Summary of the 1996 AWA Conference and Key CollectingTHE WEATHER
Essentially perfect for Wednesday through Friday. There was one day when it sprinkled for about 5 minutes. It was raining Saturday morning, but the conference was basically done by then.
ILLEGAL TRADING ON TUESDAY
There was a rumor of a Vibroplex Double Lever being sold on Tuesday. This type of activity is prohibited by the AWA, but is not really discouraged by any means. The AWA does not deploy "Flea Market Police" like used at other flea markets, so it is very easy to get away with this without consequences.
WEDNESDAY FLEA MARKET
As usual the flea market starts in the pre-dawn hours on Wednesday morning. Good deals on telegraph stuff were to be found almost immediately. I found my best deal of the entire conference within minutes of walking into the flea market area (a book on telegraphy). Competition was fierce, as most of the serious key collectors had illegally entered the flea market area before 6 AM and were pouncing on anything even remotely connected with telegraphy.
One of the great things about the AWA flea market is that good stuff keeps showing up the entire day. This keeps everyone one on the move. Pacing back and forth through the aisles dozens if not hundreds of times looking for new stuff to show up is the rule. This requires endurance and good walking shoes and the ability to go without food from dawn to dusk. Unfortunately, I did not get enough sleep the night before and damn near got sick from pacing back and forth in the sun (drinking a half pitcher of beer at the airport the day before did not help either). An hours rest in the hotel room was required in the afternoon before returning to the neverending pacing, pacing, and more pacing.
STUFF SEEN IN THE FLEA MARKET
Note: Buyers and sellers names are not mentioned for security reasons due to the exponentially escalating value of telegraphic devices.
For several years a famous collector brings a HUGE collection of telegraph and scientific devices for display and trading. Only this year, KEYS FOR SALE signs were liberally sprinkled throughout the display. This was a rather shocking departure from business as usual from one of the hobby's most noted acquisitioners. Prices quoted were high, but not ultra high. Apparently one of the western collectors had quite a feeding frenzy here, and he was rumored to have spent many thousands of $$$ on both telegraph and scientific instruments.
One of the most spectacular camelback keys I have ever seen was sold or traded at least twice during the course of the flea market. This was a beautiful Phelps camelback in absolutely perfect condition. It was about 2/3 the size of a normal key. One wonders if this was not a very nicely done reproduction. Fake or not, it would look great in any collection of telegraphic instruments.
A complete Omnigraph in the wooden box was snagged by one of the western collectors. This thing was amazing. I never seen the giant sized version of the Omnigraph. I hope this fantastic piece made it to its new home OK.
A Norcross Dual Lever Vibroplex was offered for trade. This particular key was in deplorable condition, but due to its rarity was highly sought after. I believe it was traded, but I do not know for what.
Not really a telegraph item, Bunnell registers were popping up all over the place. One nice one was offered for only $200.
A couple of Ghegan patent sounders in very nice condition were offered for $75 each. As of late Friday they were still unsold.
Numerous common military keys were found. A NIB J-38 by American Radio Hardware sold for $25. In general, prices for these common military keys were in the $10 to $50 range. You can still start a decent collection of these keys without obliterating your bank account, however, you might do better at your local hamfest.
A famous Canadian collector brought his small collection of keys for sale or trade. This guy usually has a few interesting foreign and military keys at decent prices.
A Western Electric style resonator with rotatable sounder was offered for sale for $200. I would have bought it, however, the resonator had been repainted a gray color. I figured it was worth maybe $100 in its present condition, but the owner would not budge.
THURSDAY AND FRIDAY FLEA MARKET
As usual, there was some new stuff appearing Thursday. It seemed to be down from past years. In fact, the number of flea market spaces filled on Wednesday seemed to be higher that previous years (indicating most arrived on Wednesday).
A McElroy plastic based straight key was acquired by a lucky collector on Thursday morning.
A historically significant Bunnell minature sounder was sold or traded. This sounder has a plaque apparently commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Morse telegraph. These were given away at a dinner to celebrate the occasion. According to the story, the sounders were actually wired up to allow messages to be sent to the guests, who were various dignitaries from Western Union, railroads, etc. I believe this transaction occurred Thursday or Friday.
An extremely rare and historically significant SCR-71 ground telegraph transmitter was seen briefly in the flea market. This is a telegraph key with a "power buzzer" used for ground telegraphy during the trench wars of WWI. This set and ground telegraphy are described in the recently published book "Listening In". More on this later in "General Auction".
