Radio Boulevard
Western Historic Radio Museum

Radio Telegraphy -  From Straight Keys to Bugs

PART 2 - Semi-Automatic Keys,...Speed Keys, a.k.a. Bugs


The Vibroplex Company, Standard and Deluxe Models, Mecograph Co.,
ATOZ Electric Novelty, Signal Corps J-36 versions, Speed Bug, Buzza,
Speed-X (Electro Mfg, Stewart Johnson, Les Logan, E.F. Johnson,) McElroy Mfg Co.,
 73 Bug, Kenco, Dow-Key, Cedar Rapids Bug, Hi-Mound

Learning Tools -  Marconi-Victor Code Course, Oscillators, Instructographs

by: Henry Rogers WA7YBS/WHRM

photo from: QST - Cover -  May 1942 



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

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 mechanically-actuated, pendulum-type dot mechanism was initially submitted for a patent by William O. Coffe (four months before Martin) and, in 1904-5, Coffe and Benjamin Bellows formed the Mecograph Company. James Albright and Horace Martin bought Mecograph in 1913. 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 experienced landline operators' contempt for any type of key other than the traditional hand key. In their opinion only a "bug"  would use a semi-automatic key. At the time, "bug" was a term of contempt for a "lid" or "plug" operator - an incompetent operator. As more and more semi-automatic keys appeared and were in use, the derogatory reference to the operator was applied to the key itself. Eventually, the "bug" won and the term stuck becoming just a moniker and losing its negative connotations. Vibroplex embraced the "bug" reference and incorporated a red lightning bug as their logo (post-WWI.)

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 G. Martin

Vibroplex Company History

Horace G. Martin was the earliest of the bug manufacturers, producing the Autoplex semi-automatic keys in 1903. The Autoplex used battery-operated solenoids to power the dot stream but dashes were produced manually. In 1904, Martin developed the basic idea for all "modern" bugs - the "Vibroplex" which utilized a horizontal, weighted, swinging pendulum to create a dot stream with manual creation of dashes, although a somewhat similar, earlier patent filing had been submitted by William O. Coffe (owned by Mecograph Co.)

The patent for the Martin's Single Lever was granted in 1904. Coffe's patent had been filed almost four months earlier than Martin's. However, Coffe's patent processing was delayed for two years because of questionable claims and vague mechanical drawings used in his application. Coffe's patent was granted in 1906. Martin's Single Lever was the first (or earliest) model "bug" offered for sale. Later, in 1907, Benjamin Bellows (Mecograph's owner) sued Martin and lost the initial suit, however in the 1908 appeal, the court handed Mecograph a victory,...of sorts. Mecograph claimed 12 infringements by Martin but the court only granted them their "Claim #11" - the mechanically energized swinging pendulum. The court rulings were conflicting because the initial finding claimed that Martin's Autoplex used a swinging pendulum giving him priority (Martin's Autoplex patent application even uses the terms "pendulum" and "weight" in the description.) The later court's finding was that the Autoplex needed a secondary power source (a battery) to operate where Coffe's pendulum operation was entirely mechanical. Obviously, the second court thought that both the Martin Vibroplex and Coffe Mecograph were using an entirely mechanical weighted swinging pendulum for dot formation and therefore Coffe's submission for a patent proceeded Martin's in that one aspect alone. However, because of the precise patent drawings and the mechanical design of Martin's key was so far advanced beyond that of Coffe's amateur contraption (along with the earlier ruling that Martin's Autoplex with its concept of using a weighted swinging pendulum proceeded Mecograph's claim,) the court's ruling didn't enforce any capitulation on Martin's part. Since the court essentially gave Martin the "go ahead," he continued to build his Vibroplex keys.

"Vibroplex" and "Autoplex" keys were originally sold through United Electrical Manufacturing Co. in New York. U.E.M. was formed in February 1904 by several individuals, including Edward Buchanan and Horace Martin. Most of U.E.M.'s time was spent in court, however they handled most of the sales of the Autoplex and the Single Lever. Although U.E.M. had started in New York, they ended up moving to Norcross, Georgia. Martin lived in Norcross during this time. The parts for these keys were made elsewhere as U.E.M. was just an assembly operation. The U.E.M. Company failed in 1908. After 1908, Martin moved back to New York City and continued to build keys in his own workshop (probably in Brooklyn.)

Ultimately, Martin partnered with James 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 aggressive at defending Martin and his Vibroplex. He was successful in obtaining all other applicable patents to the Vibroplex (if not already assigned to Martin) when he purchased the Mecograph Company in 1913 from founder Benjamin Bellows' widow, Nellie Bellows. The purchase of Mecograph included Coffe's patent and therefore freed Martin-Albright from any further litigation since they now owned all of the patents. However, it didn't stop the many other companies that were building "knock-off" imitation Vibroplex keys. 

Albright won a suit against Max Levey (ATOZ Elect. Novelty Co.) over ATOZ's blatant "Single Lever" copy called "The Improved Vibroplex" in March 1914. After that ruling, all Vibroplex "knock-offs" had to be licensed (by Albright) or the user (along with his employer) could be held liable for "unlicensed use." Albright sold the licenses for $2 and the licensee had to have a special metal tag affixed to their non-Vibroplex key in order to avoid threatened prosecution. Licenses were sold through 1914 up to the formation of the Vibroplex Company in 1915.

Martin had designed the Single-Lever (Original,) the Double-Lever, the Direct-Point (Model X) and the No. 4 (Blue Racer) by the time "The Vibroplex Company" was officially formed, in 1915, with James E. Albright as president. Between 1915 and 1920, Martin designed the Vertical (Upright) and the Midget. Martin left Vibroplex in 1920 when he was "bought out" by Albright for a little under $7000. Martin had a ten-year "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. After Martin's departure, Vibroplex introduced an Original with a reduced base size and with increased contact size bug that became known as the Junior (1921.) The No. 6 or Lightning Bug was introduced in the mid-twenties. The Champion came along in 1939. These post-Martin keys were designed by John LaHiff.

Vibroplex continued on supplying bugs to telegraphers, hams and even the military. Vibroplex started building J-36 bugs, which were essentially copies of the Lightning Bug, for the Signal Corps in 1936. Actually, a small company called Brooklyn Metal Stamping Co. built the first J-36 bugs in the early thirties (based on their "Speed-Bug.") Demand for the J-36 bug was so high during WWII contracts were also awarded to the Lionel Corporation to build the quantity of keys that were required. The J. H. Bunnell Company also built J-36 keys during WWII (as did the Australian company, Buzza.)

photo above: This is a Single-Lever that was built before the Vibroplex Company was formed. It's more-or-less typical of the early Single-Lever in that it has the nickel-plated data plate with patent numbers and dates along with Horace Martin's name and "TRADE THE VIBROPLEX MARK" as the key identification. The serial number on these early, pre-Vibroplex Company Single-Lever bugs was stamped into the damper frame. In this case, the serial number 51011 dates from 1914. Also of note, the "J.E. Albright - Vibroplex" decal that was applied to bugs starting around 1914 to 1915 is still present on this key, a little worn, but still readable.

