New Zealand-made Morse Code keys: Bug keys

Listed below are Morse Code keys known to have been mass-produced in New Zealand for use in landline telegraphy, commercial radiotelegraphy, the military, or amateur radio.

This page features semi-automatic keys (often called “bugs”). Please see the links at the bottom of the page for other types of key made in New Zealand.

If you know of other keys, or have additional information of photographs to share, please contact the editor.

A&W McCarthy bug

A&W McCarthy semi-automatic Morse key
A&W McCarthy semi-automatic Morse key. Photo: ZL2RX

Roger Wincer ZL2RX has one of these bugs, which he purchased from McCarthy’s shop in Dunedin in 1968. They told him that it was made locally.

Roger comments that the key is quite light for a bug (only 777g) and seems to have an alloy base.

“I used it at sea for many years, which is why it got damaged. It did not work well in storm conditions and often ended up being chucked about by the motion of the ship. I have to hold it down whilst keying, or screw it down to the operating table.”

A&W McCarthy semi-automatic Morse keyRoger has done some rebuilding of his bug, particularly around the damper frame.

“What you see in the pictures is 90% original parts including screws, etc.”

The second key pictured (with the red base) is in the collection at the Com-Centre in Auckland.

The small object opposite the terminals is an extra weight for slowing the bug down. Roger’s key also has this additional weight.

Supreme bug

Supreme bug

Two Supreme bug Morse keysSupreme keys were made in the 1970s and 1980s by Eric Sorensen ZL3OQ and sold by Tricity House in Christchurch.

Construction is a thick steel base with brass fittings and all are chromium plated. The thumbpiece is 3mm clear acrylic (or similar material) and the finger piece appears to be brown phenolic.

The photo of two keys was taken at Com-Centre in Auckland during February 2000.

Dimensions (overall): 212mm long x 89mm wide x 98mm tall. Total weight: 2060g

Dimensions (base): 163mm x 89mm x 15mm

Standard adjustable weights: 2x 14g (these are quite light and it is common to see additional weights added)

Vibroplex and Supreme bugs
An interesting feature of the Supreme bug is the sleeve over the pivot pin (see photo above right). Integrated with this sleeve is a hex nut that threads onto the trunnion screw. After tightening the trunnion screw just enough to remove slop from the dot lever, one can screw down the sleeve/nut to press downward on the hinge of the dash lever, reducing any slop in that lever. Compare this with the Vibroplex arrangement shown at left, where there is no such sleeve. The dash hinge on the Vibroplex has plenty of clearance, resulting in a lot of unnecessary up/down movement.

Supreme bug pivotThe bottom of the sleeve, which pushes against the top of the dash hinge, is rounded, presumably to minimise friction when making dashes.

There is a similar arrangement for the lower end of the pivot, with a trunnion screw inserted from the bottom of the base, then passing upward through a short sleeve with rounded top shoulders on which the bottom of the dash hinge bears. Once assembled, all adjustments were likely done via the top trunnion screw and upper sleeve/nut.

Note also that in the photo of the two Supreme keys, one of them does not have the sleeve. Perhaps it was an early version.

Photos: ZL1NZ

Advertisement for Supreme bug in Break-In magazine, Oct 1987In the 1977 NZART Callbook Supreme bugs were advertised at $21.85. In 1986 they cost $72.50, and a year later they had gone up to $95.

Pictured: an advertisement in Break-In magazine, October 1987

1928 Copy of Vibroplex Original

1928 copy of a Vibroplex Original bug by Ron Venables
1928 copy of a Vibroplex Original bug by Ron Venables

The following story appeared in Gary Bold ZL1AN’s Morseman column in Break-In magazine of February 1989.

One weekend early in 1928, Ron Venables OZ3BZ* borrowed a Vibroplex semi-automatic key (a “bug”) from a US freighter berthed in the port of Lyttleton. He disassembled it, took measurements and made mouldings for all the parts. Then he reassembled it and returned it.

Within a few weeks he had manufactured and nickel-plated all the parts for six keys. He presented one to Dan Wilkinson ZL2AB, who mounted it on a three-ply base. Dan found that the adjustment was not difficult and he really appreciated the ease of operation compared to the old hand-key.

After 60 years use the contacts were worn but the key still performed as well as the best. This key is now in the collection at Kapiti Coast Museum, Waikanae, near Wellington and is sometimes used by the operators of the amateur radio station at the museum.

In Gary’s June 1989 column, it was reported that Wally ZL2GG, was offered one of the new clones for 25 shillings. By the time Wally had saved his five shillings-a-week pocket money, the keys had all been sold. Wally said that Ron was a craftsman and had an eye for mechanical finish and detail.

The fate of the other five keys is unknown. Have you seen one anywhere?

* In 1928 OZ3 was a NZ prefix. Ron later became ZL3AE.

More New Zealand keys

Straight keys