ad: dxeng

Straight keys for sale

Discussion in 'General Technical Questions and Answers' started by W5WPL, May 7, 2009.

Thread Status:
Not open for further replies.
ad: L-HROutlet
ad: l-assoc
ad: l-innov
ad: l-gcopper
ad: Subscribe
ad: l-Waters
ad: L-rfparts
ad: l-rl
  1. W5WPL

    W5WPL Ham Member QRZ Page

    Just wondering why so many older straight keys that are selling on Ebay don't have the shorting bars on them anymore.
  2. KL7AJ

    KL7AJ Ham Member QRZ Page

    Many of the older keys were sold without the shorting bars even way back when. I have an ancient Skillman Deluxe that I got new without the shorting bar, but it still has the negative side wiper contact for same. Of course, most of the early Skillmans did have the shorting bar.

    I think as more of the keys were sold for radio rather than landlines, the shorting bar was viewed as unnecessary. However, as a novice, I always used the shorting bar on my Speed-X for tuning up! It was a great convenience.

  3. KA9VQF

    KA9VQF Ham Member QRZ Page

    Yep, the simple answer is they are no longer needed, kinda like the crank on the front of cars. Obsolete.
  4. K9STH

    K9STH Ham Member QRZ Page

    "Radio" keys, i.e. the military J-37, did not have a shorting bar. On the other hand, a true landline telegraph key, i.e. the military J-38, did have the shorting bar. In landline telegraphy the "normal" condition is with the key shorted. This is because all of the "stations" on the circuit were in series and the "normal" position of the sounder was in the "activated" position (that is the sounder was in the down position). When someone wanted to send a message the circuit was broken and the sounder returned to the unactivated ("up") position and everyone on the circuit was alerted that a message was coming.

    There were so many J-38 keys made during World War II that they were as cheap as $1 each, brand new, still in the box, well into the 1950s that for many amateur radio operators the J-38 was their very first key as a Novice Class operator.

    The attached photos show a J-37 (without shorting bar) and J-38 (with shorting bar).

    Glen, K9STH

    Attached Files:

    • J-37.JPG
      File size:
      106.5 KB
  5. K3WRV

    K3WRV Guest


    While I can no longer prove it, I think you were wrong about the price of J-38's. I distinctly remember paying 50 cents for mine, from Walter Ashe, although there may have been a coupon involved. That would have been in 1961.

    As far as the shorting bars go, I think many hams probably took them off - they had a way of closing themselves when you weren't looking. Both my J-38 and Vibroplex still have theirs, but the one on the J-38 is locked out.
  6. KL7AJ

    KL7AJ Ham Member QRZ Page

    Another interesting note. The "cheater plug" which was standard item on Vibroplex and other automatic keys of the landline era...existed because such keys were considered CONTRABAND! Operators were paid by the word, and strongly unionized. The bug was considered unfair advantage, and was never sanctioned by the railroad companies. So most bug-artists had to sneak their evil machines in!

  7. K3WRV

    K3WRV Guest

    Eric- Interesting story. As In remember (1961) when I bought my bug from a telegrapher at the local RY station, it came in a nice smallish box that looked like a lunch box. I'm sure it's around someplace, and probably worth more than the key! But I don't think it was for sneaking it in back then - both telegraphers then used bugs, and it was a very small town!

    The story about the key: I'd decided to go portable to my grandmother's hosue and packed up everything BUT the key. Being resourceful, I asked the local telegraph op where I might find a spare key, and he said his backup might have one (he'd just upgraded to a Speedex). In that office, each op had his own key and operating position.

    But they couldn't copy my code, and I couldn't copy theirs. They sent American, and I sent international. A few years later they converted to teletype. But I suspect there were several expensive bugs in the Ry Ststion when they buldozed it. Mine came with the wedge, and I changed it over to a phone plug.
  8. K9STH

    K9STH Ham Member QRZ Page


    Maybe your J-38 didn't have a box! :rolleyes:

    Seriously, I have "heard" of J-38 keys for as little as 50 cents but never saw one for less than $1.

    I paid $1 for my first J-38 in 1957 (when I was 13). My sister (7 years younger than me) was a competition baton twerller and there was a competition in Holland, Michigan. My parents usually left me at home but took me along that time. There was a surplus store in downtown and I saw the J-38 on sale for $1. So, I bought it.

    Glen, K9STH
  9. AL7N

    AL7N Ham Member QRZ Page

    Use of Bugs in Telegraph offices

    All civilian landline telegraph offices, both Railroad and Western Union, where Morse was used had "straight" Morse keys installed as part of the permanent installation.
    These and the other office instruments and switchboards were owned by the telegraph company or the railroad company.

    The notion that the operator's personally owned Vibroplex (or other make) "bug" was considered "cheating" or was illegal to use is totally false.

    Any Morse operator who was any good learned how to use a Bug early on, and used his own wherever he was stationed to work.

    It was universally done and practically expected of them.

    The Westen Union DID insist on having cords and wedges in good repair
    for obvious circuit performance reasons, but did not prohibit or otherwise
    limit the use of semi-automatic keys.

    Bugs made for more rapid sending, and virtually eliminated the old "glass arm" (Carpal Tunnel Syndrome)
    problems that many older operators developed through extended use of the straight keys.

