T.R.McElroyTheodore Roosevelt McElroy

World's Champion Radio Telegrapher

The Man, The Legend and The Keys

by Neal McEwen, K5RW


Copyright © 1997 Neal McEwen

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Theodore R. McElroy lives on, almost 40 years after his passing. His ability to copy code made him a legend in his own time and the keys he made serve as reminders of his accomplishments. The photo at the left was taken in a Life Magazine photo op in 1962 and shows McElroy with his American Morse practice sets. Notice the Prince Albert can in the resonator box!

Born in Boston in 1901, Ted went to work for Western Union as a messenger boy at age 14. The telegraph operators taught him American Morse and by age 15 he was working the wires. During W.W.I he was a civilian operator at Camp Devins.

Shortly after the war, McElroy went to work for WSO, one of RCA's transoceanic wireless stations. There he worked the Morse wires until he learned the International Morse code used in wireless work. Until 1920 he worked the wireless circuits to POZ in Nauen, Germany and LCM in Stavanger, Norway, keying the giant Alexanderson alternators on 20,000 Meters. Ted stated that the signals were so strong that it was almost liMcElroy Bugke working an "iron wire." Ted returned to Boston to work for Western Union once again.

In 1922 McElroy entered his first code copying contest and won hands down, winning at a speed of 56 words per minute (WPM).  From then on he was untouchable. He was beaten in 1934, but regained the championship in 1935. At his last official competition in 1939 in Ashville, North Carolina, he won with a speed of 77 WPM. This Continental code record was untouchable for almost 60 years and was only recently challenged. Ted also was the American Morse code champion and Japanese Kanji code champion.

Ted's phenomenal success at copying code was due in part to this ability to type. He could type 150 WPM as recorded by his seventh grade typing teacher! He remarked once that he could type three letters for every letter that his secretary typed. Needless to say, he also won typing contests.

In 1934, Ted started his own business manufacturing telegraph equipment. The first key to come out of the McElroy factory was called the MAC-KEY. The base, mainframe and posts were a one piece casting. This design helped to eliminate vibrations and the need for frequent adjustments. The "Tee-Bar" across the top of the frame served several purposes. First it was an integral part of the frameMcElroy Bug, Deluxe Model holding the trunion pin. Second, it provided a convenient means for the professional operator to carry his key to and from a shift. The fingers were merely curled under the bar and the key lifted. Third, though probably seldom used, it allowed the key to be turned on its side; once the pendulum was locked with the damper post clip, the MAC could be used as a hand key.

Many MAC-KEYs were made. The topmost image is the third variation introduced in 1936. They were heavy and rugged and once adjusted required little maintenance. Many MAC-KEYs are still in service today. One of McElroy's many refinements, was his "dot stabilizer." This was a small assembly fitted to the pendulum, which pre-loaded the dot spring. This slight amount of pre-loading gave smoother and better weighted dots, while eliminating contact bounce.

The MAC-KEY was the first of many models. In 1937, a modified design was introduced. Several of the new models were advertised in the December 1937 issue of QST. These keys were labeled with an inscription attesting to the skill of the  maker. See the image at the left. The top of the line model had a simulated marble finished base and chrome upper parts. This Deluxe model, shown above, sold for $9.50; wouldn't you like to find one today for that price! The Standard model had a black wrinkle finish and nickeled upper parts. It sold for $7.50. The Junior Model, very, very rare, had the same working parts as the Standard model, but was on a stamped steel base and sold for $4.95.
McElroy Bug Label
Even though other manufacturers were doing so, McElroy preferred not to make a chrome based model. "I know as an operator of about 25 years experience that it is very poor practice to have a chrome or nickel plated base on a key. Light reflection from such a base is a severe strain on an operator's eyes." This was so stated in a McElroy flyer dated 1938. Ted would later go against these very words. Read on! There were also four models of hand keys ranging in price from $1.20 to $2.25.

Just before W.W.II, the famous McElroy "teardrop" bug appeared. These keys are popular collectors items because of the unusual shape of the base. The "art deco" base resembles a flatiron or tear drop. Some operators called them "flatiron" bugs. The "teardrop" was available with platinum contacts for the very  competitive price of $11.85. The model with silver contacts was slightly less. Many CW men thought McElroy's sanity should be questioned because of the unconventional design. However, in spite of all the cat calls, this was one of the finest handling semi-automatics built. The "teardrop" bug shown in the in the image saw duty on a DC-3 flying Pan American routes. It isMcElroy teardrop Bug often forgotten that commercial aircraft has a Flight Radio Officer of FRO as they were called. Notice the suction cup feet on this bug that keep it on the FRO's table. The teardrop shaped hand keys also appeared at this time. Two models, one with a metal base and one with a plastic base are shown below. The key with the plastic base has raised letter with a testimonial similar to the inscription on the bug label shown above.

In the late 30s, McElroy traveled the country giving code copying demonstrations. He loved to put on a show and thrived on attention paid to him.. One of his favorite tricks was to stop in the middle of a high speed run, drink a glass of water, and resume copy without missing any text. Ted was in Dallas in 1939, putting on a demonstration of his remarkable abilities in front of the Dallas Amateur Radio Club. Afterwards, he opened a case full of keys and sold a bunch of them. McElroy worked with noted code instructor Walter Candler, giving demonstrations and teaching the "Candler Method" as advertised in QST.

During W.W.II, Ted made telegraph apparatus for Uncle Sam. Ted and his "gang" produced more such gear for the Allies than any other company. They received the Army - Navy "E" Award for excellence and were able to complete many contracts ahead of schedule. Ted rewarded his "gang" with partiesMcElroy Hand Keys and jam sessions. Morale was high and the employees had fun. McElroy even made J-38s, the famed bakelite based key made by many contractors for the Army during W.W.II.

After the war, McElroy continued to manufacture automated high speed telegraph apparatus. A former employee related that Ted could adjust the instruments sending at a speed of 100 WPM, when others in the factory had to use an oscilloscope! In 1955, he sold the company and went into semi-retirement. He later became a manufacture's representative and even dabbled in local politics. It is said that during this time, Ted liked to give telegraph keys to his friends as gifts. He passes away in his native Boston in 1963.

As long as there are those that are interested in the code and keys, McElroy the man, the legend and his keys will be remembered. 

For more information, visit the Telegraph Office home page

Neal McEwen, k5rw@telegraph-office.com