations fairly often for various reasons. Bunnell, before WWII, was the largest supplier of telegraphic equipment. There were various owners after Jesse Bunnell's death but the company did continue on with other owners. Bunnell was sold to INSO Electronic Products in 1960 and then to it's current owners, MNJ Industries, in 1989.

In 1919, Bunnell introduced a large base radio hand key that was called the Straight Line Radio Key. This large version had a set of auxiliary contracts that closed with the key lever up and opened with the key lever down, or, the opposite of the sending contacts. Also available was the "short base" version with the auxiliary contacts removed and the key itself mounted on a "short" base. Although possessing 3/8" contacts, the Radio Key was probably intended for smaller spark transmitters or vacuum tube transmitters. This style Straight Line Radio Key was available through the twenties and into the early thirties. The base is hard rubber. There are two versions of the Straight Line Radio Key. One version (shown) has the upper contact position adjustable. Some keys will have the upper contact non-adjustable and the lower contact adjustable from underneath the key base.

The metal parts on the Straight Line Radio Key should be nickel-plated but when found this key was an obvious victim of a terrible restoration. The nickel plating had been removed and bee's wax rubbed all over the key. A Navy knob was added. Normally, vintage telegraph equipment should be left in "as found" condition if the piece is original. However, the horrible restoration attempt had this key begging to be returned to its original appearance.

Complete disassembly was necessary to be able to thoroughly clean all of the brass parts in preparation for nickel-plating. The key lever was bent as can be seen in the "brass" photo above. Note that the knob is pointing at an angle instead of being vertical. The lever was easily straightened by holding the lever in a vise (equipped with brass jaw covers) and using a weighted hammer to "tap" the lever straight. I then used NaOH to remove all of the wax and other contaminates from all of the brass parts (sodium hydroxide is readily available as Easy Off Oven Cleaner.) Nickel electro-plating requires pure nickel anodes, a nickel sulfate solution and a very low voltage. The voltage used is < +4.5vdc with about .3A to .5A of current but this depends on how many parts are being plated at one time (depends on the total metal surface area.) Plating only takes a few minutes for small parts mainly because the original nickel plating on these keys was fairly thin. The large key lever took about 8 minutes to plate. The contacts weren't plated since they are silver and were in decent condition. The base was cleaned of bee's wax and then polished with Wenol's polish. The key was reassembled and a proper (vintage) knob installed. As can be seen in the after photo right-below, this Bunnell Straight Line Radio Key is now much closer to an original appearance than it was before. It also functions much better than it did before.


 photo above: "as-found" condition
 


photo above: after cleaning, lever straightening and nickel-plating the metal parts
 

 

Signal Electric Mfg. Co.

Heavy Duty Hand Key

Signal Electric started out in the 1890s as Menominee Electric Co. since they were located in Menominee, Michigan. The company built and sold telephone and telegraph equipment. The company also built some wireless items like loose couplers and other electrical parts. The name was changed to Signal Electric Manufacturing Company and they remained in business until the 1960s when they were purchased by a Thermos company. The hand key shown below to the left is a Signal Electric Mfg. Co. - Heavy Duty Key. Signal identified their keys with letter-number combinations and contact size along with other variables determined the identification used. The Signal Heavy Duty Hand Key is probably R42 designation although there were other identifications used. The designation was only on the original box that the key came in. These keys date from the twenties to the thirties and were available with different size contacts depending on the intended service. This key has 3/8" contacts implying that it could be used for medium duty spark gap transmitter applications. However, early vacuum tube transmitters were cathode keyed and the key contacts might also carry a fairly high current flow. The Signal key is identified by a manufacturer stamping at the rear of the key base between the connection terminals. This particular style of hand key was also built and sold by other manufacturers, like the Standard Co. version shown in the photo below to the right. This key doesn't have the Navy-style finger rest but does have 3/8" contacts and is virtually identical to the Signal version. Standard keys are not manufacturer identified. Most of these types of keys are brass construction with a gold lacquer "wash" applied. This key style was very popular and it was produced for many years by several different manufacturers. Other examples can be seen in the "Straight Keys" section below (although these are later, inexpensive keys.)



Signal Electric Mfg Co.  - Heavy Duty Hand Key


Standard Co.  - Heavy Duty Hand Key

 

Radio Hand Keys

Straight Keys
 

The typical key used by ham operators and sometimes even professionals. Though Hand Key is the name generally applied to these types of telegraph keys, hams usually refer to this type of key as a "Straight Key." Most hams learned the code using a straight key and after they had built up their speed switched over to a semi-automatic key (a bug.) Many hams stayed with the straight key because of its simplicity and accuracy - something that took a lot of practice with a bug (or later using an electronic keyer.)

The straight key shown to the left is a late-production E. F. Johnson Speed-X "Navy Style" hand key. The contacts are 1/8" diameter which is typical for a "radio key." These straight keys were available for many years (note the other Navy Style keys in the photo below not to mention the Signal Heavy Duty Wireless hand keys above.) This particular Johnson Speed-X hand key is the type that I used when first learning the code and while I was a Novice ham. The key always had a good "feel" to it and the Navy knob makes sending very easy.

 

More straight keys,...

The key on the left is a Speed-X Model 321 with a Navy "finger rest" type knob and chrome plating around the edge of the base. I have this key's original box in which it was found. Price tag on the box is marked $3.50. The next key is also a Speed-X in the standard base configuration with nickel plating. Both Speed-X keys are Les Logan manufacture (1937-1947.) The next key is a Depression era hand key that uses a lever and bearing support that are made from thin bent sheet metal stampings. These type of keys usually sold for about fifty cents during the thirties. The key on the far right is another really "cheap" key. It relies on the "springiness" of the lever to provide the action with no bearings at all - really a cheap one but at least they polished the pot metal base.

 

T.R. McElroy "World's Champion Radio Telegrapher"

aka: McElroy Manufacturing Corp.  -  Model 300 Stream Hand Key

Ted McElroy was a champion radio telegrapher of the 1930s up into the early 1950s. His receiving speed was advertised as 55wpm in the mid-thirties but ultimately Ted was clocked at over 70wpm. Ted's company seems to officially have been "McElroy Manufacturing Corporation" (officially formed in 1941) but most of his earlier telegraph key name-plates will have "T. R. McElroy - World's Champion Radio Telegrapher - Boston Mass." as the company name. Around 1955, McElroy sold his business to Telegraph Apparatus Corp. (T.A.C.)