    There were a few operators engaged in commercial or railroad work that never used a bug on the job, but they were in a small minority. They were also very good with a straight key. I personally knew a lady operator on the D&RGW railroad in Colorado who only used a bug when there was a LOT of sending work to be done...the rest of the time she used the straight key, and her sending was about as perfect as I ever heard...absoutely beautiful.
    Her kind will not be seen again.
  10. W8ZNX

    W8ZNX Subscriber QRZ Page

    no not at all

    read Vibroplex history
    Vibroplex bugs were never contraband

    after the Vibroplex patent fight

    non standard non Vibroplex bugs were then contraband
    unless you bought the patent license tag

    the plug was to make it easier
    to hook your bug to the circuit
    the straight key was hard wired
    the plug was the only way to hook to the circuit

  11. K3WRV

    K3WRV Guest

    Glen- I KNOW the key came in a box (there were no blister paks or padded envelopes or UPS in those days) But don't know if it was the original box - I was too excited about opening it to pay attention to detail! Walter Ashe was an interesting place - they were also home to those ubiquitous orange and blue QSL's that novices used - the ones that were really cool when you got the first one and quickly became kind of boring.

    Generally, a Walter Ashe catalog was one of the first pieces of mail you got as a new ham, and they always sent you a little call sign sign - white ivory plastic about an inch high and inches long. And they sent you a catalog with two coupons for new novices - one for QSL cards and the other for a J-38. Back then, you knew after the exam if you had passed, but I think some hams found out their calls from Ashe before the FCC envelope arrived! I was in Iowa at the time.

    I never dealt with them again, but still feel a warm spot in my heart for them. They were in St. Louis or environs.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 8, 2009
  12. K9STH

    K9STH Ham Member QRZ Page

    I never got a call letter stand from Walter Ashe. However, I got 2 of them from Mosley: 1 when I got my Novice Class and a 2nd one 5 months later when I upgraded to General Class. I don't know what happened to them over the years. But, it would be "kinda nice" to get another one.

    For making your own modern reproductions of the Walter Ashe QSL card go to

    Then scroll down to the heading "Olde Tyme QSL Artwork". The first 3 links have to do with the Walter Ashe cards.

    Glen, K9STH
  13. WA9CWX

    WA9CWX Ham Member QRZ Page

    I am one of those keeping the economy going in relation to J37's and J38's
    I don't know when I got my first, likely in the mid 60's but I am sure it was for a lot more than a buck !

    I have cleaned, and sold several on ebay, one went for about $70.00 a few years ago.... I did a nice job on that one, and it was on a very nice base...:D I still have some new or nearly so J38's and a J37, and a speedex bug and straight key, one can't have too many keys these days....:eek:
  14. K8JD

    K8JD Ham Member QRZ Page

    Shorting bar...

    I paid 50 cents for my J 38 in 1960 at a surplus junk store in Detroit. There was a whole bushel basket full of them.:rolleyes:
    The first thing I did to mine was remove that darn shorting bar, it would slip and stick my transmitter on the air at the most inconvienient moments !:eek:
  15. W6ANF

    W6ANF Ham Member QRZ Page

    Made my first CW contact on a J-37. Sure, my radio will run paddles and I have a set that works much nicer (and faster) than a straight key, but I wanted to have that straight key to mount somewhere as a momento of my first CW QSO.

    Rick W6ANF
  16. W5WPL

    W5WPL Ham Member QRZ Page

    I've had my J-38 since 1973. I'd like to have the shorting bar for it. It's like having an Drake TR-3 with the cover gone.
  17. KA4DPO

    KA4DPO Premium Subscriber QRZ Page

    In 1965 I got a brand new J-38 in the original Army Signal Corps box at a surplus store for less than four dollars. They also had brand new command sets for twelve to fifteen dollars and even had dynamotors, racks, control sets, and modulators for them. There was still tons of WWII and Korean war surplus to be had in the 60's at fairly low cost.
  18. VE6RA

    VE6RA Ham Member QRZ Page


    A Key Expert -(every make & kind) is John WW7P -Glendale Ariz -- a room filled to the brim -his knowledge is unsurpassed it is sight to behold.
  19. W4HAY

    W4HAY Ham Member QRZ Page

    I bought my J-38 in 1953 for fifty cents. FWIW, my 1959 WRL catalog lists them for $1.69. Mine still has the shorting bar and the bakelite base, and gets used frequently, along with a J-37, a Western Union "Legless" and a Junker.

    A Vibroplex "Original" was listed for $19.95. Mine came from the Seaboard Coastline RR (Uncle worked there) and was given to my Dad in bad shape. He sent it back and had it rebuilt, then gave it to me for Christmas. It gets used occasionally, but I have to "re-hone" my skill with paddles afterwards.
  20. N4CD

    N4CD Ham Member QRZ Page

    cheater plugs on bugs

    Quite the contrary. The telegraph companies welcomed the use of the 'bugs' as it reduced strain, and allowed operators to go faster. Faster meant more revenue traffic, and longer life for operators.

    The main reason for the cheater plugs was that individual operators would own their own bugs. The company did not provide them, as they would 'walk' away. Just look at the first keys. They had long bolts and were screwed down to the operating bench. For spark keys, the same thing - the bolts were gigantic, and that was to discourage or eliminate theft.

    bugs cost more than a weeks pay..maybe a few months no operator was going to leave his prize bug at the work location. In addition, everyone adjusted them to their own preference, and didn't want anyone else to mess with the settings after they got them adjusted to their own desire.

    Operators would bring their bugs, plug them in, operate and then take the bugs home. The cases you see for Vibroplex bugs and similar were used daily to carry the bugs to and from work!

    Many hams also used that, so they could have a straight key, as well as the bug, on their operating position. That allowed them to work SLOW operators as well as speedier ones.
Thread Status:
Not open for further replies.

Share This Page

ad: dxeng