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 Garsoe had other business interests. Around 2000, the Vibroplex company was sold to Mitch Felton who moved the company to Alabama and Georgia. Felton sold his interests to the current owners in 2009. And, 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 Single Lever aka: The Original - SN: 70837  (1919)

The Vibroplex Company

The Single Lever (aka: The Original)

Horace Martin's first all-mechanical, semi-automatic key design was the Single Lever dating from 1904. Almost all later "bugs" are based on this design that utilizes a horizontal 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 to the left is from 1919 with the typical Japan Finish base with gold stripes and the "Vibroplex Company" tag the was used from 1915 up to about 1921. Most of the early Vibroplex key bases were painted with a lacquer called "Japan Finish" and then gold pin stripes were added. Nickel plated bases were also available (one of the earliest Single Levers reported has a nickel-plated base.) Sometimes other base colors turn up, and dark red have been seen. Cobalt Blue was used on the No.4 key starting in 1914. It's not impossible that some Single Lever bases might also have been painted blue at a customer's request about that time. It's also reported that some very early keys were built with non-plated brass parts on Black Japan bases. Of course, most of these non-standard colors were post-sales, end-user paint jobs. Black Japan finish with gold stripes was the most common paint scheme used.

Regularly available but considered "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. Black Wrinkle finish came along around 1939. Deluxe Originals were introduced in 1940 with chrome bases, red knobs and jewel bearings. Then in WWII, to conserve chrome, the civilian Deluxe versions used a dark gray wrinkle 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 (what Vibroplex called the non-Deluxe keys) for a short time after WWII but the company went back to gray (though a lighter shade than what was used in WWII) about 1958. In the late-1970s, brown and beige colors were used on some of the bases for a short time. Standard Originals are still available from Vibroplex.

SN: 147072

Shown in the photo left is a typical, later type Original. The serial number is 147072 which was assigned in late-1945, probably post-WWII. Vibroplex had been using black wrinkle paint for the standard Original bases and dark Gray for the Deluxe Original bases during WWII. Why this key has a shade lighter gray paint job that appears to be original is probably due to a high-quality repaint job to modernize the key later, probably in the 1950s. The key had been disassembled entirely including the tag, so the paint job wasn't a hamster-job but was a well-planned and well-executed paint job that included painting the bottom of the base.

Shown in the photo right is serial number 151657 from 1946 showing how the Vibroplex Original appeared with the black wrinkle painted base. One unusual feature of this particular key is the "rough" casting of the base. It doesn't appear that the rough casting edges were ever completely smoothed before painting.

SN: 151657

Shown in the photo right 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 (including the tag) 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. I still have the original box that this Original came in when I purchased it new. I think the price in 1971 was around $21 and then the switch option that I purchased later was around $5.


Mecograph Company

Brass Model 3   SN:2170

Mecograph was founded by Benjamin Bellows in Cleveland, Ohio around 1904 or 1905. It's likely that William Coffe built some Mecograph keys before there was actually a "company" since the very early keys only have "The Mecograph - William O. Coffe" on the label (not Mecograph Company.) Coffe probably was a founding partner in the formation of Mecograph Company since it was his patent that was the basis of their key design. At the time of Mecograph's start, Coffe's patent hadn't been granted but Martin's had (1904.) Coffe's patent took two years to clear the patent office because of questionable claims and scribbled drawings within the submitted documents. Coffe's patent was granted in 1906. Coffe's patent became the property of Mecograph Company sometime during the company's history.

Even though there were lawsuits involving the pendulum design, there was a basic difference between Martin's and Coffe's approach. Martin's horizontal pendulum movement required operator energy to be exerted by moving the pendulum against a fixed stop causing it to then swing back and forth. Coffe's vertical pendulum was spring-loaded and was held in place by the key lever. Moving the dot lever released the stop and the spring load caused the pendulum to swing back and forth.

In Coffe's patent drawings, the key's pendulum is shown in the vertical position and the first Mecograph keys were built in this manner but proper key adjustment was difficult to achieve. The very earliest Mecographs appear like amateur contraptions that are built on a wooden base. Very quickly, Mecograph Co. keys moved to a horizontal placement of the pendulum and to a right-angle position for the key lever. By 1906, the "Right-angle Key," as it was commonly called by telegraph operators, was being sold for $10.00. The Mecograph Brass No. 3 was introduced in 1906. The base is cast brass and the number "3" is embossed into the recessed bottom of the base. The entire mechanism is also made of unplated brass with the exception of the main-spring which is unfinished spring-steel. The serial number is stamped on the rear edge-center of the base (2170 on the key shown.)

The No. 3 evolved during its production, later featuring round weights. Also, the base became a steel base painted black Japan with nickel plating on the entire mechanism by about 1908. Mecograph began using their famous "Tiger Stripe" finish about the same time and also introduced their No. 4 key. The No. 4 bases were copper plated first, then given a dark oxide finish (like "bluing") over the copper. Then the dark finish was removed in various places to reveal the copper underneath forming the "Tiger Stripe" pattern.

The last keys that Mecograph produced, around 1912-13, were "inline" keys that were very similar-looking to what Martin-Vibroplex had been building all along but still retaining the Mecograph spring-loaded dot action. In 1913, Benjamin Bellows died suddenly. His widow, Nellie Bellows, sold the Mecograph Company (which included the Coffe patent) to James Albright-Vibroplex a short time later.

Mecograph's advertising suggested that their keys were easier to operate since the energy to start the pendulum swinging was already present within the spring-loading and the dot lever just released the energy. The Vibroplex had the operator impart the starting energy by quickly moving the dot lever causing it to come to a sudden stop against the fixed screw-stop and thus imparting that energy into the pendulum movement. However, the Mecograph does require that the dot lever movement must rapid to release the spring energy quickly in order to produce good dot contact. Also, the adjustable gap spacing between the dot contacts is very critical to the overall speed of operation. This is also true of the Vibroplex but it's not as critical to the overall speed and more affects the "weight" of the dot formation. The difference between the Vibroplex and the Mecograph, as far as "ease of operation," is subtle and certainly subjective, depending on the particular individual operator's experience with either key along with his sending style. Also, nowadays it's difficult to judge a "worn" key of any make.


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 as early as about mid-1907. Although it's speculation, Martin probably designed the Double-Lever to have some other semi-automatic key design that worked since the Single-Lever patent was the subject of lawsuits from the Mecograph Company. Oddly though, Martin never patented the Double-Lever probably thinking that the contested "mechanical vibrating pendulum" was an integral part of the Double-Lever and why add more ammunition for the Mecograph lawsuits? However, in 1915, Albright did purchase two later (1913) similar patents credited to Royal Boulter, which was after the purchase of the Mecograph Company had freed Martin-Albright from further litigation. 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 and fellow key collector, 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 an old Heathkit SB-200 linear amp 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 upper photo right.) 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"  SN:10551 (1912)

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 another lawsuit over the Single Lever patent was filed. Albright purchased 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.)


ATOZ Electric Novelty Company

 "The Improved Vibroplex"  with J.E. ALBRIGHT License Tag Installed

In late-1913, Max Levey, owner of "ATOZ Electric Novelty Company" started producing an almost exact copy of Martin's Vibroplex Single Lever. Levey probably thought that since ATOZ was located in Chicago, the distance between his company and Martin-Albright in New York afforded him some isolation and protection against any legal action. But, perhaps out of contempt, Levey went even further and named his copy bug "The Improved Vibroplex." It certainly got J.E. Albright's attention and a law-suit was quickly filed in the state of Illinois, in December 1913 (although the suit was filed with Nellie Bellows-Mecograph as the plaintiff.) The court's ruling in Albright's favor came down in March 1914. The judge was so astonished at Levey's impudence to sell these "knock-off" copies with the name "Vibroplex" as part of the key's identification, that he wrote a two-page decision admonishing Levey to back up his ruling. Albright immediately began advertising the court's decision and also to threaten (in the ads) that all infringers would soon be sued. He even named the companies that were next on his "hit list." But, there were so many small companies building patent infringing "knock-offs" that Albright decided on a different, more cost-effective approach, rather than going to court.