The Model 300 Stream Hand Key is from 1940. McElroy had built other chrome stream keys earlier and these models had slightly longer and thinner bases. The earliest chrome types (Model 200) have a metal tag on the base just under the knob (~1939.) A second variation will have the "thin base" with either a decal tag or no tag. The last type is the Model 300 with the thick base and no tag. Other models of McElroy Stream keys can be found with either black wrinkle finish bases or the bases were made out of black molded plastic. The Model 300 sold for a mere $2.85 in 1940. The Model 300 is an excellent hand key with a nice feel and great stability due to its shape that puts most of the base weight is at the rear of the key.

 

Military Hand Keys

The Lionel Corporation

U.S. Army Signal Corps  -  J-38  &   J-47

These are the standard WWII hand key. The J-38 and J-47 were found in many different environments during WWII. The J-38 typically was used in landline set-ups as noted by the secondary set of terminals at the rear of the key marked "TEL" and "LINE." The lever switch must be "closed" for land line reception. Probably the most famous use of the J-47 was as the key used with the SCR-287, the airborne liaison radio station on bombers and transports during WWII. The keys were typically built under contract and most contracts went to Lionel but sometimes other contract manufacturers are found (McElroy made some J-38 keys.) The J-47 is typically found without the shorting lever installed even though the stationary part of the switch is present. This was because the J-47 was primarily a "radio key." J-38 keys always have the shorting lever since they were primarily a "land line key.". Both keys shown are mounted on their original bakelite bases which have the "L" embossed on the bottom to signify "Lionel." The J-38 and J-47 are known for their excellent action and feel. They are still very popular hand keys.

The Lionel Corporation

J-38 in Original Box
Contract No. 25860-PH-55
Warren Mfg. Co., Inc.
Littleton, Mass.

This J-38 was found in its original box and it, of course, is in near-mint condition. What is shown on the box indicates that it was packed 11/55 and had been built on a 1955 contract. The interesting thing is that the key base has the "L" embossed on the bottom indicating it's a "Lionel J-38" but the box printing indicates that it was built by Warren Manufacturing Company located in Littleton, Massachusetts.

Reduced post-war demand for the J-38 must have meant fewer contracts were issued. Were there leftover parts made during WWII that were still available? Could Warren Mfg. Company have assembled these J-38s from surplus Lionel bases and other Lionel parts? Or, did Warren build new parts and copy the Lionel J-38 exactly,...right down to the "L" on the base? Another possibility is that Warren just repackaged surplus WWII "Lionel-built" J-38 keys. Whatever happened, the end result is a very nice hand key with an excellent feel and precise sending ability.

Many of the WWII military transmitters used internal keying relays or sending relays that switched the antenna and receiver standby functions between transmit and receive as the key was operated. Although many military manuals will state that sending speeds can be over 20WPM, most of the time 15WPM is about the upper limit. This is mainly because of the relay's mechanical movement involved with the sending function. I use a J-38 key for most CW operations when using WWII vintage military transmitters. The J-38 just about can't be beat for the best "feel" and the best keying function when you absolutely must use a hand key.

 

Signal Electric Manufacturing Company

M-100

Signal Electric had been making telegraph keys along with other electrical items since the turn of the century. During WWII, they produced hand keys for the military, like this Type M-100 key. This key is fitted with a rubber cable and PL-68 connector which indicates it was going to be used with military equipment. This M-100 was found in its original box as shown.  

 

U. S. Navy - CLT-26012 - Insulated Hand Key

Lundquist Tool & Mfg. Co. - Contractor

There is a whole series of Insulated Hand Keys (aka: General Purpose Key) that were manufactured for the Navy. The base is bakelite, hard rubber or some other kind of moldable plastic. The connections are recessed inside the base and the external connections are made via insulated binding posts. Additionally, these keys all feature a slot in the left side of the base to allow the insertion of a semi-automatic telegraph key wedge. This was an easy way for the radio operator to "plug in" his bug while on duty and then remove the wedge plug and take his bug with him when he went off-duty. The bugs were generally considered personal property even though probably issued by the military so each radio op that was approved to use a bug (and not all were) would keep his bug with him. However, the hand key was usually mounted to the operator's desk and couldn't be removed. Sometimes the 26012 keys were part of a larger transmitter keying set-up. The key shown in the photo is the CLT version 26012 which indicates that it was built by Lundquist Tool during WWII.

 

Military Flame-proof Keys

Many of the military keys were used with transmitters that were cathode keyed and sometimes had significant voltage on the key itself. Also, other types of equipment may have voltage levels or current levels that could cause sparking when the key breaks contact. This could present a problem in areas where flammable fuel vapors might at times be present, such as airplanes, tanks or ships during or after an attack where fuel tanks or fuel lines may have been ruptured and leaking. The flame-proof key enclosed the contacts in a sealed chamber to prevent exposure of the possible sparking to any combustible vapors so it would be possible to radio for help. The J-5-A on the left is a Signal Corps key that was introduced in the thirties but was built for many years, in fact the one shown is from WWII - built by L. S. Brach Mfg. Co. The key in the center is a Navy flame-proof key, the CAQZ-26026 built by Brelco Co. The key on the right is a British "Bath Tub" flame-proof key that is made out of bakelite. The bale clamp holds the upper part of the key (which has all of the key parts) down into the tub. There are many other types of flame-proof keys but all accomplish the same thing, isolation of the key contacts to prevent exposure of possible sparking to a combustible vapor.

U.S. Navy - 26003A - Flame-proof Key - Here's another popular USN flame-proof key that was built by several different contractors during WWII. The connection terminals are located under the rectangular plastic cover. The knurled thumb screws adjust the key lever spring and contact clearance. The cable clamp is located behind the terminal cover. These keys were generally used on Navy aircraft.  Also, the height of the knob seems to vary with the example shown being a particularly tall example.

"CMI" on the key base is the USN prefix for contractor company identification. C is USN indicates a communication item and MI is the identification for Molded Insulation Company (in Philadelphia, PA.) Many other contractors built these keys so expect to find other letter prefixes, always with C first and then two other letters to identify the contractor. The 26003A is the model number of the key.

