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Radio Telegraphy - Straight Keys to Bugs

- Hand Keys -
- Flame-Proof Keys -
 - Semi-Automatic Telegraph Keys (Bugs) -
- Telegraph Accessories -

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.

Hand Keys, Straight Keys & Flame-proof 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."

Wireless Improvement Company

2KW Auxiliary Hand Key-Type SE68A

Made for U.S. Shipping Board in 1920, these large keys used .625" diameter silver contacts to handle the high currents of spark transmitters. The brass ring around the lower contact is a "cooling ring." The base is made of hard rubber. Originally the SE68A was a "leg-key," that is, it had long threaded rods on the bottom of the key base that allowed direct mounting to a table with connections made to the rods from under the table. Unfortunately, someone in the past has cut off the "legs" on this key. These keys were normally supplied with the Navy "Finger Rest" type of knob as shown on this example. 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.)


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. These were available with different size contacts depending on the intended service. This key has 3/8" contacts for medium duty spark gap transmitter applications. 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 and has smaller 5/16" contacts. 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 other examples can be seen in the "Hand Keys" section below (though these are later, inexpensive 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. 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.

Signal Electric Manufacturing Company


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.  

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.

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 these types of keys as a "Straight Key." Most hams learned the code using a hand key and after they had built up their speed switched over to a semi-automatic key (a bug.) Many hams stayed with the hand key because of its simplicity and accuracy - something that took a lot of practice with a bug (or later using a keyer.)

The hand key shown to the left is a very late production E. F. Johnson Speed-X "Navy Style" hand key. These 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 hand 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. 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 sheet metal stampings. These type of keys usually sold for about fifty cents during the thirties. The key on the far right is another "cheap" key relying on the "springiness" of the lever to provide the action with no bearings at all - really a cheap one but at least they did nickel plate the base.

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.

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 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. Certainly, the method was not for long-term operation and was intended for portable use where a table or desk wasn't practical.

The KY-116/U is the specified key for the GRC-19 set (also, GRC-106, GRC-9 and many others) which is a portable vehicular transmitter-receiver that runs 100 watts to either the vehicle's whip antenna. If the vehicle was going to be at position for more than 90 minutes, a portable dipole antenna was erected for better communications performance.


 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:

ZA/CAN  2320

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


Semi-Automatic Telegraph Keys - Bugs


The Vibroplex Company

Vibroplex was the earliest of the bug manufacturers, producing semi-automatic keys in 1903. Horace Martin developed the basic idea for all "modern" bugs - the vibrating pendulum to create a dot stream with manual creation of dashes. The patent for the Original Single Lever dates from 1904 and this was the first (or earliest) model "bug" offered. Though Martin sued many patent infringers, his partner, J. Albright, licensed many other key builders to use the basic single lever patent.

The Vibroplex Company

The Original (Single Lever)

This was Horace Martin's first semi-automatic key design (not counting the Autoplex.) 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 Original. This example 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. During the early thirties, special finishes could be ordered in Red, Blue or Green lacquer. Wrinkle finish came along around 1939, first in black. Then in WWII, some bugs were painted dark gray. Black wrinkle returned for a short time after WWII but the company went back to gray (though a lighter shade) sometime in the early fifties.



The Vibroplex Company

"Double Lever"

 The Double-Lever was the second model to be offered with production starting about 1907. The Double-Lever went through several changes during its production history. The Double-Lever shown to the left is an earlier style with the "Square Cut-out Frame." The dash lever is completely separate from the dot lever and allows the operator to either use the key as a "bug" or it can be used as a side action straight key. The model 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.) The Double-Lever was available up to the mid-twenties.


The Vibroplex Company

Model "X"

 In 1911, Vibroplex introduced the Model X (right). It was the third style of "bug" offered and its design objective was to eliminate the separate dot and dash contacts. The Model X was based on the later of two patents from 1911 and achieves the goal of a single contact "bug." The Model "X" was produced up to the mid-twenties. The Model "X" shown is from 1912 (SN:10551.) Like the Double Lever, the "X" wasn't popular but was still available up into the early twenties.


The Vibroplex Company

Martin Junior

The Martin Junior was introduced around 1920. It has a base that is smaller than the Original but a bit larger than the Blue Racer. The "Junior" was priced slightly less than the Original. The Martin Junior was only available for a relatively short time, up to about 1939.


The Vibroplex Company

Lightning Bug


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.

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 Vibroplex Company

Blue Racer

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 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. The Blue Racer shown to the left is from WWII and its serial number 137766 was assigned in early 1945. Shown in the photo below is another WWII Blue Racer with the serial number 128406 assigned in 1944.  

