For some of us, telegraph keys are objects of beauty. Indeed, some of the rarer models are quite valuable.
I have just a few keys (or, as I like to call them, “digital communication devices”) most of which I have actually used over the years in amateur radio.
A: Straight keys
These are the simplest means of sending Morse code. They are really just finely balanced switches to turn the radio transmitter on and off. But it’s impossible to send much faster than about 15 words a minute on a straight key without a lot of wrist strain. Yes, Repetitive Strain Injury or Occupational Overuse Syndrome existed long before the keyboard and mouse; the old telegraphers referrred to it as “glass arm”.
Chinese Peoples Liberation Army K-4 (D-117) key
This lovely key was a gift from Sichao BG5HSC who brought it from China for me in August 2016. It is quite heavy and has a very smooth action. I have it set up with extremely close spacing and it is a pleasure to use.
At right is the document that came with the key, showing it was made in 1973.
Early Speed-X key with removable cover
This was my first key, given to me by a veteran ham who worked with my father. I used it to learn the code for my licence exam, and then used it on the air until I moved up to a semi-automatic key.
Later Speed-X key
Although it has a much thinner and lighter base, it works just as well as the earlier version. It has the “Navy-style” double-decker knob which I prefer.
Post Office or “GPO” key
This is an old double-contact key for landline telegraphy.
Radio Shack ball-bearing key
This is a brass-plated key with four ball bearings on each trunnion.
It sold for US$3.99 in the 1977 Radio Shack catalogue.
World War 2 straight keys
WT 8 Amp No. 2 key with leg mount
(Key & Plug Assembly No. 9)
This double-contact key which can be wired from the left or right. This is an “upside-down key” in that the contacts are on the top of the lever.
WT 8 Amp No. 2 Mk II key
This double-contact key which can be wired from the left or right.
J-38 Signal Corps training key (USA)
This key was owned by my friend’s father, Sam, VE7JU. It was produced in huge numbers to train radio operators during WW2 and became a favourite of radio hams who bought them as war surplus. After more than 40 years of disuse it was cleaned, polished and returned to the airwaves for Straight Key Night, 1 Jan 2011.
US Navy Flameproof key CTE-26003A
During World War 2, the US Navy copied the design of a German Luftwaffe key, and had it produced by various contractors. Many, such as this one, were made by Telephonics (hence “TE” in the part number).
The key’s contacts are fully enclosed to reduce the risk of an explosion when used near dangerous gases.
Some say that the key was intended for use with signalling lamps, although it was known to be a favourite of wireless operators.
This key was in a box of “junk” I was given. As you can see, the base, lever and some other parts are steel (and they were very rusty) while the trunnion assembly is brass. Such keys were made by trainees in the E&W School at Wigram Air Base in Christchurch during World War 2.
B: Semi-automatic keys (“bugs”)
When the lever is pushed to the right, these keys make dots continuously using a horizontal pendulum (the speed is adjusted by moving the weight(s) along the pendulum). This means faster sending and less wrist motion than with a straight key. Dashes are still made one-by-one, however, by pushing the lever to the left. They have lots of adjustments and need to be precisely set up to suit the individual operator and the desired speed.
Fred Wilcox key (Toronto, Canada, 1920s or 1930s)
Learn more about Wilcox keys, which were made in my hometown, Toronto.
Mac Key (TR McElroy, USA, 1936)
A very heavy key, it can be turned on its side to use as a straight key too. Its designer, Ted McElroy, was a world champion telegrapher, who received a phenomenal 75.2 words per minute in 1939, which he transcribed on a typewriter. This key looks clunky but is actually very smooth and easy to use.
1960 Vibroplex Original Presentation
This top-of-the-line Vibroplex has a 24k brushed gold-plated brass plate on a polished chrome base with bright chrome top parts. Like the Vibroplex Deluxe keys, it has jeweled movements. In addition to the two adjustable weights, this Presentation has an adjustable mainspring, something that was discontinued in later production.
Supreme key (awaiting restoration)
Here’s another key that was in a box of “junk” I was given, and it looks like it has spent a lot of time in someone’s shed! Supreme keys were made in the 1970s and 1980s by Eric Sorensen and sold by TriCity House in Christchurch, New Zealand.
C: Keyer paddles
These “keys” are really just very sensitive switches which connect to an electronic “keyer”. Pushing the lever to the right causes the keyer to generate an infinite string of dots, and pushing the lever to the left similarly generates dashes. The keyer uses electronic logic to ensure that the dots and dashes are perfectly timed and spaced, enabling high speed sending with very little hand motion.
Bencher BY-1 iambic paddle and ST-1 single lever paddle (USA)
If you look closely, you’ll spot the differences between these similar paddles. The one on the right is a single-lever paddle, in which the dot and dash paddles move together – to the left (dashes), centre (off) or right (dots). On the left is an iambic (or “squeeze”) keyer in which the paddles move independently. If both paddles are pressed (“squeezed”) at the same time, the electronic keyer makes alternating dots and dashes, starting with whichever paddle makes contact first. This is perfect for letters such as “c” ( _ . _ . ).
Galbraith iambic paddle (New Zealand)
A very tidy little paddle that fits into a pocket.