 

Military "Leg Keys"

 

U.S. Army Signal Corps  -  KY-116/U  "Leg Key"  -  Winslow Electronics - Contractor

"Leg Key" generally refers to the two mounting bolts that were on many types of hand keys that allowed the key to mount to a table and have the bolts protrude through the table top to allow connecting the wires below the table rather than routing the wires across the top of the table. Of course, "Leg Keys" assumed you didn't mind drilling holes in the table so, for hams anyway, true "Leg Keys" weren't very popular. The key shown to the right is another type of "Leg Key" - one that actually clamps to your leg and allows you to send CW without the benefit of a table. These keys would have been used by the military and were necessary for portable operation in the field where that operation might be from a Jeep or other type of vehicle. Generally, these "Leg Keys" were provided if it was necessary to use CW. The U.S. Army's primary mode of communications was usually Voice however, CW provided better communications accuracy in poor conditions such as heavy static or weak signals, so the option to run CW was always available. These types of keys were in use from WWII up through the 1970s (and probably later.)

This KY-116/U was built by Winslow Electronics and uses a standard J-37 key mounted on a hinged base with leg clamps. The hinged base allows the key to be turned upright to set on a desk, if available. The key is shown in the down position for clamping onto the operator's leg. Actually, operating the key in this manner is pretty comfortable and pretty good CW can be sent with the key clamped to your leg (yes, I've actually had a CW QSO using this leg key to operate an AN/GRC-19 set.) Certainly, the method was not for long-term operation and was intended for portable use where a table or desk wasn't practical.

 

Westclox

 2320 "Leg Key"

This is a Canadian Leg Key used by the military for various purposes. The key mechanism is covered with a protective metal box and all adjustments are under the cover. Canvas straps allow the user to mount the key to their leg for sending in the field. This key is specified as:

KEY & PLUG ASSY
CDN No.9 TYPE 2/T
ZA/CAN  2320
WESTCLOX

 

This key was in its original box and was donated by Jim W9OFQ

 

Currently Manufactured Hand Keys

The Vibroplex Company

Standard Hand Key

The Vibroplex Company never made a hand key until recently. Vibroplex has designed a large hand key that uses some Vibroplex Original parts and some other parts specific for this design. As the advertising used to say, "Vibroplex never made a hand key but if they had this is what they would have produced." That's paraphrased, but you get the idea. This large hand key is still available from Vibroplex in Standard black finish base, blue finish base, chrome base or gold base. An earlier version is shown featuring the gray base that was being produced then (early 2000s.)

While this Vibroplex hand key is beautiful and very well-built, it might be difficult to use depending on the individual operator. The problem is with the aural information versus sending action. As the key lever is pressed down the mechanical contact is silent but the upward return of the lever makes an easily audible "click." This is the exact opposite of a regular hand key. Note description of the Signal Corps J-6 hand key.

Looking at the frame, note that the return spring is acting on the rear-top of the lever applying a downward force. Standard return springs are in front of the trunnion and are loading the bottom of the lever with an upward force. Just this slight change in the return spring location is responsible for the "opposite" click. Most hand key users listen for the "click" and feel the return as their method of determining proper forming of the Morse characters when sending without a monitoring oscillator. With the "opposite" aural information being heard, confusion results. The solution is to use a CW monitor and ignore the "opposite" clicking.

 

R.A. Kent, Engineers

The Kent Hand Key

Robert A. Kent started his engineering business in 1965 dealing in mechanical engineering projects that eventually evolved into the designing and building of various types of "Morse Keys." The present owner is Robert S. Kent (son of "A") and he also is assisted by two of his sons. The company is located in Tarleton, Preston in the UK.

Kent Engineers builds several replicas of vintage-type Morse Keys but their standard is "The Kent Hand Key." It is made out of brass parts with ball-bearing suspension mounted on a mahogany base. All wiring is located inside a mortised area on the bottom of the base that is covered with a full bottom sheet metal plate that's covered with felt. The Kent Hand Key is a very long key with a large early-style knob and finger rest. The Kent Hand Key has a "pull down" spring behind the trunnions. This usually results in "click" sound as the key returns to the up position but because of the wooden base being somewhat hollow the key produces clicks both on contact and on return so the aural information isn't confusing. These large hand keys can provide an excellent "feel" to leisurely-sent CW. Current selling price is L99.50.

 

Why Knowing International Morse and Following the CW QSO Format is Important for DX QSOs

International Morse, Radio Jargon and DX - There's no doubt that CW using Morse allows 100% copy in the most difficult receiving conditions. But, have you ever thought about the language of "Morse" and how it allows radio operators that don't know each other's respective spoken languages to still carry-on a conversation?  

At one time, all radio ops, no matter where in the world they operated from, spoke "Radio." It was a jargon that all radio ops had to know and the mode used to "speak Radio" was CW and the language was International Morse. Since all hams HAD to know Morse to pass their exam, they knew the basics of the language and, with experience, they soon learned the Radio Jargon. It didn't matter that via CW you were conversing with a ham in Japan that didn't speak English - he knew Morse and he knew Radio Jargon, therefore he could intelligently converse with you or any of the other hams in the world.

The limitation to conversing in CW Radio Jargon is, of course, you must adhere to the QSO format, use standard Q-signals, use standard abbreviations, stick to "radio" topics and, most importantly, "rag chewing" was not an option.

CW Protocol and QSO Format - Part of speaking "Radio" via CW is to adhere to the CW Protocol and the CW QSO format. This made conversing in Morse much easier since you knew your radio contact was going to send certain information in a certain order. When working a DX station on CW, this assured that the important information was in the first part of the contact. When the DX station didn't speak English, following the CW QSO format was essential. Part of learning Morse and becoming a ham was to learn the Q-signals, the correct CW protocol and what the standard format of a CW QSO consisted of.

The standard CW format was to send, in order, the station's RST, your QTH and your name on the first round. With the "hand off" you sent his call sign, then "de" your call sign and "K." The next round you sent Your Rig's Pwr and your Antenna then your WX and, briefly, you might sent your QSL info ("QSL via bureau.") This round was then concluded with "TNX QSO CUL 73" and the QSO completion of both call signs followed by "SK."

By following the standard format of a QSO, foreign ops that weren't fluent in English could easily copy and know what you were saying because they knew Morse, they knew Radio Jargon and you were following the standard QSO format using the proper CW Q-signals and proper CW abbreviations.