Albright began advertising that if a professional telegraph operator was using a "knock-off" key, he and his company could be held liable for "unlicensed use" of that key. By careful timing of advertising and with a certain amount of threats (like the threat to Western Union over their many operators using non-licensed keys,) Albright had many of the non-Vibroplex key-owners and wire companies worried. Then Albright advertised that he would sell licenses for these non-Vibroplex keys. For two-dollars, an "Albright license" could be obtained that would protect the non-Vibroplex key owner and employer from future legal action. The two-dollar license fee included a metal tag that read, "THIS MACHINE IS NOT GUARANTEED NOR MADE BUT ONLY LICENSED BY J. E. ALBRIGHT 253 BROADWAY, NEW YORK. SPECIAL No. xxxx."  An Albright tag is shown in the photo below.

To ensure that the license was valid, the key's owner had to send their key and $2 to Albright-Martin who would then remove the original tag and install Albright's tag. The key was then returned to its owner. These licenses were offered all through 1914 with numbers running well-into the 2000s indicating that there really were a lot of Vibroplex "knock-offs" out there. And now, Albright was at least making money off of them. The licenses were offered up to about the time of the formation of "The Vibroplex Company" in 1915.

The bug shown above is an example of the main culprit in the licensing deal, it's an ATOZ Electric Novelty Co. "The Improved Vibroplex." The original owner was likely a professional telegrapher and he (or his employer) must have been worried about some future litigation. His bug was sent to Albright with the $2 fee where the ATOZ tag was removed and the "license" tag installed. The bug was then sent back to the telegrapher-owner.

The ATOZ key has a several minor differences from the Vibroplex Single Lever. For instance, there is no replaceable dash contact on the key lever, the frame is noticeably shorter and thicker than Single Lever,  there is no adjustable bottom bearing in the frame only a conical hole in the bottom of the frame to act as a bearing and the lever main spring is longer resulting in a slower sending speed (only one weight needed.) The rounded corners of the base and the decoratively-turned connection terminals are also characteristics of the ATOZ keys. Although very faded, double pin stripes are visible upon close examination of the original Japan finish on the base (the double stripes are vibrant under the damper base.) The ATOZ bug is well-built and functions quite well but it really didn't provide the user-owner with any "improvements" over Martin's design but it certainly came with its share of owner-headaches.


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 late-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 damper was changed and 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 early Juniors 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. Apparently, this tag mounting orientation only applies to early Juniors (those made in the early 1920s.) 

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


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 also eliminated the closure switch to further reduce cost.

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 late-1950s. The triangular shaped paddle was replaced with the rounded paddle 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 was 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

WWII Deluxe Original



photo left: 1942 to 1944 style WWII Deluxe Original with the squared-type main frame and damper. The serial number is 133174


photo right: 1945 style WWII Deluxe Original with the rounded cast type main frame and damper. The serial number is 142671

Deluxe Originals built between about 1942 and late-1945 were supplied with dark gray wrinkle-finish painted bases. The likely reason has to do with the several different types of materials that were required for war production needs. Copper was one of the materials that was very important for war production. The increased war-related demand for copper made purchases expensive and procurement difficult. But, how does copper relate to the painted base? The Deluxe models had been using a chrome-plated base. Before chrome can be plated to a steel base, that steel base must be copper-plated. To reduce expense and difficulty of procuring the copper, the bases on the Deluxe models were instead painted. The chrome-plating was still used on the brass parts since that didn't require an initial copper plating because brass already contained enough copper for the chrome to be plated directly onto the brass parts.   NOTE: The same requirement of a copper-plate proceeding nickel-plating when the base metal is steel existed and the same ability to plate nickel directly onto brass also existed.

Since there were military contracted (J-36) bugs available for the war needs, it seems likely that these gray-base Deluxe Originals were probably for civilian use and were the type supplied by Vibroplex for the duration of WWII. Purchasers and users would have been commercial radio operators (civilian shipboard and coastal stations,) railroads, government users, etc. There are some WWII Deluxe Originals that have a military history but these were privately-owned keys that were used by military operators that were approved for a speed-key and approved for using a privately-owned key.

With the WWII Deluxe Originals the red knob and paddle along with the jewel bearings were still retained. Since these keys date from before the jewel bearing update of 1948, the old style top bearing adjustment was still "in use" on these keys. Though the top bearing appears like the standard type bearing it actually has the jewel mounted into the bottom of the threaded shaft. The same type of jewel bearing is also used for the bottom trunnion bearing. Since the jewels are non-conductive, two thin copper braids are used for grounding the main lever. The braids are attached to the lever and at the front of the main bearing support using a small machine screw. There were slight changes made to the frame and damper in 1945 that resulted in two variations of WWII Deluxe Originals. From about 1942 up through 1944 the keys used a squared-type of main frame and damper style. In 1945, the main frame and damper were changed to cast pieces with rounded tops and edges. Both types of WWII Deluxe Originals are shown in the photos above.

Soon after WWII ended, Vibroplex returned to the chrome plated base on the Deluxe Original.


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. The "speedy" nature of the Blue Racer is due to reduced base size necessitating a shortening of the pendulum rod which resulted in the weights being closer to the main spring when compared to the larger bugs. The thickness and the stiffness of the main spring also will determine the speed at which a bug will send with the given weights. The physical parameters of the main spring and its variability from spring-to-spring seems to be why some Blue Racers (or any of the Vibroplex bugs,) with the standard supplied weights, will send very fast while others bugs (with the same weights) can send moderately slow. 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.

My old friend W7IND used to go to the Dayton Hamfest every year. Around 1989, Bob bought this Deluxe Blue Racer for me at the Dayton Hamfest and brought it back to Nevada. Back then bugs were pretty inexpensive and this one, since it needed a few parts, was a real bargain. I ordered the replacement parts from Vibroplex. 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, 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.


Military Semi-Automatic Keys

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

Contractors:  The Vibroplex Co.,  The Lionel Corp.,   J.H.Bunnell & Co.,   Buzza Products,   Brooklyn Metal Stamping Corp.

The Signal Corps' identification "J-36" was applied to all semi-automatic keys regardless of the contractor or the minor details of construction.

As early as 1930, the U.S. Army Signal Corps began ordering semi-automatic telegraph keys for various uses. The earliest contract appears to have been with the Brooklyn Metal Stamping Corporation who supplied the Army with their "Speed Bug" with the military data plate being about the only change to their standard bug. Although the tag has "Speed Bug" on it, "J-36" is also present.

Vibroplex J-36 - Vibroplex began supplying the Army with a speed key that was based on their Lightning Bug around 1935. Except for the data plate, Vibroplex's J-36 is identical to their standard, late-thirties Lightning Bug.

