The Telegraph Office

Finding Parts for Old Telegraph Instruments

by Neal McEwen, K5RW

Copyright © 1996, Neal McEwen

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You've just picked up a key at an antique mall. You get it home for a closer inspection and discover that it is missing a part. What do you do? You would like to make the new addition to you collection fully functional and all original.

I would estimate that between one third and one half of all keys, and other telegraph instruments newly discovered, are missing one or more parts. This is sad and discouraging. I often wonder what happens to these parts. We will never know and it would not make any difference, so we have to decide what to do about the missing parts.

The most fundamental method of finding parts, is to find an identical key to rob parts off of. Sometimes a key from the same maker will have donor parts that will match. It is not unusual to need two or three keys to assemble a good one. This requires a lot of patience and looking, but is worth the trouble to make a key complete.

The next method of finding parts is not really finding parts at all. It is to make the parts yourself or find a friend with a machine shop to help you with the parts. Parts such as finger pieces and thumb pieces can be made with simple hand tools. Although they don't look right, some adjusting mechanisms can be replaced with simple machine screws. You would be surprised, tools for knurling are still available. If you are lucky, you can ally with a local key collector or radio collector that has machine tools. This ally can sometimes be enticed to help you if you lay a key or antique radio on him for services rendered.

Experienced collectors keep a shelf of junk keys to replenish parts missing from new acquisitions. However, experienced collectors are always short of several items. The thumb piece from bugs is the first part to go. It is the most fragile piece and is located such that it the most vulnerable part on the bug. The next thing to go on a bug is the weights and/or the tightening screw for the weight. The screws get loose and fall out; then the weight falls off the pendulum. Don't ask an experienced collector for an extra thumb piece or weight; he is looking for them too.

On other instruments the most common missing parts are springs and binding post nuts. It is possible to make springs out of piano wire. For relays, springs can be fashioned from the spring from ball point pens. Binding post nuts must come from a donor instrument or a machine shop with matched knurling tools. Experienced collectors are looking for these parts too.

Before your purchase or trade for an old key, inspect it very carefully. If it is complete, then you have a real jewel. If it is missing parts, then ask yourself, "Can I live with the missing parts? Do I have parts at home to finish out the key? Can I make the part? Do I have a machinist friend that owes me a favor? Am I willing to hunt for a donor twin?" Make sure your are comfortable with these questions before you purchase.

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Neal McEwen,