The Friday flea market was very slow, however, I was suprised at how many vendors were still in operation.
Key collectors like to taunt each other by showing them pictures of rare items from their collection. This began Tuesday night and continued throughout the conference. In spite of the taunting aspect, it is actually quite enjoyable to see the collections of other collectors. The immensity of some collections is just mind boggling.
Tony Rogozinski brought photos of the recent disaster wrought on his antenna system by a "microburst" thunderstorm. The damage was both fascinating and horrifying. It was amazing how the antennas, booms, and masts were bent and broken, and yet the towers themselves were perfectly intact. Sign of a well installed tower system I guess. This was a sort of "inverse" taunting, as obviously no one should ever have this happen to them.
A well-known bug collector was observed in the flea market periodically bringing forth rare bugs to allow inspection by other collectors. A Melehan Valiant and Vibroplex Upright were 2 of the more notable bugs used to taunt and amaze the other key collectors.
KEY AND TELEGRAPH SESSION
As usual the highlight of the AWA conference as far as key collectors are concerned is the Key and Telegraph Session. This session is held indoors in one of the hotel conference rooms and it is a great relief from the day's key collecting activities in the flea market.
I would like to personally thank the presenters for their hard work in putting together their presentations. The quality of each presentation was outstanding.
The session is moderated by noted key collector Murray Willer who was introduced by AWA official Bill Fizette. Murray has been the emcee for the Key and Telegraph Session for several years, and he always does an excellent job. And thanks to Murray for selling me that NIB leg key that will look great in my collection !
PRESENTATION 1: TOM PERERA
Tom's presentation covered his expedition to Europe to research and collect German telegraph keys, a brief trip to the Smithsonian, and an underwater telegraphic salvage adventure !
Tom started out with some nice slides of German telegraph keys with their "sensual" features and "great lines". These sexually oriented descriptions of keys should have shocked us, but what do you expect from a professional psychologist ! Certainly there is an artistic appeal to these European keys, as they went to great lengths to make them distinctive as contrasted to American keys, which tend to be a bit more utilitarian.
Tom added humor to his talk by presenting some slides showing his wife hauling around a pile of telegraph keys on her back in the mountains, and a couple of restaurant slides with keys being served up to Tom's wife. This is what Tom's very tolerant wife gets when he talks about a vacation trip to Europe !
A trip to the German archives revealed some history and specifications of early German keys. Armed with this knowledge, Tom took to the flea markets in search of these keys. He was not disappointed, as keys were to be found, but they were not generally for sale or were too expensive. A trip to a German hamfest was much more productive, with many German military keys being found. Also it was discovered that the very common US Navy key is actually a copy of a German key ! The "Gibson Girl" emergency transmitter was also found to be a copy of a similar German device.
A trip to the Smithsonian Institution to visit the telegraph exhibits revealed serious problems with the Smithsonian's ability to interpret the Morse telegraph. The Vail Correspondant was covered with dust. A video display showed a Morse set from 1850, when in fact the oldest piece was easily identified as a Victor key which was patented in 1882.
In another suprise to his wife, a Caribbean sailing expedition was actually a voyage to the bottom of the sea to recover a section of an underwater cable. Somehow Tom was able to locate an underwater cable in shallow water. This cable was found to be too tough for a hacksaw with special blades to penetrate, thus foiling Tom's attempt to bring a section to the surface. Someone later asked if this could be an operating cable, to which Tom replied definitely not. It was the opinion of several person's in the audience that this very well could be a modern cable carrying fiber optic telephone or even television circuits between the Caribbean islands, which are obviously still in use.
PRESENTATION 2: TOM FRENCH
This presentation covered a relatively untapped area of the key collecting hobby, the keyer paddle and electronic keyer.
Tom chronologically presented the evolution of the keyer paddle, with the "Equable" being the first fully automatic keyer (1922). This was not a commercial success, and few of these devices remain.
The first commerically successful keyer was known as the "Mon Key" which appeared in the 40s. The second was called the "Duomatic" and it appeared in 1949. These keyers used vacuum tubes and included a paddle integral to the keyer, thus they were a rather large and bulky unit. The Duomatic actually used a Speed-X bug as the basis for its paddle.
The first commercial paddle seperate from the keyer was called the "El Key". This paddle appeared in 1950 from Long Island. Contrary to popular belief, this paddle was not manufactured in France.