The photo to the left shows a pre-war Vibroplex J-36 from Order No. 2844-N.Y.-40. Dated 5-4-40 - Serial Number 548. This J-36 data plate has the 796 Fulton St., Brooklyn, NY address typically found on pre-war J-36 keys. With some contracts during WWII, the 833 Broadway, New York, NY address was used on the J-36 data plates. There are a few other variations that can be found on different Vibroplex J-36 data plates. The data plates were originally nickel plated brass with the field painted black resulting in the data plate having silver lettering on a black background. Many data plates appear brass-colored because of wear or corrosion and it's possible, with all of the variations, that some data plates might have been unplated brass with a black field.

Bunnell J-36 - During WWII, the J-36 production demand required additional contractors. J.H. Bunnell & Company produced two types of J-36 bugs. One that uses a main frame that looks something like the smaller Speed-X frame and a damper that's similar to the Speed-x along with a pendulum and weight similar to theVibroplex Lightning Bug. The second type Bunnell is similar but uses a short Vibroplex Original style frame and damper style. The photo to the right shows the Bunnell version of the J-36 with the "Speed-X-style" frame and damper from about 1943. The Order is dated 8-1-42 but the Order No. 8001-Phila-43 has 1943 embedded in it. Serial number on this Bunnell J-36 is sn: 125. Note that the shorting lever knob is vertical on the Bunnell but horizontal on the Vibroplex and the Lionel. Also note that the base bottom edge has casting roughness that wasn't removed before painting. The entire base is a fairly rough cast and also is heavier and thicker than the Vibroplex or Lionel versions. Also note that the top edge of the base has a pronounced bevel. The data plates on the Bunnell J-36 tend to spot and corrode more than one would expect.

Lionel J-36 - Perhaps the greatest quantity of J-36 keys was built by the Lionel Corporation during WWII (shown below-left.) Their version is very close to the Vibroplex Lightning Bug with the only significant difference being the rounded paddle rather than the standard triangular paddle. The plastic identification tag on all Lionel J-36 bugs is always in poor condition with the example shown in the photo being typical of the "better" condition tags (at least it's there.) The plastic was prone to shrinkage and usually pulls away from the mounting pins and breaks. A lot of J-36s are missing their tags entirely. Fortunately, repro tag artwork is available online. Artwork for the Lionel tag is at  proper sizing, printing and plastic lamination will be required. NOTE: Repro J-36 tags are sometimes available on eBay.

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 left belonged to W3ON.

Just about the only bug I've heard being used "on the air" in the past several years have been the J-36. Their military connection has provided a place to use a J-36 on some of the vintage military nets that allow some CW operations. The Vintage Military Radio Net, operating on 3.974mc, allows our "73 round" to be sent in CW if the operator has the equipment and wants to exercise his fist. The Military Radio Collector's Group, operating on 3.985kc, calls for CW stations at the end of the first acknowledgement of the phone check-ins.

In addition to Vibroplex, Bunnell, Lionel and the Brooklyn Metal Stamping as contractors for J-36 keys it appears that Buzza Products of Australia also had a contract for J-36 keys during WWII. The Buzza version was very similar to the Vibroplex Lightning Bug.

The Brooklyn Metal Stamping Corp. "Speed Bug" and the Buzza Products No. 100 Key are profiled next.




Brooklyn Metal Stamping Corp.



Brooklyn Metal Stamping Corporation was in business from 1930 up to the beginning of WWII. They were probably licensed by Albright-Vibroplex to build this "knock off" because many of the parts are identical to those built by Vibroplex.  The "Speed-Bug" mainframe is an exact copy of the Vibroplex. The only significant non-Vibroplex features are that the vertical dot spring contact being "keyed" to only allow mounting in the odd vertical position and the elaborate spring-loaded ball contact damper. A somewhat significant difference is the much longer main spring (the blade spring that connects the main lever to the pendulum rod.) This long, flexible main spring results in a very slow speed with the single weight at the end of the pendulum. Normal sending speeds require the weight to be almost as far forward as the adjustment allows. Probably dates from the mid-thirties.

Brooklyn Metal Stamping Corp. was the first contractor to supply J-36 speed keys to the Signal Corps prior to WWII (early thirties.) The BMS J-36 is identical to their standard "Speed-Bug" (the bug shown in the photo) with the exception of the data plate.


Buzza Products

Automatic Key No. 100


This Australian-made key is based on the Vibroplex Lightning Bug 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 WWII.

Buzza Products was a contractor during WWII for the J-36 military "Lightning Bug" version. Buzza's J-36 has an appearance that is similar to the Vibroplex or Lionel versions of the J-36, that is, having the damper suspended from a horizontal strap mounted to two vertical round stand-offs. Typical of Buzza though, the paddle will be red and the knob will be black. 





Electro Mfg. Co.     -     SPEED-X Radio Mfg. Co.     -     SPEED-X Mfg. Co. (Les Logan Co.)      -     SPEED-X (E. F. Johnson Co.)

Electro-Bug from Fresno   ca: 1928



The "SPEED-X" name can trace its origin to Electro Mfg. Co. located in Fresno, California. Electro Mfg. Co. produced the Electro-Bug. Its design borrowed the dot formation concept from the much earlier Martin Autoplex (1903) in that it used an electromagnet in the formation of the dot stream. However, Martin's Autoplex used a battery as a power source where the Electro-Bug was powered by the voltage present on the keying line. The Electro-Bug's initial design intended the voltage source to be the voltage on the land line circuit. Later users, like radio hams, could use the voltage from their transmitter keying bias or a transmitter keying relay voltage. The dash contact is directly operated however the dot contact is wired through the electromagnet. When the dot lever on the key was closed, the keying line current flowed through the electromagnet and the magnetic attraction pulled the pendulum weights away from the dot contact point which broke the current flow releasing the magnetic attraction and allowing the dot contact points to again close which again caused current to flow in the electromagnet, attracting the pendulum weights, breaking the dot contact, etc., etc., repeating this movement as long as the dot lever was held in position. The "making and breaking" of the electromagnet current intensified the movement of the pendulum, producing a firmer dot contact pressure that seemed to continue on for as long as the key lever was held in the dot position.

Electro-Bug from San Francisco  ca: 1932


A variable contact-point resistance was wired as a shunt (in parallel) with the dot contact to base to provide an adjustment to the intensity of the dot action for the user's preference. The foremost contact was a "closed" position. The rearmost contact was no voltage to the electromagnet so the key was essentially like an Electro-Bug Junior. The next position forward was full voltage on the electromagnet. Each of the next successively forward positions reduced the amount of current that flowed through the electromagnet. This allowed the user to adjust the electromagnet response to whatever voltage was riding on the keying line.

The Electro Mfg. Co. started out in Fresno, California in the mid-1920s. They produced the Electro-Bug and also the Electro-Bug Junior (that didn't have the electromagnet.) Most Fresno-built Electro-Bugs date from the mid-to-late-twenties. Although the name "Speed-X" doesn't appear on any of the Electro-Bugs, much of the hardware is very similar to later Speed-X bugs. Especially noting the "T" frame and the damper style. Stewart Johnson (aka Steward Johnson and also Stewart "Red" Johnson) became associated with Electro Mfg. Co. around 1930. He purchased the company while it was located in Fresno and subsequently moved it to San Francisco. Johnson continued to build Electro-Bugs in San Francisco for a short time, probably into the early thirties. By 1934, Johnson was producing a fairly standard semi-automatic bug that was "Distributed by the San Francisco Radio Exchange" according to the tag mounted on the key base. Around the same time (1934,) Johnson changed the name of Electro Mfg. Co. to Speed-X Radio Mfg. Co. The design of the keys also changed becoming a very standard semi-automatic key based on the Vibroplex Single Lever design and resembling the Blue Racer in size. 