 

Semi-Automatic Telegraph Keys - Bugs, a.k.a. Speed Keys

Mechanical semi-automatic telegraph keys date to the beginning of the twentieth-century with the "Martin Vibroplex" keys introduced in 1904, patented by Horace Martin (the pendulum-type dot mechanism was initially patented by William Coffe who was associated with the Mecograph Co.) Many other companies tried to invent different methods of generating a reliable "dot stream" but Martin's "Original" (Single Lever) design was the most reliable and certainly the most imitated. The nickname "Bug" probably originated with users noting the red "Lightning Bug" logo that appeared on later Vibroplex metal tags starting in the twenties. The "Bug" nickname ultimately was applied to any semi-automatic key regardless of manufacturer.

A note on early Vibroplex keys,...those made before about 1921 were strictly for use on telegraph landlines as the contacts were only .062" diameter. Most of the spark transmitters in use before that time required large current capacity which was accomplished using very large key contacts that limited their installation to fairly large hand keys. Vacuum tube transmitters started to gain popularity in the very early twenties. In 1921, Vibroplex increased the contact size to .125" and, since the current requirements for tube transmitters was far less than spark transmitters, Vibroplex keys started to then be used as "radio keys." Vibroplex's first ad in QST was in 1925.

The Vibroplex Company


Horace Martin

Horace Martin was the earliest of the bug manufacturers, producing Autoplex semi-automatic keys in 1903. Martin developed the basic idea for all "modern" bugs - the "Vibroplex" that utilized a vibrating pendulum to create a dot stream with manual creation of dashes, although a similar, earlier patent belonged to William Coffe (Mecograph Co.) The patent for the Martin's Single Lever dates from 1904 (Coffee's patent was filed four months earlier.) This was the first (or earliest) model "bug" offered.

"Vibroplex" and "Autoplex" keys were originally sold through United Electrical Manufacturing Co. in New York. Most of UEM's time was spent in court going thru various patent suits (mainly from Mecograph.) The UEM Company failed in 1908.  

Ultimately, Martin partnered with J. E. Albright in 1911. Albright sold "Martin's Vibroplex" keys initially as an agent as there was no specific company at that time. Martin was not a businessman, he left that to Albright. Martin was the inventor and spent all of his time in the shop. Albright was successful in obtaining all applicable patents to the Vibroplex (if not already assigned to Martin) when he purchased the Mecograph Company in 1913. Afterwards, all "knock-offs" had to be licensed by Albright or the user could be held liable for "unlicensed use." The Vibroplex Company was officially formed in 1915 with J.E. Albright as president.

Martin left Vibroplex in 1920 when he was "bought out" by Albright for a little under $7000. Martin had a "non-competition" clause in the arrangement but continued to offer improvements to Vibroplex and after the ten-year period expired provided collaborations with other key manufacturers thru his sons' company, Martin Research & Mfg. Co.



Vibroplex Original  aka: Martin Single Lever SN: 70837  (1919)

Vibroplex continued on supplying bugs to telegraphers, hams and even the military. Demand for the J-36 was so high during WWII, Vibroplex enlisted the help of Lionel Corporation to build the quantity of keys required. The J. Bunnell Company also built J-36 keys during WWII.

In 1947, J.E. Albright passed the presidency of Vibroplex to his brother, W.W. Albright. John LaHiff had been with the company for many years and designed several keys, specifically the Lightning Bug and the Champion (and probably the Zephyr.) LaHiff became the new owner of Vibroplex in 1965. Upon his death in the early seventies, his son took over but he eventually sold Vibroplex to Peter Garsoe in 1978. Garsoe moved Vibroplex from New York to Maine where he had other businesses. Around 2000, the Vibroplex company was sold to Mitch Felton who moved the company to Georgia.

In 2009, Vibroplex moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, where they currently operate from. Besides a nice selection of Vibroplex models, they now also handle Bencher keys, W7FG Vintage Manuals, DX Covers, various types of antennae and many other ham items.

 

The Vibroplex Company

The Single Lever (aka: The Original)
 

Horace Martin's first all-mechanical, semi-automatic key design was the Single Lever. Almost all later "bugs" are based on this design that utilizes a vibrating pendulum to send a stream of dots the speed of which is determined by the placement of weights on the pendulum. The Original was called the Single Lever at first, then Horace Martin's Original and then just the Vibroplex Original (about 1940.) The example shown above in the Vibroplex Company History is from 1919 with the typical Japan Finish base with gold stripes. Most of the early Vibroplex key bases are painted with lacquer called "Japan Finish" and then gold pin stripes were added. Nickel plated bases were also available. Very early keys were sometimes (rarely) built with non-plated brass parts on Black Japan bases. Special paint schemes were first advertised in June 1929 (QST,) with paint colors available in Red, Blue or Green lacquer in addition to the standard Black Japan and Nickel-plate. Wrinkle finish came along around 1939, first in black. Deluxe Originals were introduced in 1940 with chrome bases, red knobs and jewel bearings. Then in WWII, perhaps to conserve chrome, the Deluxe versions used a dark gray painted base but the red knobs and jewel bearings were retained. Chrome base for the Deluxe returned post-WWII. Black wrinkle returned for the Standard for a short time after WWII but the company went back to gray (though a lighter shade) in the early fifties. Standard Originals are still available from Vibroplex.

Shown in the photo to the upper right is a typical, later type Original. The serial number is 147072 which was assigned in late-1945, probably post-WWII. It's generally thought that Vibroplex returned to black wrinkle immediately after WWII ended and the civilian market opened up. Looking at this key, it appears there might have been a slight delay before Vibroplex went back to black wrinkle. Maybe the delay was to "use up" the remaining gray paint. The Original sold for $15.95 in 1945.


 

Shown in the photo to the left is a 1971 vintage Original. But, why is it sporting a black wrinkle finish base? I bought this particular Standard Original brand new in 1971. It had a light gray wrinkle finish base at that time. When I purchased the bug I didn't think about the absent lever switch since it was cheaper without that option. A few years later I realized that for "tuning" the transmitter, the lever switch would be quite handy. I ordered the lever switch kit from Vibroplex and then installed it on the bug. I had really never liked the light gray finish on the bug, so about 1997, I decided to repaint the base in black wrinkle finish. I stripped the bug parts off of the base and prepared the base by light sanding. I applied four heavy, double coats of black wrinkle paint (VHT, I believe) and then baked the base under heat lamps. The base turned out very nice with a heavy wrinkle pattern that was even in texture. I let the base paint cure for a few days before reassembling the bug. I used this bug extensively in the Western Historic Radio Museum to demonstrate International Morse to visitors that were interested (there actually were quite a few.) I had it connected to an audio oscillator for that purpose. Also, I still have the original box that this Original came in. I think the price in 1971 was around $21 and then the switch option that I purchased later was around $5.