The Blue Racer was introduced before 1920. The first models had a "clover leaf" bearing support frame somewhat like the "Double Lever" shown further up this page. Through most of production the damper was a "U" type that supported a loosely mounted wheel to act as the damper. Late in production the damper assembly was changed to be like the Original (see Deluxe Blue Racer below.) Though the Racers shown are black wrinkle finish bases, at first the Racer had a black japan base with gold strips. Black wrinkle came in before WWII 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.  >>>

>>>  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 was 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 and then 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. The Blue Racer was the same price as the Original, $15.95 in 1945.



Signal Corps U.S. Army - Key Type J-36

(based on Vibroplex's Lightning Bug)

Vibroplex, Lionel, Bunnell


During WWII, many items needed for the war effort were built under contract. This meant that a common design and specifications were used that might actually be the property of another company but the construction was actually the work of a contract company. Such is the case with the popular Signal Corps bug, the J-36. The key is actually based on the Vibroplex "Lightning Bug" with some minor changes to the paddle and to the identification tag.

Vibroplex made J-36 keys for the Signal Corps before and during WWII. The photo to the left shows a Vibroplex J-36 from a pre-WWII contract (5-4-40.) Bunnell also made J-36 bugs during WWII. The Australian company Buzza also made a J-36 look-alike during WWII (see photo and info on the Buzza further down this page.)  >>>

>>>  The Lionel Corporation certainly made the largest quantity of J-36 keys and most of the examples found today are the Lionel versions which were all built during WWII. The plastic identification tag on Lionel J-36 bugs is always in poor condition with the example shown in the photo to the right being typical of the "better" condition tags. The plastic was prone to shrinkage and usually pulls away from the mounting pins and breaks. Many J-36s are missing their tags entirely. Fortunately, repro tags are available although they have to be downloaded from the Internet and then properly sized, printed and laminated.

J-36s are great keys to use and provide good action and precise sending. Most J-36 keys will require some rebuilding to function at the level the design is capable of. The Lionel J-36 shown to the right belonged to W3ON.





The Vibroplex Company


This is a typical Original - or is it? Note the wedge shaped paddle, the two small weights and the darker blue-gray used for the paint on the base. The serial number is most informative, 147072 assigned in 1945. This is one of the Vibroplex Originals that has the gray paint used during WWII production. Though normally thought to have been used only on the Deluxe models as a substitute for Chromium plating, this example shows that it was also used on the Standard Original. For some reason, after WWII, Vibroplex quickly returned to painting the bases black wrinkle finish. Gray returned as the base color in the mid-fifties but it was a much lighter shade than the dark blue-gray of WWII versions. The Original sold for $15.95 in 1945.


The Vibroplex Company


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 to about 1980.

Shown above 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.

The Champion shown to the left is from the mid-1960s when these keys were finished in light gray wrinkle finish paint and the rounded paddle was in use. Also, note that by this time philip's head screws were being used. This key was donated by Jim W9OFQ who purchased it at a swap meet  in the mid-1980s.





Deluxe Bugs

The Vibroplex Company

Deluxe Original

Vibroplex began offering the Deluxe Original in 1940. The chrome plated base with red knobs made for an impressive key. Early versions have a regular bearing adjustment on the top of the frame as the Deluxe Original shown does. After WWII, the jewel bearing was introduced and a small red plastic "button" pressed into the bearing adjustment hole on top of the frame. There was also a Presentation model that had a gold-plated cover that was mounted to the top of the chrome base. In the late forties an adjustable main spring was introduced to the Presentation to allow fine adjustment of the speed of the dot stream. After about 1960 this feature was dropped and the Presentation became just a Deluxe Original with a gold-plated cover. 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 exposure to a humid area, 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.

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 owners and collectors alike. The Deluxe version of the Blue Racer was not available for a long time, from the late forties up to about 1960. A great key to use and very fast. 

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. Interestingly, the metal tag is not attached to the base with drive pins - it is glued to the base!


Vibroplex Carrying Case

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 just carried around in your lunch pail, had to have the official Vibroplex Carrying Case. These cases were always available from Vibroplex for around $5.00. They are leatherette covered on the outside and felt lined on the inside with a leather carrying handle. Usually, they will just fit the larger "bugs" like the Original or the Lightning Bug  - the Blue Racer would have ample room in the case. The latch keeps the "bug" safe during transport but the reason for the lock and key is a mystery since it obviously wouldn't protect against thieves taking both the "bug" and the case! Maybe it was just to deter the curious. 


Speed-X Radio Manufacturing Co., Speed-X Manufacturing Co., Speed-X (E. F. Johnson Co.)