Shown to the lower right are close-ups of the two metal tags from the two Electro-Bug keys shown above. The left photo shows the Fresno tag and the right photo shows the San Francisco tag.

Experimental Test of the Electro-Bug - I wondered how well the electromagnet enhancement for the dot stream worked. I noticed that on the SF E-Bug the electromagnet had been disconnected and a jumper soldered underneath. I tested the electromagnet solenoid and its DC resistance measured 98 ohms. I reconnected it to the input terminal and removed the jumper from underneath. I connected a variable DC power supply to the terminals to simulate a line bias level. I started with +15vdc and set the adjustable lever on the bug midway (50% current though the electromagnet.) When operating the dash lever, the key just loaded down the power supply (as would be expected.) But, when the dot lever was operated the pendulum action was impressive. Very forceful with good dot action. It seems like the dot string will continue for as long as the key lever is held in the dot position. I tested the range of DCV that seemed to work and found about +6vdc to +15vdc seemed correct. Around +10vdc seems to work best allowing an adjustment range that seems usable. This voltage range seems to indicate the Electro-Bug could work directly with a blocked-grid type of keying system. Also, a keying relay system would allow cathode keying operation on higher power PA stages. Keying landlines would depend on the line voltage and number of stations connected if operated directly on the line. Otherwise the station batteries and the local "load" would determine the "local loop" voltage.


SPEED-X Radio Mfg. Co.

Stewart Johnson

Stewart Johnson had changed the name of the Electro Mfg. Co. to Speed-X Radio Mfg. Co. sometime after he moved "Electro" from Fresno to San Francisco. The company's new address was 30 Ninth St. in San Francisco. Johnson stopped building the Electro-Bug (probably around 1932) and started to produce a much less complicated to build and less problematic to operate type of semi-automatic key. Early Speed-X bugs will have a label indicating they were "Distributed by the San Francisco Radio Exchange" and will have a somewhat different type of front-mounted bearing support on the main frame. This bug was redesigned to be a very close copy of a standard Vibroplex Single Lever although more like the Blue Racer in size. This new design bug was called "Speed-X Hi-Speed Key." Johnson produced these type of Speed-X keys from around 1934 until he sold a partnership in his company to Les Logan in 1937.

The Speed-X shown is the later version bug. These Stewart Johnson Speed-X keys have no identification at all. It's small size is comparable to the later Les Logan Model 515 Speed-X (or the Vibroplex Blue Racer.) Even though there's no identification on this bug, it was found in unused condition in its original Stewart Johnson Speed-X box.


SPEED-X Radio Mfg. Co.

Stewart Johnson

This is another Stewart Johnson Speed-X bug. This one is nickel-plated and, typical of the later Stewart Johnson versions, this one doesn't have any sort of identification. However, one can see the similarities that this key has to all early Speed-X bugs and particularly those built by Stewart Johnson. It seems to be fairly common that there are minor variations in Stewart Johnson keys. Note that the damper is very similar (but not identical) to the key shown above. The shorting lever is slightly different. The cast feet are quite different. However, there are many other pieces that are identical to Stewart Johnson keys.

A major help in identification and dating this key comes from its former owner, Al Norberg W6HLJ, who has owned this key from 1935 until recently (well, 2013.) Since this key was used with Norberg's homebrew transmitter that he built in Manteca, California, in 1935, this key is, more than likely, a Stewart Johnson version Speed-X. At 97 (in 2013,) Al Norberg donated his Speed-X key to go along with his homebrew transmitter that he donated to the museum several years earlier.

For more information on Al Norberg's homebrew 1KW (CW only) transmitter built in 1935, go to "Classic Pre-WWII Ham Gear - Part 1" for a complete write up that includes two B&W photos taken in 1936 showing the transmitter, homebrew receiver and this key. Go to Home/Index for Navigation.


Les Logan Co. -  SPEED-X Mfg. Co.

Model 500

Les Logan had an electronics salvage business in San Francisco in the mid-thirties. In 1937, he bought into a partnership with Stewart Johnson and became the "salesman" while Johnson ran the company. Within a short time, Les Logan Co. had bought the entire Speed-X Radio Mfg. Co. from Stewart Johnson. Logan dropped "Radio" from the name, changing it to Speed-X Mfg. Co. and the location was moved to 646 Jessie St. in San Francisco (one of several locations the company had in San Francisco over the years.) Though there certainly was a "Speed-X Mfg. Co.," that name never appears on any of the key's metal tag. Advertising and boxes used "Speed-X Mfg. Co." but "Les Logan Co" is on the key identification tag. Les Logan was involved with Speed-X telegraph keys from 1937 up to 1947. Logan was a former machinist, shipboard radio operator and incessant tinkerer so the keys underwent some major changes with Logan running things. Logan finally added an identification tag to his keys along with a model number (early models also had serial numbers.) 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. Logan changed the frames of his keys to pot metal castings. By the late-thirties, the procedure for casting pot metal had improved dramatically from a decade earlier. Logan re-introduced the "T" handle that had been used on the earlier Electro-Bug but was absent from Stewart Johnson's keys from 1934 until 1937. This Model 500 belonged to W3ON.


Les Logan Co. - SPEED-X Mfg. Co.

Model 501

Les Logan Co. continued to build various telegraph items during WWII. At one time most of Logan's family also worked building and selling keys and other telegraph items. After WWII, Les Logan Company became a sales representative for many other companies, including E.F. Johnson. In 1947, Logan sold the Speed-X Mfg. Co. to E.F. Johnson. Les Logan Co. continued on as a sales rep for several other companies for another couple of decades.

The Speed-X Model 501 was the nickel-plated version of the Model 500. The "T" handle was available on the larger Logan bugs and supposedly allowed the user to set the bug on its side and use the dash paddle as a straight key. Most Logan keys will have excellent condition bases but the "T" handles usually show some plating defects due to the pot metal casting. However, poor storage, especially in unheated sheds or garages in humid areas, seems to have caused the majority of the condition problems that we find today on both the frames and the bases. This Model 501 dates from the late-thirties or early forties.

Les Logan around 1940


Les Logan Co. - SPEED-X Mfg. Co.


Model 510

The Model 510 was Les Logan's very small key that was priced well-below the larger 500 models. The base of the 510 is cast pot metal which greatly reduced the weight of the key. Additional weight was removed by recessing the bottom of the base, making it somewhat hollow-like. The light-weight of the bug probably prompted its nickname, "pocket key." Due to the thin edges on the recessed bottom of the base, there is some minor stress corrosion of the pot metal. While the minor cracking is noticeable, the pot metal isn't fracturing or showing any other signs of "pot metal disease." For painted surfaces, the pot metal of the time was usually adequate but, for nickel-plating, the pot metal surface was a poor choice due to its unstable nature. This Model 510 belonged to K6QY.


Les Logan Co. - SPEED-X Mfg. Co.


