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My Old Vibroplex "Bug" Telegraph Key

Telegraph history

First, a bit of history.  Telegraphy was a vital communications method for many years around the world.  Telegraphy . . . the sending and receiving of messages using a telegraph code . . . is a simple and reliable means of communication, requiring simple equipment.  I won't go into the history of telegraphy as there are several websites that do an excellent job of that.  Here are a few links:

The Telegraph Office:  A Tribute to Morse Telegraphy

Telegraph History

The Maritime Radio Historical Society

History of the Telegraph -- Communications at its Best!!

Sending Morse code requires a device of some kind to make and break an electrical circuit so the operator can send the "dots" and "dashes" that comprise the code.  For the longest time, telegraphers used simple telegraph keys that required the operator to mash down the handle of the key,  a short press for a "dot," a long press for a "dash."  Most folks are familiar with the old "pump-handle" key from the movies or old Westerns or war movies.  Here is a photo of a J-38 telegraph key, an common old key still in use today.

Vibroplex history

While this style key was reliable and simple, it had a problem:  It caused operators to develop "glass arm" from hours and hours of tapping on the key.  Today, we know this condition as "carpal tunnel syndrome," or bursitis or tendonitis.  Telegraphers just called it "glass arm."

In the search for a better, more user-friendly telegraph key, one key emerged as the winner.  It was a semi-automatic key -- "semi-automatic" because a spring mechanism automatically generated the "dots" while the operator formed the "dashes" manually.  This new style key did not require an up-and-down motion with the hand.  Instead, it used a side-to-side movement, which allowed the operator to rest his/her arm on the desk and simply roll his wrist from side to side, thereby avoiding glass arm.

Here's a website with the history of this semi-automatic key.

Radio Telegraphy: From straight keys to bugs

I won't go into the details of the development of the semi-automatic key . . . the "bug" . . . as that story can be found elsewhere.  Suffice it to say that by the late 1920's, the name VIBROPLEX had become synonymous with the semi-automatic telegraph key and still is today.  Vibroplex keys were manufactured variously in New York, Maine, Atlanta, and Norcross (GA) by the Vibroplex company in its various forms.  During WW II, thousands of "bugs" were manufactured by other companies under license from Vibroplex.

This introductory paragraph from "The Vibroplex Collection" is a good brief description.

Since Horace G. Martin made the first Vibroplex in 1904 or 1905, about 300,000 Vibroplexes have been made, and the Original model Vibroplex is still being made after more than 90 years. Vibroplexes were by far the most predominant bug on land line telegraph systems like Western Union, Postal Telegraph, the railroads, and hundreds of others. Beginning in the Twenties, commercial, military and amateur wireless operators began using Vibroplexes. Production peaked in the Fourties and Fifties along with the popularity of ham radio, but the Vibroplex Company is still making them — be sure to visit the Vibroplex Co. This Web page is intended to help owners identify their Vibroplexes, determine when they were built, and learn about the interesting company and people that made them.

Vibroplex bugs are still being manufactured today; their headquarters now are in Knoxville, TN.

My Old Vibroplex Bug

Thousands of Vibroplex bugs were manufactured.  For decades, US railroads used telegraphic communications with at least one telegraph operator at each railroad station.  During WW II, MOrse code telegrpahy was a vital method of military communications.  Morse operators preferred the "bug" to the old "pump-handle key" -- as a result thousands of bugs were produced, both by Vibroplex and other manufacturers.  As voice communications (and now computers) took over, the old semi-automatic keys were retired.  Go to eBay and search for "Vibroplex" -- you'll find man old Vibroplex bugs for sale by and to collectors.

I check out the bugs for sale on eBay from time to time.  In 2011, I found this one and purchased it.

Vibroplex Lightning Bug,  Serial number 169693,  purchased 2011 on eBay, with case.  Attached to the key was a Southern Pacific Railroad baggage tag on which was typed:




 The serial number indicates it was manufactured in 1950.  The eBay seller stated he bought the key in a lot of items from an estate sale, in Kansas as he recalled. 

When purchased, the bug was in its case with the wedge cord attached.  I replaced the wedge cord with a cord with -inch plug and retained the wedge cord with the key.  I use this key regularly in my Morse code operation.


 The bug with its baggage tag.                                                                                                        The bug with its case and tag, as I purchased it.

Assuming this bug did belong to W. E. Johnson, a Southern Pacific railroad telegrapher, I continue to try to locate information about him.

The railroad telegraphers had a strong union, The Order of Railroad Telegraphers.  If you go to eBay and search for "railroad telegrapher," you will find letters, documents, journals, and union membership cards for sale.  The magazine The Railroad Telegrapher was published for many years and appears to be the union journal.

Here are three pieces of information I have found that may pertain to W. E. Johnson, the owner of my old bug, or, possibly, to his father or grandfather, or, some combination of all three.

Item 1:  Sunset Magazine, Vol 6, #1, November 1900, lists the Southern Pacific railroad stations and station masters.  Corinne, Utah, station master is listed as W. E. Johnson.

Item 2:  An entry in The Railroad Telegrapher, Vol XXX, 1913, reads:  Bro W. E. Johnson bid in union agency, received on third there by Bro, H. S. Stephen.  I do not know what this entry means but I suspect it means, in 1913, a vacancy for a railroad telegrapher came open and Johnson bid to be considered for the job.

Item 3:  In The Railroad Telegrapher, Vol XXXI, No. 4, April 1914, I found this entry:  "The following births have been reported since the last issue of The Railroad Telegrapher . . . Bro & Mrs. W. E. Johnson of Benton Harbor, Mich., a girl."

Because these magazine articles are dated between 1900 and mid-1914,  the W. E. Johnson referred to in the articles:

  •  . . . may be the father of the W. E. Johnson who owned the key I purchased on eBay -- because -- the key dates to 1950 (as shown by the serial number) and  W. E.  Johnson referred to in the 1900, 1913 and 1914 articles may have been quite old in 1950 and likely retired, if he was still living. 

  • On the other hand, if the W. E. Johnson referred to in the articles were 20 years old in 1913, he would have been only 57 in 1950

My next project is to search federal census records from 1900 to 1940 for W. E. Johnson. (The 1940 census records are the most recent records to be released publicly.)

Finally -- here is a video of "DA", a well-known Morse operator --  transmitting the final message from the Point Reyes Morse station on the "night of nights" -- the night when the last message was sent from the last U.S. coastal Morse station.


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