 

The Vibroplex Company

"Double Lever"

 

photo left: Early style with square cut out frame. ca 1915

 

 

photo right: Late style with "clover-leaf" cut out frame. ca 1918

The Double-Lever was the second all-mechanical, semi-automatic model to be offered with production starting about 1911. Although it's speculation, Martin probably designed the Double-Lever to have some other semi-automatic key design patented since the Single-Lever patent was still subject to several lawsuits from the Mecograph Company. Oddly though, Martin never patented the Double-Lever. However, Albright did purchase two later (1913) similar patents credited to Royal Boulter around 1915. The Double-Lever uses an abundance of small parts to achieve its function. There's no apparent advantage to the design or to the operation of the key but a Double-Lever will send nicely when in good condition and adjusted correctly. The wide spacing between the dot and dash paddle seems to have been designed for a fairly large "fist." Still, the Double-Lever does its job smoothly and one can send great Morse with this design.

The Double-Lever went through several changes during its production history. The Double-Lever shown to the left photo is the early style with the "Square Cut-out Frame." It probably dates from after 1915. The date is arrived at since there isn't a serial number stamped on any parts which implies that the serial number was on the tag, which is missing. Having the serial number on the tag started when the Vibroplex Company was formed in 1915, so the key dates from that period or a little later. The early style had a two screw clamp that allowed adjustment of the vertical placement of the lever on the trunnion axle. Later versions didn't have this feature with the trunnion axle being press-fit into the lever. However, like most bugs, the trunnion bearings can adjust the height placement of the lever within the frame in either design. The Double-Lever shown on the right is the last type made, called the "Clover-leaf Frame" because of the inside cut-out shape of the frame. It dates from around 1918 (SN:64103.) Note that this later key has a damper like the Single Lever Original. The Clover-leaf also has the dot lever stop mount cast as part of the frame instead of a separate piece as on the Square Frame. As can be seen in either of the photos, the dash lever mechanism is completely separate from the longer dot lever and pendulum. The Double-Lever was available from about 1911 up to about 1926.

With both Double-Levers, note that most of the screws are fillister-head steel machine screws. Both keys were originally nickel-plate on all brass parts, however the steel screws were left "unplated." Note that both keys are missing the shorting switch lever. The early key has the stationary contact but not the lever. The late key is missing the entire switch. If the key was used later in its life as a "radio" key, the switch lever might not have been needed and was removed (they are handy for "tuning up" however.)

The early Double-Lever was an inherited item from my old friend, W7TC. I don't know where or when Tom found it. The late Double-Lever was obtained in a trade with ham acquaintance (I traded a Heathkit SB-200 for the key.) I was told that this key had belonged to the ham's father but any further details were unknown.

Square Cut-out Double Lever Rebuild - I'm not a fan of restoring keys. Generally, they should be left in original condition. That is, if the key's original condition is complete and unmodified. This early Double Lever (D-L) had problems galore (see photo below.) First, it was missing the tag. Second, a former owner apparently thought the D-L didn't send fast enough so he cut the pendulum rod to shorten it and remounted the damper assembly forward by about an inch. This required drilling a new hole but the damper mounting also utilizing the rear bumper mounting screw. Another former owner repaired the pendulum rod by soldering an extension to it and then remounted the damper assembly back to its original location. For some reason a large gauge stranded copper wire was soldered to the two levers and to the dash lever stop - probably to improve the lever grounding. Many original parts were missing and replaced with anything that would work including using modern screws. Needless to say, this D-L had put up with a lot of abuse over its lifetime. Since I probably couldn't really do much more damage to the D-L, I decided to rebuild it as much as possible.

First, was complete disassembly to sort out all of the original parts and see what needed to be replicated as far as screws, thumbscrews and other "Vibroplex" type parts. The lever trunnion axle was severely bent, so that needed to be straightened. All of the fillister-head screws were steel (which apparently is original) but these were "rust darkened" and most had gnarled slots. I could tell from inspection that the brass parts were originally nickel-plated.

Unfortunately, a few of the replacement parts were going to be from "junk" Vibroplex keys that had been parted-out. Some of these parts were chrome-plated which looks different from nickel-plating. I was going to see if the chrome parts would not be too noticeable with the other parts having new nickel plating. I repainted the base with a few heavy applications of nitrocellulose lacquer. I had to patch the non-original hole from the damper remount job before painting. Since the tag was missing and this was only a rebuild, I didn't try to paint the pin stripes.

The lever pendulum was repaired by correcting the solder joint and shaping the repair to blend with the original part of the pendulum. The complete lever was then nickel plated. The damper wheel wasn't original, so a donor damper supplied a Vibroplex wheel. The chrome replacement parts were conditioned to look aged by "dulling down" the chrome with 600 grit AlOx paper. I remove just enough chrome for the brass to just begin to show. This results in the chrome looking more like nickel plating. A few replacement fillister-head blade machine screws had to be found by going thru the parts box. Since all of the original screws were steel and they had to mount in nickel-plated brass parts, I deep-cleaned and polished the steel screws to look somewhat new. Reassembly was very easy since I had the "clover leaf" D-L to use as a reference. Upon reassembly and adjustment the D-L now functioned superbly. The D-L was a good design that does send very good Morse. Lots of small parts though.

Photo upper right is the before condition. Photo lower right is the after condition.

