ZL1NZ Telegraph Keys

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

Chinese military telegraph key

Chinese military telegraph key label

This lovely key was a gift from Kahn 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

Speed-X telegraph key

Speed-X telegraph key

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

Speed-X telegraph 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.

WT 8 Amp No. 2 Mk II military key

WT 8 amp No.2 Mk II telegraph key

A double contact key which can be wired from the left or right.

J-38 World War 2 Signal Corps training key (USA)

J-38 telegraph key

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.

Post Office or “GPO” key

Post Office key

This is an old double-contact key for landline telegraphy.

Ball-bearing key

brass-plated ball-bearing key

This is a brass-plated key with four ball bearings on each trunnion.

US Navy Flameproof key

Photo and details coming soon

Wigram key (awaiting restoration)

Unknown telegraph key at ZL1NZ

This key was in a box of “junk” I was given. As you can see by the rust, the base and lever are steel. 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.

Wilcox key (Fred Wilcox, Toronto, Canada, 1920s or 1930s)

Wilcox semi-automatic key

I’d love to get more information about this key. If you can help, please contact me.

Mac Key (TR McElroy, USA, 1936)

Mac Key semi-automatic key

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.

1960 Vibroplex Original Presentation

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)

Supreme telegraph key at ZL1NZ

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)

Bencher paddles

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)

Galbraith iambic paddle

A very tidy little paddle that fits into a pocket.