The K5RW Wire and Wireless Telegraph Key Collection and Historical Library

by, Neal McEwen, K5RW

Copyright © 1983, 1996, Neal McEwen

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The K5RW Collection is a private museum of wire and wire-less telegraph instruments.  The collection consists of approximately 400 pieces. Most are semi-automatic keys or `bugs' as they are more commonly called.  There are 110 different bugs in the museum, making it one of the largest collections of bugs.  There is also an assortment of Spark, radiotelegraph, landline Morse and submarine cable instruments.  Photos of some of the individual keys are viewable by clicking on the highlighted text to see the photo.
Non Vibroplex bugs

Each key is displayed with an ID card that shows the date that the key was made, the manufacturer and model number, the original owner and any interesting historical information.  Some of the more interesting keys in the museum are a 1904 Vibroplex (first model), a 50 amp Navy spark key , a Creed tape reader from a trans-Atlantic cable station, a working miniature key and sounder that fits in the palm of your hand, and an unusual key made by Western Elec. in 1876.  Other interesting pieces in the museum are a miniature key used in a W.W.II British Secret Service suitcase radio, a bug that makes automatic dashes as well as dots, a spark key sold by Sears and Roebuck in 1919, a bug small enough to fit into your pocket (`73 Ultimate' ) and the legendary Bunnell sideswipers (both wire and wireless models).

One of the latest additions to the museum is the prototype Hunter Apex bug complete with the original engineering drawings, donated by Dwight Hunter.  Also recent are two keys significant in the evolution of amateur wireless, a Clapp-Eastham 'Boston Key' and a Tri-City Radio Labs 'Cootie' .  The museum contains a large collection of resource material pertaining to keys, the manufacturers and the people that used them.  Included in the library are books on telegraphy dating back to 1853 and wireless telegraph books dating from 1904. Many personal accounts are recorded by letter.

The largest assembly of research material and memorabilia concerns T.R. McElroy, the worlds champion telegrapher and radio-telegrapher.  McElroy's record set in 1939 remains unbeaten to this day.  The McElroy keys were among the finest made, and many, even after 60 years, are still in service.  Resource material has been put together on Martin, Vibroplex and United Electric (the Vibroplex operation in Georgia before 1910) keys.  A list of domestic makers of bugs is continually being updated.
Display of Keys

Finding a new tidbit of information about old keys is as much fun as finding an old key.  So research is an on going activity. Surprisingly, 'new' names and models keep appearing and are added to the lists.  The people at the Dallas Public Library have been very helpful.  A trip to the Smithsonian research 'attic' proved worthwhile in identifying bug makers.  Needless to say, the search for new keys and related instruments continues.  Priority is given to pre-1900 landline keys, spark keys, missing Vibroplex/Martin models, off-brand bugs, submarine cable instruments, related books, catalogues and photos.  Priority is also given to wireless components (tuners, detectors, spark gaps, etc.) and pre-1920 tubes.

Curator of the museum is Neal McEwen, amateur radio operator K5RW (formerly K5ZJP, 1960 to 1977).  He is 59 years old and has been a ham for 45 years.  He is married, father of two adult children and is employed as an systems analyst  for a telecommunications company.  Neal saw his first bug at age fourteen and that's when his fascination for keys began.  Some years ago he decided to start a small collection of bugs.  The deeper he got into it the more interesting it became. (Did you know that there were more than sixty different firms that made bugs?  Did you know that there were twelve models of Vibroplex and almost 100 variations?)   The small collection soon became a large collection and Neal's interests expanded to other telegraph instruments as well.

It's too bad the keys in the museum can't talk; what stories they could tell.  How many sent messages that saved lives or announced the birth of a child?  One key could probably tell us about trans-oceanic DX with a TPTG rig it keyed.  Another might tell us about train wrecks or sinking ships, or a message sent to a secret invasion force.  Still another might tell us about the craftsman that put it together or interesting stories about its owner.

Some of the more unusual keys in the collection are a Lytle Triplex, c. 1920 -- a bug that could be used right handed, left handed or as a straight key, the only known R.L. Boulter bug c. 1912 -- predecessor of the Vibroplex "Lightning Bug", a Dunnduplex c. 1909 -- a bug that could be keyed with the lever or with buttons on top of the key.  A Mecograph c. 1907 -- a bug designed to work around the Martin Vibroplex patents and the Codetrol c. 1950 -- a beautifully made right angle bug made by Breedlove of Georgia.

At present the curator's interests address most areas of telegraph and radiotelegraph instruments and history.  There is so much to be learned, so much interesting history and so many instruments and books to be rescued from oblivion, that Neal hopes to continue collecting as a lifetime avocation.  If you have a question about the museum or keys in general, don't hesitate to Email. Neal will do what he can to help you.

If you know of any keys for sale or trade, or any old books or catalogs on telegraphy or wireless, please Email or call me at 972-234-1653.

For more information, visit the Telegraph Office home page

Neal McEwen,