 

The Vibroplex Company

Direct Point  aka: Model "X"

 

In 1911, Martin introduced the Direct Point, later called the Model X. It was the third style of "bug" offered. The Direct Point was based on the later of two patents submitted in 1911 that were designed to achieve the goal of a single contact or direct point key. By why was a single contact important? According to the June 1911 advertisement that introduced the Direct Point, the key duplicated the action of a typical hand key used by the best operators. The ad continues stating that the Direct Point is approved for use on lines where the Single Lever or Double Lever wasn't. This implies that some lines thought that the dual contacts of the Single or Double Lever keys could cause errors in sending. Certainly, another reason was that, like the Double-Lever, the Direct Point-Model X was also another design that allowed Martin-Albright to still have a semi-automatic key patent that could be marketed just in case one of the many lawsuits over the Single Lever patent didn't go in Martin's or Albright's favor. Albright was successful in purchasing Mecograph in 1913  which then freed the Single Lever from further patent litigation. The Vibroplex Company was officially formed in 1915.

The Direct Point-Model X is overly-complicated using a multitude of small parts. The dash function relies on one pivoted lever contacting and moving a second pivoted lever. The dash adjustment screw's position is critical for proper dash operation. Also, there's a fiber pad insulator between the dash lever and the sending "hot" contact. Usually, a Model X will achieve dots very smoothly but dashes will be more difficult to send easily or rapidly depending on the key's mechanical condition and how clean the moving parts are.

As with all of the early Vibroplex keys, the Model X uses many fillister head steel screws and also round head steel machine screws. None of the steel screws are nickel plated but all brass parts are nickel plated. The Model "X" shown above is an early one from 1912 (SN:10551.) The serial number isn't located on the tag but is stamped in the nickel plated strip that connects the "hot" terminal to the single contact post. The "X" was available from about 1912 up to about 1922. Selling price was $10 in the initial 1911 advertisement but the ad stated that the price would soon increase to $12. This Model X was donated to WHRM many years ago by my old friend W7ZCA(SK.)

 

The Vibroplex Company

Blue Racer (aka: Vibroplex No. 4)
 

The Blue Racer was introduced as a small key to save space for the busy telegrapher. The base is much smaller than the Original and the mechanism proportions had to be reduced somewhat resulting in a pendulum that is shorter than those found on the larger keys. The slight shortening of the Blue Racer pendulum makes the key a very fast sender. About the slowest a Blue Racer can send is 25wpm using the standard weights provided. Also, note that the main frame is not as tall as those found on the Original. 

The Blue Racer was introduced in 1914 as the "Vibroplex No. 4." The first models had a "square opening" bearing support frame. The damper was a "U" type base that supported a loosely mounted damper-wheel. The serial number on very early No. 4 keys is stamped on the damper base. From 1914 up to sometime after WWI, the No. 4 base was painted Cobalt Blue enamel (a very dark blue.) No pin stripes were applied on these dark blue bases. Around 1917, the "clover-leaf" frame was being used. Around 1919, Black Japan (with gold pin stripes) and Nickel bases started to replace the Cobalt Blue base. "Blue Racer" started to replace the "No. 4" name around 1920.

Shown to the left is a 1917 example of the No. 4 (serial number 59487) showing the Cobalt Blue base used on the early Blue Racers.   >>>

>>>  The "Blue Racer" shown to the right is serial number 97296, dating it to 1926. It has the "clover leaf" frame cut-out and has the Black Japan finish with gold pin stripes. Interestingly, the address on the tag is 796 Fulton St. in Brooklyn. Most tags from the mid-twenties up into the mid-thirties will have the 796 Fulton St. address on them. It's thought that some (maybe all) of the keys were actually built at a Vibroplex shop that was located in Brooklyn but that the keys were actually sold thru the main office in Manhattan (the Broadway address found on most earlier and later tags.) Vibroplex never used the Fulton St. address in any of their advertising. Another interesting observation is that at one time the J. H. Bunnell Company was located at 215 Fulton St.

There was a time period from 1932 up to 1941 where Vibroplex never advertised the Blue Racer. It's thought that perhaps the "Racer" was out of production during this time period. Perhaps when the Martin Junior production ended in 1939, the "Racer" was re-introduced to allow Vibroplex to still offer a small base key. When "Racer" production started again, these later keys have the Black Wrinkle finish base and the return to the square cut-out in the frame. Late in production (1950s) the damper assembly was changed to be like the Original (see Deluxe Blue Racer below.) Black wrinkle came in around 1939 and by the 1950s, light gray wrinkle became standard. The Blue Racer was also available as a Deluxe model with chrome base, jewel bearings and red knobs.

Shown in the photo to the below-right is a Blue Racer from 1944 with the serial number 128406. Note that it has the straight cut-out in the frame and has a black wrinkle finish to the base. Shown in the photo below-left is serial number 137766, assigned in early 1945. These "Racers" are how the keys looked from about 1941 up to the early fifties when the base paint went to gray wrinkle finish.   >>>

So, who was buying Blue Racers during WWII? One has to remember the increased traveling that was done by rail during WWII with soldiers and sailors being transported to various bases on both coasts and throughout the country. Then there was all of the increased shipping by rail that was necessary because of the war. Certainly the railroads had to increase their communications ability and much of that communication was by telegraph. The increase in railroad telegraph operators probably accounted for most of the Blue Racer purchases. Then there were the various government users, various commercial shipping users and anyone else that needed a small, fast bug. Hams were only able to operate during WWII by special permission from the Navy. Their transmitters had to be registered with the Navy and operation was only allowed on weekly "emergency nets" associated with civil defense. Still, it's possible that a ham might have purchased a Blue Racer during WWII (though it probably required permission from the War Production Board.) The Blue Racer was the same price as the Original, $15.95 in 1945. Blue Racer production stopped entirely in 1962. However, Vibroplex (Knoxville) has once again started to offer the Blue Racer in both Standard and Deluxe versions.

 

The Vibroplex Company

The "Junior" and the "Martin Junior"

In September 1921, Vibroplex began advertising the new "Improved Vibroplex" that featured "Reduced Size and Weight" along with larger contacts but with the same quality parts as the Original. It seems that the Original was still available on its standard base but also available was the "small base Original" that became unofficially known as the "Junior." The "Junior" was sold throughout the twenties. It may have been dropped from production when the Blue Racer production was also stopped because of the Depression (1932.). For a short time, Vibroplex didn't offer a "small base" key as neither the Junior nor the Blue Racer seemed to be available. Apparently due to market-demand for a small-base key, Vibroplex reintroduced the old "Junior" in 1934 but it was renamed the "Martin Junior." The new Martin Junior was the same as the earlier "Junior" keys with the exception of the higher serial numbers (serial numbers must be used for proper identification of which advertised version the suspect key happens to be.) In 1937, Vibroplex began to reuse the "Junior" name for a short time. By 1939, the name became "Vibroplex Junior." Production of the "Junior" stopped for good in 1939. Bases are generally black japan with gold pin stripes or nickel plated. It might be possible that a few very late Martin Juniors were produced with black wrinkle bases. Shown to the right is a Vibroplex Junior from 1922 (SN 85207.) Of particular interest is the tag mounting. Note that the tag is oriented with the bottom of the tag nearest the connection terminals. The Martin Junior shown in Wm. Holly's Vibroplex Co. book also has the tag mounted this way. In fact, all of the Junior's I've seen have their tags mounted this way. All other Vibroplex models mount the tag with the top of the tag nearest the connection terminals.