Model 515

The Model 515 was Les Logan's big seller. It's the standard key that was probably priced very competitively and therefore became very popular. The Model 515 was slightly larger than Vibroplex's Blue Racer but, unlike the Racer, the 515 can send fairly slow Morse. The reason is because of the longer main spring used. The main spring is the spring-blade that connects the pendulum rod to the main lever. The thickness and the length of the main spring will determine the flexibility of the pendulum and therefore the slowest sending speed that can be achieved with the given weights. This photo shows the "double-line circles" or "bull's eye" pattern that was on all of the fiber paddles used on Les Logan's keys. This Model 515 belonged to W6EYC.


E. F. Johnson Company

SPEED-X  Semi-Automatic Key

CAT. NO. 114-501

E. F. Johnson Company of Waseca, Minnesota became the last manufacturer using the Speed-X name on a bug. 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 (that mounted on the T-bar) and other minor hardware changes. The bug shown probably dates from the early 1950s. This bug belonged to K6QY.


E. F. Johnson Company

SPEED-X  Semi-Automatic Key

CAT. NO. 114-500

The Cat. No. 114-500 was the standard version of the plated bug shown above. The base and frame are painted black wrinkle finish and the hardware is chrome plated. This Speed-X key was found in its original box in unused condition - the two paddles weren't even mounted to the lever. What was interesting was where I found the key. I always have made it a point to go to the Hot August Nights annual car swap meet held in Reno. I even went to it when it was called Harrah's Auto Swap. Hot August Nights has always seemed to produce something radio related over the years. I've found several telegraph keys there many times. Well, this Johnson 114-500 was at a HAN swap probably around 1995 or so. I had actually been through the entire swap and was standing beside a table that I thought I had already looked at. I was thinking if there was anywhere else to look in the swap area. I happened to look directly down at the table that I was standing right next to and I saw a familiar-looking orange box with a blue label. I wondered if the bug was actually inside. I was amazed when opening the box I found that the bug was untouched, never used, in mint condition. I didn't even have to ask the dealer what the price was, he came over and volunteered that information. Money quickly exchanged hands ($30) and I had the bug.

At home, I mounted the paddles with the hardware provided in the box. Unusual that the bug was never used and is still pretty much that way.


E. F. Johnson Company

SPEED-X  Semi-Automatic Key

CAT. NO. 114-520


This is Johnson's version of the old Les Logan Model 515. This particular example has the later plastic paddles installed. Also, note the phillips head screws. This bug probably dates from the late-fifties up to the mid-sixties.

When E.F. Johnson sold Speed-X to the Wm. Nye Co. (Nye-Viking) in 1972, the tooling for hand keys was included in the purchase. For some reason, the tooling necessary to build semi-automatic keys wasn't. It's also possible that Nye just didn't want the bug tooling. He probably felt that, by 1972, with the ever growing popularity of electronic keyers, the market for bugs just wasn't enough to warrant the set-up of the tooling necessary to produce a product that wouldn't sell all that well. In any event, Nye continued to offer "Speed-X" hand keys for awhile. Eventually, the "Speed-X" name was dropped and the keys became Nye-Viking keys. Wm. Nye Co. started in 1972 in Seattle but eventually moved to Idaho.



McElroy Manufacturing Corp., aka: T. R. McElroy "World's Champion Radio Telegrapher"

Deluxe Model MAC Key

Ted McElroy was a champion radio telegrapher having gone through the Candler system of learning International Morse code. His receiving speed was advertised as 55wpm in the mid-thirties but ultimately Ted was clocked at 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 thru WWII and for a short time after the war. 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. Sometimes "MAC" also appears on the name-plates. Around 1955, McElroy sold his business to Telegraph Apparatus Corp. (T.A.C.)

In 1937, McElroy began producing the MAC key. It used a heavy cast iron base that featured a "T bar" frame. Supposedly, the key could be turned on its side and used as a hand key. The damper utilized a loosely mounted thick metal disk and arm that was adjustable in height. The MAC keys were available in black wrinkle finish and the Deluxe versions had a "marble" finish.

The metal identification plate on the Deluxe Mac Key reads:

Radio Telegraph Transmitting Key
(Deluxe Model Mac Key)
Mfd. by
Theodore R. McElroy
World's Champion Radio Telegrapher
Boston, Mass, USA
Speed Key Serial No. 1377 

Some of the Deluxe MAC keys will have a dot-spring pre-load installed. This adjustment would "load" the dot spring to have more "stiffness" and reduce contact bounce. The Dot Spring Pre-Load is shown in the close-up photo to the left. Note that the rod is adjusted to slightly compress the spring which will reduce its flexibility making the dot contact less likely to bounce and result in more precise dot streams.

The Deluxe Mac Keys were made in this style with the metal identification plate from around 1937 up to about 1940.

photo right shows Ted McElroy around 1940


DeLuxe Model 600

The Deluxe Model 600 shown features the same type of "marbled" finish that was found on the earlier versions of this key. The marble finish resulted in a key that was striking in appearance and the finish was very durable.

This version of the Deluxe MAC key started to be produced around 1940. The decal labels replaced the large metal identification plate used on the earlier MAC keys. Also, the dot spring pre-load is usually not found on these later keys. The Deluxe Model 600 sold for $9.50 in 1940.

All of the McElroy MAC keys are heavy, well-built units. Key contacts are large and all of the hardware is heavy-duty. When in good condition and well-adjusted, the Deluxe MAC Keys have a comfortable action and can send CW very accurately.

McElroy also manufactured various types of hand keys (see the McElroy Stream hand key in the Hand Key section above.)


Model S-600 "Super Stream"

Ted McElroy's "Stream" keys featured a Zephyr-styled, "teardrop" shaped base that evoked the era of speed and rapid movement. Both the "Stream" hand-key versions and the "Super Stream" semi-automatic key used this style base. Introduced around 1941, the S-600 was chrome plated as were some of the "Stream" hand-keys.

The Super Stream was given the model number S-600 but it isn't located on the tag or anywhere on the bug. The name Super Stream doesn't appear on the tag either.

The Super Stream S-600 appears small in photographs but the key is quite large and very heavy which helps it stay in place when sending. It's a stunning key that, if adjusted properly, has a wide-range of sending speed and is comfortable to operate while providing a very precise dot-action. The fact that the key "stays put" on the bench really helps sending accuracy. Of course, any bug could be mounted to the bench with screws to keep it from moving around but the Super Stream S-600 does so just by having most of its weight at the front of the base. 



Other Bug Manufacturers

Ultimate Transmitter Company


Ultimate Transmitter Company was located in Los Angeles, California. Their semi-automatic keys were merely called "73." These bugs are very small and work by way of a bell-crank that allows actuating the vibrating pendulum from a right-angle mounted key lever. The left lever can actually accomplish automatic dots when pressed to the right and manual dashes when pressed to the left. If the user wanted the feel of dual levers then the right lever when pressed to the left will also accomplish manual dashes. The wedge and cable are attached inside under the base plate. The side lever provides a "closed key" for transmitter adjustment. The "73" keys were made in the 1920s and the patent date on both examples shown is "6-23-25."

Ultimate Transmitter Co.  "73"  Example No.1

Unfortunately for collectors, the "73" bugs were built on pot-metal bases with pot-metal upper cover and lower sub-base. During the 1920s, the pot-metal process was primitive and contamination of the mix affected nearly all pot metal cast products. The material degraded rapidly with a process called "stress corrosion." The result was warping, chipping, cracking, distortions,...on and on. Adjustments are accessed inside the key mechanism after lifting off the metal cover. The inside screws adjustments that are threaded in pot metal are usually "frozen" and, if forced, the pot metal will break. Adjustments threaded into nickel plated brass parts are usually not "frozen."  Be sure to loosen any jam nuts before trying any adjustments.

