Evolution of the Bug

by Louise Moreau

CONTRARY to present belief, the semi-automatic key is not a Twentieth Century invention, nor was it primarily intended as a speed key. The instrument was one of the many that were designed to either ease or prevent "telegraphers paralysis," or "glass arm," the occupational disease of the profession. This became a very real and serious threat to the operators almost as soon as the Telegraph industry was formed. As the work of the telegrapher increased into the tremendous output of anywhere from ten to eighteen thousand words in a single trick, it became apparent that something had to be done to ease the strain on the muscles of the wrist and arm. Quite often continuous operation with the hand keys could and did produce permanent disability.

All sorts of gadgets were tried and used by those who were afflicted, the so-called "sideswiper" being among the most popular forms since the horizontal action of this key produced less strain, and the effects were lessened.

Upright model Vibroplex, 1918. Known as the "Wire Chief's Key,", it was designed by H.G. Martin for use in crowded operating space.

By the 1880's, the first semi-automatic-type keys, or those that produced a series of self-made dots, appeared under the general name "Vibrating Keys." These were bulky, cumbersome instruments equipped with magnets to hold the vibrating portion, and each one required a pair of dry cell batteries to activate the magnets. Actually these batteries and magnets served still another purpose, they not only created the multiple dot action of the key, but were also used to overcome the line-lag that was present during the days of iron wire on the telegraph lines. They were inefficient, since there was either a very primitive damping action, or none at all.

Most of the operators, who took great pride in their daily output of many thousands of words, would have nothing to do with these instruments, and ranked them with the anathema of the wire fraternity, the "Plug," or poor operator, whom they referred to in the slang of the day as a "Bug." These keys were called "Bug's Keys" or fit only for a "Bug" to use; and "Bug" in the 80's meant much the same as the term "Lid" does now in the wire game, hinting at dubious ancestry.

The original meaning died out, as slang terms do, so that, by the turn of the century, "Bug" had become generic, designating any key that sent a string of dots, while the dashes were made manually.

In 1903, Horace Martin patented his first form of this key. Martin was concerned not only with producing an instrument that would make operating easier, but would also increase the sending speed. He was encouraged in this by the publisher, Walter Phillips, who was always looking for faster sending methods, and as many short-cuts as possible to increase output. Phillips held one half of the first Martin Patent Number 732,648.

Early Mecograph key-1906. Popularly called "The Right Angle Bug" by telegraphers. This is the first of three models made by the Mecograph Company.

While the 1903 Martin Patent is mainly an improvement of the earlier Vibrating keys, and still employed the battery-magnet action, it is interesting in that Martin saw the possibilities of utilizing many different forms of the vibrating action, and, included in his description every possible method. When the United Electric Company manufactured and sold the first of the "Martin Telegraphic Transmitters" they were making the only "legal bug." Legal, because Patent No. 732,468 completely closed the field to anyone else. No matter what design the key took, or how it operated, it ran headlong into the Martin Key. William Albright, another telegrapher, joined Martin and the Vibroplex Keys, as we now know them, began to appear with a name plate reading:

The Vibroplex
Horace G. Martinís
Patent No. 732,648
Patent No. 767,803
Others Pending

The batteries and magnets had been eliminated, and the famous Martin damping action had been added, and, in 1907, it was Martin who coined the phrase "Semi-Automatic" as a description of the action of the key.

Martin Telegraphic Transmitter. This is the first of the Martin semi-automatic keys, produced in 1903, using a magnet and battery action. This is the ancestor of today's semi-automatic keys.

When anything new, with plenty of sales appeal appears on the market, there is a rush to cash in on the golden shower of profits. Many independent companies appeared with what they hoped would be ways to get around Vibroplex. The Mecograph Company, of Cleveland, Ohio, produced three different kinds of "Right-Angle Bug," or the "Mecograph Key" that had the vibrating reed at right angles to the lever, and used a "release" rather than a pressure on the spring to make the dots. There were also key-wound, spring-driven instruments, and those with a pendulum action. There were even those with a dual-key arrangement, much like a Cable key whereby they were operated with a drumming, vertical movement of the fingers. But they all fell before the legal might of the Vibroplex Company and were forced to close.

At first the telegraph companies would not permit these keys to be used at all. Many operators objected to receiving on a wire where the sender was using a "bug" and refused to copy. But Albright was busy selling the companies on the efficiency and speed of the instrument. Now that the typewriter was being used more and more in the telegraph offices, the increased facility in receiving made it almost imperative to have a faster transmitting instrument.

Western Union, and Postal Telegraph finally agreed in the use of this key by the operators, but only if the instrument were set for a maximum of eleven dots per second. Some of the office managers insisted that the weight be soldered at this setting. This, of course, achieved a universal rate over all the wires.

"Albright License." This brass plate, attached to base of keys not accepted by the telegraph companies, authorized the use of the key by the operators.

With the acceptance of this instrument by the telegraph companies, the demand for it became even greater, and many independent manufacturers made a comfortable profit from the operators who wanted their own personal keys. However, these "Bootleg Bugs," or "Illegitimate Bugs" were not accepted for use by either Western Union or the Postal Telegraph, who had an agreement with the Albright Company to use the Vibroplex, only. The operators protested, when they found that their favorite sending instrument could not be used just because it had been declared illegal by the Courts, when the keys they were using had proved to be efficient. So, a compromise was reached in the form of the so-called "Albright License," a metal plate attached to the base of their keys that read:

This machine not guaranteed nor made
but only licensed by
233 Broadway, New York
Special No.

These plates were sold to the operators for two dollars, and once they were attached, the key was legally usable.

The semi-automatic key remained exclusively with the telegraph industry until CW appeared in the wireless field. The earlier wireless could not follow the fast dots, nor was the key itself designed to break the heavy primary current of "spark" transformers. A Bug, however, was used in 1909 on Wireless as an experiment by E. N. Pickerill, from the De Forest Wireless Station at Colorado Springs, by operating it through a Relay Key. This is the first recorded use of one of these keys for wireless telegraphy.

The name "Bug" is a copyright of the Vibroplex Company as is the little insect depicting a "lightning bug" on the name plate of the modern keys. The insect is contemporary, as is the copyright. However, the idea is as old as the keys themselves, for, in the early issues of the "Operator," the newspaper of the profession in the 1870's and 1880's, cartoons of the "Plugs" (those "lids" of the wire who broke with intent to interfere; used a busy wire to practice, or as one wit of the day described it "6ASTISE"; and generally made life miserable for the busy operators), quite often had a carefully sketched insect, much like a mosquito, inserted in the drawing. It does not appear in any other type of cartoon.


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