The Telegraph Office

Are You Being a Good Caretaker of Your Keys?

by Neal McEwen, K5RW

Copyright © 1999, Neal McEwen

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As collectors, we are caretakers of the items in our collection. Too often we focus on taking care of the hardware. We should also give due diligence to taking care of what we can't see or touch,... the history and circumstances surrounding the key. Equally as important as the keys are the stories they could tell if they could talk. Unfortunately, they can't talk, so we as collectors have to talk for them. We preserve and restore old keys, but a lot of us are neglecting the preservation of the stories that go with the keys. The next generation of collectors will inherit the stories only if we preserve them.

Before putting a key on display, document it. A lot of the keys we get as collectors come from someone we know or briefly met. When the cash leaves your hand and a key enters your hand, the seller says, "this key belonged to my great uncle who was a telegraph for the XYZ railroad." At this moment, pause and ask questions. "What years did he work for XYZ?" "Did he work for any other RRs or telegraph companies? What cities did he work in?" Write down the answers. This type of information promotes the key to a real treasure rather than just another commodity key. If the owner was a radio operator, find out what type of transmitter it was used with. If he was Navy or Merchant Marine, find out what ships he served on.

A friend of mine has a very ordinary Vibroplex Blue Racer. Most of us would ho-hum gloss over it. This one however was used in Korea to broadcast the news of the Panmumjon peace talks to units in the field. Now that's what I call a real treasure!

Often, the seller of a key knows the history of the key, but forgets to tell you or thinks you might not really care. Ask! Get the details. Ask for a letter of authentication. It doesn't not have to be anything complicated. A simple statement or a few sentences will suffice. A letter helps both of you recall details that might be lost in a casual Conversation. Ten years from now, you will have the letter; you may not be able to recall a ten year old conversation.

If the story with the key is identified with a popular event, such as a battle or catastrophe or if the key was used at a historical site, such as an early wireless station or cable station, ask that the letter be notarized. This adds value to the key and gives credence to the story. Likewise document keys used by famous telegrapher or wireless operators.

There are thousands and thousands of Bunnell Triumph keys. If you have two in your collection, which would be your favorite. Which one are you most likely to show a visitor. The one you know nothing about or the one that was used in the depot of your home town? When I have a duplicate, I keep the key with the story, even though it might not be as nice condition wise.

Even though you have written down the history, you have to link it to the key. If you get hit by a truck, the story and the key are separated. The key is now mute; it has no one to speak for it. Put a string tag on the key! On this tag summarize what you know about the history of this key. The name and callsign of former owners are most important.! Use two tags if you have to. If it is a less well known key, add the maker and date of manufacturer also. String tags are available at office supply stores.

Besides preserving the stories for posterity, documented keys add a lot of interest to your collection. Visitors like to hear stories concerning keys. One interesting story begets another. Tell a few and you are likely to get one in return.

I know a collector who has a bug used by legendary silent key Don Wallace W6AM. I wonder if he has documented this and connected the story to the key? Let's all try to be good caretakers!

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Neal McEwen,