Note the cover on the "73" bug shown in photo left (Example No. 1.) Large chips are obvious and also note the cracking on the base and the stress cracks all over the top of the cover. Almost all paint is gone from this example. Nearly all pot-metal made in the 1920s will today be found to be victims of stress corrosion. As can be seen, this example of the "73" bug is a victim of severe "pot-metal disease" that not only affects the top cover and base but also affects the pot metal sub-base that the key mechanism is mounted to. The distortion is not too obvious at the angle of photo right but the "bent" sub-base doesn't allow the mechanism to be in alignment and therefore accurate adjustment is not possible and this means the key really doesn't send properly - or, at least as well as the "73" bugs did when they were new. The dash lever is missing and the secondary dash contact broken off on this example also. Since the dash level is missing, so is the dash paddle.

Inside Example No. 1

"73" Bug   Example No. 2

Example No. 2 shown in the photo left still has its original blue paint and only minor damage to the top cover. The dash paddle was broken and remounted with a different screw hole resulting in its shorter length. Inside has suffered a bit more with a severe warping of the secondary dash contact mount. Also, in this "73" the dot contact mount was broken but luckily the broken piece was saved and repair was possible. There appears to have been a divider between the two levers that was part of the top cover but that must have been one of the first things to break (broken on both examples.)

The "73" bug was a very clever design that probably worked very well when the keys were new. Unfortunately, the material used for their construction was not stable and that resulted in a short useful life for the key. That's probably why the "73" bug has a relatively "unknown" status today.

Inside Example No. 2


The Kenmore Company

Kenco "Bug" Key

The Kenmore Company was located in Boston, Massachusetts. They built a couple of types of semi-automatic keys that were sold through Boston's "The Radio Shack" store. Boston's "The Radio Shack" was a large ham radio dealer, selling all types of ham gear from new and used receivers and transmitters to all types of radio accessories. The Kenco Key was an inexpensive bug that was built onto a 0.125" thick piece of black formica. All of the key components mount to this thin formica platform that is in turn mounted with four screws to a cast iron, welled, base. The "well" of the base allows for clearance for the wiring of the dot and dash contacts to the connection terminals all accomplished under the formica platform. The Kenco Key has two levers. The dash lever operates directly while the dot lever is operated by the dash lever pressed in the opposite direction. Each lever has its own bearings. The main frame, damper, dash contact mount and dot contact mount are all made from cast pot metal that's painted black wrinkle finish. The pendulum rod is extended past the damper allowing the weight (or weights) to be placed at the end of the pendulum rod (providing very slow dot action) or in front of the damper for faster speed.   >>>

>>>  The key came with two weights that usually had one placed on each side of the damper. Despite its rather cheap construction the Kenco Key does send very good Morse and it's comfortable to use (as the ad implies.) Kenco Keys date from the late-thirties up to about WWII. Selling price was $3.45 in 1938. Ad from QST January 1938.


The Dow-Key Company

Deluxe Universal "Rotary" Speed Key

Paul Dow began making bugs around 1942 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Dow felt that the speed keys that were then available didn't offer any adjustability to the angle of lever, knob and paddle since all keys had this mechanism in a fixed-vertical position. In Dow's opinion, this made those speed keys uncomfortable to use for long sending sessions. Dow soon was producing a "Bent Key" that had the main frame mounted at a slanting angle to have the lever, knob and paddle at an angle that was hopefully more comfortable for the operator. However, the Bent Key's angle wasn't adjustable to individual preference. By 1949, Dow had patented his Universal "Rotary Key" that allowed full adjustment of the lever, knob and paddle position angle to either side from vertical. One could also adjust the vertical angle of the paddle. The complete adjustability of the Universal allowed the user to find the perfect "fit" for his (or her) sending "fist." The Dow-Key Universal was built in Winnipeg for a few years although the last advertisement in QST was in September 1951. Many early magazine ads show a Warren, Minnesota address along with the Winnipeg address. >>>

>>>    A few years later and the keys were carrying tags indicating they were made in Warren, Minnesota with Winnipeg listed as the distributor for Canada. Paul Dow retired in 1956, leaving the operation of Dow-Key to his son, Gordon. Paul Dow died in 1957 and in the same year, Gordon moved the company to Thief River Falls, Minnesota. 1957 was also the last year that Dow-Key made speed keys. The Dow-Key Company had been slowly changing and adding to the product-line with RF switches becoming their specialty. The Dow-Key coaxial relays are probably the best known to hams of these types of products. Dow-Key has had several owners but is still in business building various types of RF switching devices.

How it Works - The Universal Rotary Key uses a tubular, flanged housing in which the main lever is mounted. The trunnion bearings are adjustable both top and bottom. Once the main lever is mounted in the tubular flanged housing this assembly can be inserted from the backside though the vertical base mount and lightly secured with the knurled thumb screw. Then the red plastic retaining ring with dash contact mount is placed over the protruding portion of the flanged housing. The red plastic retaining ring is secured by lightly tightening the two philips head screws. To rotate the entire flanged housing and main lever the knurled thumb screw is loosened and the mechanism rotated to the desired angle and then the thumb screw lightly tightened to secure that position. Note that the dot contact is mounted with a clear plastic standoff on the backside of the flanged housing. Note that the connections to the dot and dash contacts are via flexible wires. This is to allow unhindered rotation of the mechanism. Total movement is about 270 with vertical being the halfway point. Though it's possible to rotate the mechanism all the way CCW and maybe use the dash contact side as a straight key, the mechanical limits don't allow rotation to a completely horizontal position. Besides, it was never the intent of the Universal to double as a straight key. A fully adjustable, comfortable-to-use, speed key were the design goals of the Universal.

The Deluxe Universal Rotary Key shown is from the very early fifties. It has a tag indicating that it was built in Winnipeg, Canada. The Deluxe Universal is a stunningly beautiful key with its transparent red plastic, transparent clear plastic and chrome features. Originally, the two flexible connecting wires had a green coating to contrast the red plastic. Unfortunately, the green coating wasn't very durable and most of it has "fallen off" leaving the just white cloth insulation. The precise machining of the various pieces results in a very smooth rotation when adjusting the sending angle. The Dow-Key Deluxe Universal has a very wide range of speed and, since it can be set up to any angle of operation, it's the ultimate in sending comfort. I've tried different angles and Paul Dow was actually "on to something." For me, a slight angle CCW does feel nice. You do have to readjust the contacts slightly if the angle change is dramatic but it's not necessary for small changes. I've noticed that sometimes one will see a standard bug that has a slight "twist" in the front part of the lever (like the Buzza 100 example I have.) I guess that was one way to get a comfortable feel.


Electrical Specialty Mfg.

 "Cedar Rapids Bug"

Electrical Specialty Manufacturing started making bugs in 1936. The company was located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa which has resulted in their key being given the nickname "Cedar Rapids Bug." Electrical Specialty's methods of manufacture and their parts didn't change a lot over the years. Minor changes the damper design and in the cast base having four feet on early versions and five feet on later versions are the most often cited.  The rubber bumper on the damper is another unusual feature. The company name is cast into the bottom of the base. The Cedar Rapids Bug was perhaps the only semi-automatic key that was offered either in assembled form or as a kit, (the price difference was minimal.) Since many were assembled from kits, builders sometimes took liberties with custom paint jobs and special hardware. The example shown in the photo is the "standard" Cedar Rapids Bug (ca. 1947.) Electrical Specialty is still in business but they quit making bugs in 1957. 