Speed-X Radio Manufacturing Co.

Stewart Johnson

The Speed-X name is first associated with Electro Manufacturing Co. located in Fresno, California. In 1934, Stewart Johnson bought the Speed-X name and relocated the company to San Francisco. Johnson changed the name of the company to Speed-X Radio Manufacturing Company and the address was 30 Ninth St. in San Francisco. Johnson built Speed-X keys from 1934 until he sold the company to Les Logan in 1937. The Speed-X shown in the photo is similar to the later model 515 Speed-X but with a somewhat smaller base. Earlier Speed-X bugs will have the combination of knob and paddle but the later Speed-X bugs use two paddles instead. Although there is no identification on this bug, it was found in unused condition in its original Stewart Johnson Speed-X box. It is apparent that many of the parts used are identical to later Speed-X parts, e.g., the damper, the posts and the knurls used on the hardware are all typical of later Les Logan Speed-X keys.


Speed-X Radio Manufacturing Co.

Stewart Johnson

This is another Stewart Johnson Speed-X bug. This one is nickel-plated and, typical of the Steward Johnson versions, this one doesn't have any sort of identification. However, one can see the similarities that this key has to all Speed-X bugs and particularly those built by Stewart Johnson. Also, a help in identification and dating this key comes from its former owner, Al Norberg W6HLJ, who owed the key from the 1935 until recently. Since this key was used with Norberg's homebrew transmitter which he built in 1935, this key more than likely is a Stewart Johnson version Speed-X. At 97 (2013,) Al Norberg donated his Speed-X key to go along with his homebrew transmitter that he donated to the museum several years ago.

For more information on Al Norberg's homebrew 1KW transmitter built in 1935, go to our "Classic Pre-WWII Ham Gear" page for a complete write up that includes two B&W photos taken in 1936 showing the transmitter, homebrew receiver and this key. Navigation link below.

Speed-X Manufacturing Co.

Les Logan

Les Logan purchased Speed-X Radio Manufacturing Co. from Stewart Johnson in 1937. Logan dropped "Radio" from the name, changing it to Speed-X Manufacturing Company and the location was moved to 646 Jessie St. in San Francisco. Les Logan's name is usually associated with Speed-X from 1937 up to 1947. Logan changed a few things on his keys compared to those of his predecessor (Stewart Johnson.) Logan finally added an identification tag to his keys along with a model number. Logan's bugs use two paddles rather than a knob and paddle combination. He also offered a couple of different types of bearing support frames on his different models. The "T" handle was available on the larger Logan bugs and allowed the user to set the bug on its side and use the dash paddle as a straight key. Les Logan's bugs were well-built and quite popular. Les Logan sold the Speed-X line to E.F. Johnson Co. of Waseca, Minnesota in 1947. Shown to the right is a Les Logan Model 500 with nickel plated bearing support frame and a black wrinkle finish base from the late thirties. This key belonged to John Ridgway W3ON.

logans.jpg (18808 bytes)

Speed-X Manufacturing Co.

Les Logan

Here are some more samples of Les Logan Speed-X keys. The key on the left is the deluxe Model 500 in black wrinkle with nickel plated frame. Next to it is the deluxe Model 501, which was the 500 with nickel plated base. The next key is the Model 510, an odd key using a cast pot-metal base that is very small and light weight. The key on the right is the Model 515, Speed-X's standard model with black wrinkle base. The deluxe keys with the "T" handle allowed the key to be placed on its side and used as a straight key (not very practical but it works, somewhat) and it also allows an easy method for carrying.


E. F. Johnson Company

E. F. Johnson Company of Waseca, Minnesota became the last manufacturer using the Speed-X name. Johnson purchased Speed-X from Les Logan in 1947 and initially continued to produce basically the same type of keys. Eventually, a different weight design was used followed by a change in the fiber paddles to plastic. The last of the Johnson Speed-X bugs have chrome plating, different tags and other minor hardware changes. The bug shown is an early Johnson Speed-X Model 114-501 that is nickel plated and probably dates from the 1950s. This bug belonged to K6QY.

jonspdx.jpg (29354 bytes)


E. F. Johnson Company

Here's a couple of other E.F. Johnson Speed-X bugs. The key on the left is the Model 114-520 with later style plastic paddles. The key on the right is the Model 114-500 which was found in mint-unused condition still in its original box. Johnson did modernize their versions of the Speed-X bug and later versions will have plastic paddles, more modern tags, larger weights and chrome plating rather than nickel plating.