1922 Vibroplex "Junior"  SN: 85207

 

The Vibroplex Company

Lightning Bug  (aka: No. 6)


The Lightning Bug started out as a "No.6" model in the mid-1920s. It was designed to use easy- to-machine parts for assembly of the bearing support frame which, on the Original and Blue Racer, was time-consuming to machine. Though several parts are necessary to build-up the bearing support frame they are made up of easy-to-machine round stock, flat sheet metal pieces and screws. Additionally, the damper support frame was also designed to use easy-to-machine parts. All of this was to allow the selling price to be somewhat less than an Original or Blue Racer. It must have been successful since the Lightning Bug was in production from the mid-1920s up into the late-1970s.

The Lightning Bug can be found in several finishes from Black Japan or Red, Green or Blue lacquer to Black Wrinkle, Gray Wrinkle and Chrome plating (or earlier Nickel plating.)

Shown is a Black Wrinkle finish Lightning Bug from the first part of 1942 (sn: 119102.) The Lightning Bug sold for $13.95 in 1945.

The Lightning Bug was designed after Martin had left Vibroplex. John LaHiff is usually credited with the design of the No. 6, aka: Lightning Bug.

 

The Vibroplex Company

Champion

The Champion was introduced late in 1939 as a low-cost alternative to the Lightning Bug. The Champion was built along the same lines as the Lightning Bug using the stamped sheet metal parts for the frame top and bottom along with the easy-to-machine round stock all assembled with machine screws. To further reduce costs, the Champion used the stamped and bent sheet metal "U" shaped damper support with the round stock damper as was normally inverted and mounted on the cross-bar of the Lightning Bug but instead merely mounted the "U" support rightside-up directly to the base. This simplified the entire damper down to just a few parts.

The Champion went through the same evolution with black wrinkle paint used on the base before and just after WWII, then going to gray wrinkle paint in the 1950s. The triangular shaped paddle was rounded starting in the 1950s, although Deluxe Original Keys had the rounded paddle much earlier (in red) as did the J-36 version of the Lightning Bug. The Champion was available up until the company moved to Maine (1978.)

The Champion was designed by John LaHiff, who went on to be the owner of the Vibroplex Company in 1965. Shown to the right is a WWII-vintage Champion with the triangle shaped paddle and the black wrinkle finish paint. The Champion was $9.95 in 1945, a real bargain.

 

Vibroplex "Deluxe" Bugs

The Vibroplex Company

Deluxe Original

Vibroplex began offering the Deluxe Original in 1940. The chrome plated base with red knobs and jewel-bearings made for an impressive key. Early versions appear to have a standard upper bearing adjustment screw on the top of the frame but this is actually a jewel bearing that has the jewel mounted into the bottom of the screw. The bottom bearing is also the jewel type. Note the copper braid for grounding the lever since it isn't grounded through the jewel bearings. Around 1948, the upper jewel bearing was changed and thereafter mounted from inside the frame. A hex-sided shape allowed tightening the upper bearing assembly into the frame. The bottom jewel bearing was still adjustable and still had a locking screw at the back-bottom of the frame. Since the top bearing wasn't adjustable anymore, the hole in the top of the frame was covered by a small, pressed-in, red plastic "button." Around 1950 the terminals' thumb nuts became domed thumb nuts. The Deluxe Original has pretty much remained in the line-up throughout the many later owners of Vibroplex. It's currently available from Vibroplex and comes with all of the features that makes it a "Deluxe Original."
 

Chrome Base Dermatitis - Many of the Deluxe models suffer from pitting in the chrome plated base. Since the base was steel, it had to be copper plated first, then nickel plated and finally chrome plated. If any contamination was present on the steel surface, especially common in very small surface porosities, the plating process would be compromised at those small points. Most of the time the areas were so small they went unnoticed. After long-term exposure to a very humid area, especially when stored in an unheated shed or garage, corrosion begins at the small pin-point areas and it develops over time (under the chrome plating) into the condition as seen in the photo lower left. There is no cure for this condition. Either the base has to be re-chromed or, an easier solution might be to find a "parts key" that has a good condition base. Vibroplex did vary minor things like the type of hardware or insulation material but, usually everything is interchangeable.

SN: 146274 had chrome dermatitis - see the photo lower left. It took a while but eventually I was given a junk Deluxe Original - incomplete and consisting of many incorrect parts. But, the chrome base was in good shape. The key was from 1961, so the hardware was philips head screws and plastic insulators. I stripped both keys and then rebuilt SN:146274 using all of the original 1945 parts except for the base, frame and damper. These parts on the original were severely pitted. When reassembling the key, the only difference in mountings were the damper originally was mounted with round head machine screws while the later key mounted the damper with flat head countersunk screws. I did remount the 1945 tag to the replacement base. The resulting rebuilt key, while basically a "parts key," now appears to be a fine condition, early Deluxe Original (since only vintage parts were used) and it functions as it should - very fast.


SN: 146274 as it originally was found with a severely pitted base


1945 Deluxe Original SN: 146274 after rebuild. All original parts except base, frame and damper

 

The Vibroplex Company

Deluxe Lightning Bug

 

Like the Original and the Blue Racer, the Lightning Bug was available for a time in the "Deluxe" style with chrome plated base and red knobs. Like to Original and Blue Racer Deluxe versions, the Lightning Bug Deluxe also had jeweled bearings. The Deluxe Lightning Bug shown is very late in production - from around 1974 - serial number is 379143. By this time, shorting levers had become optional items so this key is not equipped with a shorting lever. Interestingly, the metal tag is not attached to the base with drive screws - it's glued to the base! Lightning Bug production stopped when the company moved to Maine in 1978.