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 or added other "custom" features to the bug.  


- used but still in good shape. Note that blade type screws are used in the assembly of this key.

Hi-Mound Electro Company, Ltd. - Dentsu-Seiki

a.k.a. Skillman, Calrad TK-12, Monarch KY-102 and many other names

"High Mound" was an English translation of this Japanese company's founder's name, Mr. Takatsuka, who had been building keys as early as 1938. He founded his first company, Takatsuka Musen Denki, sometime after WWII. "Hi-Mound" became the trade name for the keys he produced. By the 1960s, Takasuka's company became part of Dentsu-Seiki and Hi-Mound Electro Company was a division of that company. Bugs had been built by Takasuka fairly early but the so-called "Coffin Style" bug was certainly his best-known and most popular model. This type of bug was sold under many different names by several different dealers including many of the catalog dealers, like Lafayette or Allied. Other trade names like Monarch, Skillman and Calrad were used by the various dealers. Since all of these bugs are more-or-less identical, it's thought that Hi-Mound probably supplied all of the versions but with specific names for specific catalog dealers. For example, the Calrad version was identified as "T.K.12" on the packaging. Monarch's key was identified as "KY-102." Hi-Mound was the BK-100 (photo right.) The BK-100 does have a rubber "suction cup" (full size) base pad that adheres to table surfaces quite well. Skillman was one of the few versions with a name on the plastic cover (the only one I've seen.) Most versions will not have any name on the cover or anywhere on the key. These bugs do seem to function quite well although the adjustments are a little hard to get at. Also, many of the plastic covers were fragile and most, if even present, will be found in poor condition with scratches, cracks or broken pieces.

Hi-Mound is still in business and selling several different types of hand keys.

Hi-Mound Electro Co., Ltd. - BK-100
- practically NOS/NIB, showing how the transparent plastic cover looked when the key was new. This BK-100 was still in its original box when found. Note that philips head screws are used for assembly of this key.


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.

Learning to receive International Morse was certainly the most difficult part of the task. But, learning to send Morse and to be able to "handle a key" was also very important. It required tools like the following equipment.


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. Unlike the buzzer practice sets, the Code Oscillators sounded more like a true CW signal (well, it depended on the oscillator) and probably made the transition to an actual "on the air" copy easier.

These Code Oscillators could also 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. Today, temporary license permits are issued upon successful completion of the exam, the new licensee will show up on the FCC website in a few days and the "hard copy" license can be printed from the FCC website.

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.


Signal Electric Manufacturing Company

Radio Telegraph
Practice Set (KOB)

With the evolution of wireless and its use of International Morse requiring the reproducer to work with tones indicating "dots and dashes" rather than "clicks and spaces" required for American Morse, some of the later KOB (Key On Board) units were also built with an electrically operated buzzer rather than the sounder. The buzzer allowed producing the "dots and dashes" of International Morse. Granted, they sounded a little "rough" but then so did the spark transmitters of early wireless days. The buzzer type KOBs were traditionally used for learning or practicing the code although it was possible to interconnect two or more sets for local wire communications. However, most were interconnected and used in "radio schools" and military radio schools for classroom International Morse send-receive education. KOB-type buzzer practice code sets were popular from the WWI era up to the 1950s. Later types sometimes are plastic and sometimes are toys rather than actual learning tools as the R-68 shown was. The metal tag between the key and buzzer shows International Morse Code. The R-68 shown is probably from the WWII-era.  


The Instructograph Company, Chicago, Illinois

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.

Instructographs and the FCC at San Francisco - 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. Typically unfriendly, the SF-FCC engineers communicated to ham-test, license upgrade-applicants with terse verbal commands along with various facial expressions that were supposed to highlight the dubious likelihood of any applicants passing the CW test. If you did pass the SF-FCC CW test, you could copy CW in the worst environments.

In contrast, in the late-eighties I took (and passed) the 20 wpm code test for Extra Class. The CW test 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. "Do you need a pencil? Is the volume okay? Would you like a cup of coffee?," were some of the questions designed to reduce "test nervousness." Quite a difference from the brusque manner of the FCC engineers. At that time, the VE-CW test included submitting my "hard copy" along with a ten question, "fill-in-the-blank" written test. 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.


photo left: 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.


Why Knowing International Morse and Following the CW QSO Format is Important for DX CW 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 maybe your WX and, then briefly, you might send 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.




1. "The Vibroplex Co.,Inc." by William R. Holly K1BH - 1990 -  Detailed history of Horace Martin, James E. Albright and the Vibroplex Company. Photo of Horace Martin from this book.

2. "Vibroplex Collector's Guide" - Tom French -  Detailed info on the various models


1. Vibroplex Serial Numbers - WW7P (John Elwood) Serial Number Log is at  the serial number log is a PDF. The Vibroplex Collector Net is maintained by Randy Cole KN6W and contains more information on Vibroplex than just serial number dating. Identification, details on tags, history and more. Click on "DATE" for WW7P Serial Number Log.

2. Telegraph-Office - Landline and Radio Keys plus more - - K5RW Neal McEwen's extensive website devoted to telegraphic codes and instruments. Great reference source.

3. W1TP Telegraph Keys -  -  W1TP, Ted Perera's vast website has all types of keys and gear with lots of photos. Includes keys from other collections. Great reference source.

4. Speed-X - Most of the information on Speed-X came from K5RW, W1TP and especially from N7CFO (Lynn Burlingame) and WW7P (John Elwood.) The N7CFO and WW7P information was consolidated into an article that appeared in the British magazine "Morsum Magnificat - The Morse Magazine" in February 1996. The photo of Les Logan is from that article. It's available online at:

5. T. R. McElroy - World's Champion Telegrapher -  has the best information on Ted McElroy. Wikipedia also has some interesting info. Photo of Ted McElroy from a Candler Ad that happened to be in the 1947 ARRL Handbook but Candler used this same photo in his ads for many years.

6. Dow-Key - Paul Dow history and information from the N7CFO website.     

7. British and European Keys plus many others -    Mark Brundrit M6BRN has an extensive telegraph key website with lots of different types of keys from many different countries. Excellent photography. Great reference source.

Telegraph Key Parts 

1. I've purchased quite a few parts from "azroadrunners" on eBay. This is a good source of both vintage and reproduction parts. I've purchased paddles and they are good quality reproductions. I've also purchased many good quality vintage parts from "azroadrunners."

2. Many new replacement parts for various models of Vibroplex bugs are available from the company. Go to: and click on "Repair and Parts."

3. It's hard to keep up with just who is providing "repro" bug parts these days. Best advice is to check eBay often for either original parts offered or quality repro parts. The latest repro bug knob and paddles are being reproduced using a 3-D printer and properly colored plastic.


Thanks to all of those hams and key collectors that have contributed information and details on all types of telegraph equipment over the years, either in-person or "on the air."


Henry Rogers, Western Historic Radio Museum, Radio Boulevard 2013 - 2019,   added "References" Jun 2017, Re-organized into 2 parts Feb 2019, Speed-X info enlarged Jul 2019,

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