Other Bug Manufacturers


T.R. McElroy - DeLuxe

Ted McElroy was a champion telegrapher having gone through the Candler system of learning the code. His receiving speed was over 70wpm. McElroy's connection with high-speed CW led to his forming a company that specialized in various types of code equipment manufactured between the mid-thirties and WWII. The McElroy keys are heavy, well-built units. The Deluxe Model shown features a "marbled" finish that is striking. The "T" handle allows the key to be placed on its side and used as a straight key. The decal label on this key dates it to the later production of McElroy DeLuxe keys in the 1940s.


Buzza Products

Automatic Key No. 100

This Australian made key is based on the Vibroplex Lightning Bug (or military J-36) design but changes the support of the dash lever by providing it with its own pivot and bearing. The damper also departs from the Lightning Bug design, requiring fewer parts. All No.100 Buzza keys have a red paddle and a black knob. A very heavy base makes the Buzza a sturdy key to operate and its dot action is very precise. Dates from around WWII.


Electrical Specialty Mfg.

 "Cedar Rapids Bug"

The Cedar Rapids Bug was perhaps the only bug to be offered either in assembled form or as a kit, (the price difference was minimal.) The rubber bumper on the damper is another unusual feature. The company name is cast into the bottom of the base. There are variations on the locations and quantity of rubber feet used. Since many were assembled kits, builders sometimes took liberties with custom paint colors and hardware. The example shown is the standard Cedar Rapids Bug. Dates from the late thirties up into the late forties. The company was located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. 

NOTE: The paddle looks squared-off and unfinished but this is an original paddle and knob and shows how the standard models looked assembled without modifications. Of course, since these bugs were kits, original owners might have "shaped" the paddle to their preference.


SKILLMAN (a.k.a. many various other names)

This bug was sold under many different names by several different dealers including many of the catalog dealers, like Lafayette or Allied. The keys were made in Japan and are very well built. They also seem to function quite well although adjustments are a little hard to get at. The plastic dust cover always seems to have suffered and most covers are either broken or missing. Dates from the 1960s. Not all versions found will have a name on the plastic cover. Many versions of this key have no identification at all.


Telegraph Accessories - Learning Tools


Victor Talking Machine Company

Marconi-Victor Course - Wireless Telegraphy

When the USA became involved in WWI (April 1917) the Army and Navy realized they were going to need wireless operators in the field and on ships at sea besides the trenches. Training time would be shortened if the men enlisting already knew International Morse Code. What better way to learn the code at home than by phonograph record. The Victor Talking Machine Company offered a six record set along with booklet in 1917 to assist the military in providing a method to have future enlistees already know the code. The records are 10" diameter and are acoustically recorded, that is, all the speaking and the code "buzzer" were performed before a large horn that directed the sound energy down to a record cutter that made the master. The sound of the transmitted code signals sounds like a rotary spark gap type transmitter but is probably a large mechanical buzzer. In the first record for learning the alphabet, the announcer yells "A" and then the buzzer is heard to send "dit dah" at about a ten wpm speed. Then the announcer yells "B" - "dah dit dit dit" from the buzzer. This same format is used for learning the letters and numbers. The records progress from learning the code on the first record and then on to building speed up to full messages sent on the last record.

Recordings have been used to learn International Morse for years after this Marconi-Victor course. Several companies issued records over the years. Many hams remember the Ameco Code Course records. When I was a teenager, I learned the code from an Ameco Code Course LP record that I checked out of the local library. The recording medium went to tapes and then CDs. Computer programs have also been instrumental in instruction and building code speed.

Code Practice Oscillators

Insuline Corporation of America - Signa-Tone

Bud Industries - Audio Oscillator


Code Practice Oscillators were used for several purposes. First, when two or more people were trying to learn the code or were trying to improve their sending ability, the Code Oscillator allowed one person to send while the other received. The positions would be switched after a while to allow both individuals to send and receive. Also, these Code Oscillators could usually be connected to the ham transmitter to act as a sending monitor - to make sure that your sent CW had the proper spacing and rhythm. The tube used was generally a 117L6 which was a diode rectifier and pentode in one envelope. Usually the speaker was a Hi-Z armature-pin speaker. Most had the option of using a headset for monitoring. Pitch of the tone was adjustable.