 

The Vibroplex Company

Deluxe Lightning Bug

 

The Deluxe Lightning Bug shown to the left is an earlier key, dating from 1958. Note that this key has the shorting lever. The other interesting feature on this key is that the first owner's name is engraved on the top of the base - "Jerry R. Washburn." Vibroplex did offer name engraving as an option at one time.

This key was owned for many years by W7TC (SK) who had purchased it "second-hand" from one of the many ham radio dealers around in the 1970s. "TC" and I had a weekly CW sked on 80M where he would always use this Lightning Bug and always I used my Deluxe Blue Racer. 

 

The Vibroplex Company

Deluxe Blue Racer


Probably the most beautiful of the Vibroplex Deluxe models, the Deluxe Blue Racer has just the right proportions that endear it to its lucky owners and its potential collectors alike. The Deluxe version of the Blue Racer was available from the late forties up to about 1962. It's a great key to use and very fast.

To get an idea of the small size of the Blue Racer base, note the size relationship of the knob and paddle to the base when compared to the Deluxe Original or Deluxe Lightning Bug. The key shown to the right is SN: 212768 dating it to 1960.

I used this Deluxe Blue Racer in skeds with W7TC(SK) back in the early-1990s. We would always try to push the send and receive speed up as fast as possible and still get some kind of copy. Since we knew each other, we could "get away" with that sort of thing.

The Deluxe Blue Racer is once again available from Vibroplex.

 


The Vibroplex Company

Super Deluxe Original "Presentation"

The Super Deluxe Original "Presentation" model was introduced in 1948 and featured the Deluxe Original with its usual chrome metal parts, red knobs and jewel-bearings along with the addition of a 24K gold-plated sheet metal cover that was mounted to the top of the chrome base. All Presentation models used the newer style jewel bearings in which the upper bearing screws in from the underside of the top of the frame and then the lower bearing is adjustable. Since the upper bearing wasn't adjustable, a red plastic button was inserted into the threaded hole.

To really add something special to the Presentation, Vibroplex introduced the "New Super Speed Lever" and it was only available on the Presentation. The New Super Speed Lever provided an adjustable-length main spring that allowed a wide-range adjustment of the speed of the dot stream. Two screws on top and two screws on the bottom of the slotted, rectangular end of the lever that secured the flat main spring within the slot.   >>>

>>>  By loosening the two top screws, the flat main spring could be extended longer by pulling the lever weight rod which then pulled the main spring out of the slot further. The longer the main spring the slower the dot stream that was produced. Or, if the lever weight rod was pushed in, the main spring length was shortened and the dot speed was increased. Once the desired dot speed range was found the two screws could be tightened to secure the main spring at that length. The regular lever weights' position were the fine adjustment of the dot speed (as with any of the bugs.) In essence, the Super Speed Lever offered a wider range of dot speed adjustment. Apparently, the Super Speed Lever wasn't that big of a success and, sometime in the mid-sixties, it was dropped from production. After that, the Presentation became just a Deluxe Original with a gold-plated top cover. The Presentation shown is about thirteen years into the manufacturing of this version and this example still has the Super Speed Lever. Its serial number is 218826 dating it to 1961. The Presentation is still available from Vibroplex and it still comes with the 24K gold plated top cover, chrome parts, red knobs and jewel bearings.

This Presentation was found in its original cardboard box. Shown below is the original instruction card (also found in the box) describing how to adjust the New Super Speed Lever (only on the early versions of the Presentation.)

 

The Vibroplex Company

Deluxe Vibroplex Iambic Keyer

As electronic keyers became popular, there was an increase in the demand for a keyer mechanism to use with the electronic keyer. Vibroplex came out with their keyer for electronic keyers in 1960. It was only available in standard finish. In 1962, both Deluxe or Standard finish was available. At first these "keyers" were the standard "knob and paddle" arrangement that more or less allowed the user to move from semi-automatic keys to full electronic keyer with the formation of the dots and dashes accomplished in the electronics. The "side-to-side" action was more-or-less the same as the bug except that dashes were completed for you by the keyer electronics.

As the electronic keyer evolved it was thought that another function could be added. By having two separate levers that would allow both dot and dash contacts to be closed simultaneously a sequence of alternating dots and dashes could be sent. This actions could be used to make character formation take less physical movement. From this the "squeeze" action developed and the key mechanism was called the Iambic Keyer. The versatility of the Iambic Keyer is that it's not only a "squeeze key" but it can be also used as a "side-to-side" Keyer with no modifications.

In 1978, with new owner Peter Garsoe, Vibroplex was moved to Maine and all of their machining equipment was updated or rebuilt. At this time, Vibroplex came out with an Iambic version of their keyer. Two other versions called "Brass Racer" were introduced later. Vibroplex still produces the Iambic although its appearance is somewhat different.



Deluxe Iambic Keyer - this version was built in Maine
 

 

Vibroplex Carrying Case(s)

There was a time when being a telegrapher was an important profession. The telegrapher at the local railway station provided communications outside of many small towns and others, like Western Union or Postal Telegraph ops on the lines or other ops via radio, provided world-wide communications via American Morse (landline) and International Morse (radio) Code. As a professional, the telegrapher usually had his own key - mainly because most railway stations would have only provided a simple straight key bolted to the table. The telegrapher would take his "bug" to work as any craftsman would bring his tools. A delicately adjusted Vibroplex would not be carried around in your lunch pail,.....you had to have the official Vibroplex Carrying Case. These cases were available from Vibroplex, usually for around $5.00. All of the carrying cases are wood covered with leatherette. Early versions are lined with green mohair and later version are lined with green felt (black is sometimes also found.) A leather carrying handle was provided. Initially, the cases were designed to fit the particular key it was to house. Blue Racer cases were somewhat smaller than cases for the Original or the Lightning Bug. Most cases open on one end although there are some seldom-seen examples that open from the top (maybe for Presentations?)

Although it's always nice to have a couple of Vibroplex Carrying Cases, they do present display problems. If a bug is inside, it can't be seen. If you have the door open to see the bug, the door swings open to the right. If you have a bug on the right side of the Carrying Case, the door blocks viewing that bug. You can't have two Carrying Cases next to each other with their doors open. Just some observations,...Carrying Cases are nice to have,...but they aren't easy to display.

 

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