Tom proceeded to cover the evolution of the single paddle to the modern Iambic paddle. Even some Iambic paddles are collectable, as shown by the Hamco paddle which was manufactured for a short period of time before the company was absorbed by Vibroplex.
PRESENTATION 3: PETE MALVASI
Pete covered early wireless and radio keys including military and commercial models.
Pete started with an explanation of the design of early wireless and radio keys which had to withstand high voltages and currents. A theory was advanced that the so-called "navy knob" began to appear on spark keys about 1904. The extra "skirt" added to the base of a conventional telegraph key knob was meant to protect the operator from the high voltages present on the key. Thus a spark key with a relatively plain knob and no skirt identifies it as a key from the very early period of wireless.
Spark and wireless keys tend to be rather plain and bulky. As shown by one of Pete's slides, they also tended to be significantly larger than their landline predecessors. An interesting note is that most spark keys fall in the general category of "leg keys" meaning their terminals are bolts that extend from the bottom of the key which forces them to be bolted to the operating table. The maker's name rarely appears on spark keys, making their identification a sometimes frustrating challenge.
A recent "expedition" to a vintage radio station that was boarded up since before WWII yielded an early DeForest key. Pete, why didn't you show us some slides of that station ? I would have loved to have seen the wireless version of "King Tut's Tomb" it before it was dismantled.
Pete described his success using a sideswiper to break up DX pileups. He showed us a slide of a "Semantic" which is an interesting bug from the early radio era which can be set up as a sideswiper.
Several early military radio keys were shown. The myth of the J-3 vs. the J-6 key was dispelled, and the origin of the mixup (an early surplus ad showing a J-6 which was claimed to be a J-3).
The remaining slides showed keys from the collections of Lynn Burlingame, Jim Kreuzer, Tom Perera, and Pete's own collection. It was very complete, and probably 90% of the early spark and wireless keys were covered.
THE GENERAL AUCTION
Few really exciting keys were entered in the general auction. I don't recall seeing a single bug. The one exception was the SCR-71 Ground Telegraph Transmitting set, which had been briefly viewed in the flea market. A very nice Bunnell register was entered, as well as an extremely well preserved Swedish Register. Several common sounders and straight keys were entered. A Japanese sideswiper and straight key by Hi Mound were up for bidding. Some type of European straight key was entered, with a marking of MKI which suggested British origin. I didn't take notes on the winning bids, but here is what I remember:
SCR-71 $300 Swedish Register $1300 Japanese Sideswiper $220 Japanese Straight Key $200 Key and sounder $35 Box Relay $170
I am sure others took notes or remembered other items and will be able to fill in the gaps.
Truly shocking was the winning bid for the SCR-71. This is a very significant set, due to its rarity and historical significance. I expected to see this set go for much more than it did.
AWA MUSEUM AND ANNEX
The museum is open only during very strange hours, so you must carefully plan a trip. Keep in mind it is about a 30 minute drive from the conference site to the museum. Also it helps to take someone who has been before, as the museum is very poorly marked.
Myself and Doug Palmer made the trip Wednesday night after deciding to abandon a trip to a restaurant for much needed food. Fortunately fellow key collectors Tony Rogozinski and Tom O'Connor were already at the museum and suggested a local restaurant named "Rumors" about 2 miles east of the museum. After about 30 minutes of viewing the AWA collection (which is mega-outstanding) and withstanding a demonstration of the spark transmitter (twice), we took off for the restaurant in nearly starved condition. We of course ordered New York strip steaks, and our hunger was appeased. Upon leaving the establishment, we discovered a few cars parked outside the semi-secret "annex". To our delight, Bruce Kelley was conducting a tour after having shut down the museum. We got to wander about the recently expanded building for quite a bit before Bruce ran us out. Doug was able to shoot quite a bit of film of the Louise Moreau key collection. I took a shot of the glass case which I had botched last year. Hope it turns out in focus this time !
The 1996 AWA conference will go down in history as the most successful and entertaining event for the key collector ever to be held. Will the 1997 event be as good ? I seriously doubt it. It is simply not possible for the weather to favor the outdoor flea market again as it did this year. The quantity and quality of keys can not continue and will probably be greatly attenuated in coming years. The interest in keys and key collecting is at its peak and we are truly seeing the heyday of the hobby. Interest will wane and no one will be available to put together the outstanding presentations we enjoyed this year. If your were fortunate enough to attend this year's conference and take home a key or two, consider yourself very fortunate !