Another use for the Code Practice Oscillator would be for those hams who would volunteer as examiners and would administer Novice exams and sometimes Conditional License exams. Obtaining a Novice License before 1980 required that the prospective ham to go out and find a licensed General Class or higher ham who would volunteer to give him the 5 wpm Code test. The first step was to for the volunteer examiner to obtain a 610 form from the FCC. Those forms used to have a section for the examiner to fill out confirming that he had given a 5 wpm Morse Code test to the applicant and that he had passed both sending and receiving. The requirement was to have at least one minute of solid copy and one minute of solid sending. Next, the volunteer examiner would send in the completed 610 form to the FCC. Six weeks later, the examiner would receive the applicant's Novice written test via the mail at which time he would contact the applicant to come over and take the test. The completed test was sent into the FCC again and hopefully, six weeks later, the applicant would receive his Novice license and call letters (again, via the mail.) This arduous and lengthy procedure started to change as the ARRL Volunteer Examiner program was started in the 1980s. As both the code test and the written theory test could be administered on the same date the time to acquire the license was reduced. Over time, the FCC has greatly improved their turnaround time on license processing also.

Shown in the photo top right is the ICA Signa-Tone (ICA was the Insuline Corp. of America.) This is a very nice performing Code Practice Oscillator with a variety of tones and strong volume. The Bud Audio Oscillator is very similar in design to the Signa-Tone and dates from around the same time period - the late-forties to mid-fifties. Bud Industries is famous for their metal cabinets and metal relay racks. Bud Industries has been in business since 1928.

The Instructograph Company

The Instructograph

Using records to learn the code had one disadvantage. You were using a phonograph and probably couldn't use earphones, so everyone around got annoyed as they had to listen to you as you were learning the code. The Instructograph eliminated that problem. Most were designed to run into earphones. It could also operate an external oscillator for multiple student use. The Instructograph uses punched paper tapes to send code. The paper tape actuates a set of contacts when holes are present and break contact when there are no holes. The length of the hole determines whether a dot of a dash is sent. The paper tape is pulled through a "smooth button" on the actuator arm that moves the arm as the button drops into the punched holes. The actuator arm also has the contact that makes and breaks the circuit that drives the oscillator or other external sounding device. Early machines used a wind-up phonograph type motor while later versions used an AC operated electric motor. Early versions sometimes had a battery operated oscillator inside using a single type 30 tube. Some versions relied on an external oscillator. Later versions had built-in solid state oscillators. The paper tapes were available for either American Morse (landline or railroad code) or International Morse (radio) code (Instructograph always referred to International Morse by the name Continental Morse.) The tapes were kept in individual boxes or metal tins. Usually a larger box was provided for tape storage and instructions. The paper tapes progressed from learning the alphabet and numbers on up to full messages for building your speed. And, of course, the speed of the machine was adjustable so you had complete control of how fast you wanted to have the code sent to you. Since the paper tapes opened and closed contacts any variety of external signal indicators could be used for learning that particular type of code - from lamps for visual indicators to sounders and batteries for American Morse (in addition to the audio oscillator for International Morse.)

Shown in the photo to the right is a fairly early Instructograph that uses a wind-up motor to drive the tape pickup spool. Note that one this early version, the tape spools are made of wood. Also, the tape containers are metal tins with "Continental" printed on the lid. Each tin is numbered for identification. Note also that this machine has a small pointer knob at the upper left of the panel. This is the power switch and volume control for the battery-operated audio oscillator that is mounted inside the cabinet. The oscillator uses a single type 30 vacuum tube. This excellent condition Instructograph is complete with all of the tapes, extra spools and a spare type 30 tube. It belonged to W3ON.

photo above: This is another early Instructograph with wind-up motor drive. Note that this version has a removable lid that is held on with two latches. Note also that the tapes are for American Morse. I'm not sure about the masonite panel. It appears to have wear and looks original but I've never seen masonite used as a panel on any other Instructograph. Note that this version doesn't have a knob anywhere on the panel. This machine relies on the user to provide an external indicating device. Since the tapes are for American Morse the indicator should be a sounder and battery combination.

photo above: This is a late Instructograph that runs on AC and has an internal solid-state audio oscillator. Note the larger box provided for tape storage and instructions.

 Instructographs used to be everywhere. A lot of hams had them. Even the FCC used them to give the code tests to hams. The 13 wpm code test I took from the FCC in San Francisco in 1970 was sent with an Instructograph machine. When administering the code test, the FCC engineers would deliberately try to increase your nervous apprehension and level of discomfort to see if you really "knew" the code and could copy under difficult conditions. Abrupt and terse verbal communications (orders) were the typical FCC examiner's style. The 20 wpm code test I took for Extra Class (over 25 years ago) was sent using a cassette tape machine by a VE (volunteer examiner) who did everything he could to increase the comfort level and reduce any test nervousness. Around 2000, the CW qualifications for Extra Class were reduced to only the beginners level of 5 wpm. Eventually, CW requirements were totally eliminated for Extra Class and all other levels of amateur licensing. How times have changed. 
Henry Rogers, Western Historic Radio Museum, Radio Boulevard © 2013


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