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          Cloning a Vibroplex bug

Another triumph of improvisation!

    Most people find the word “bug” rather off-putting in both its common meanings of insect and of software defect, but there was a group of people that found it quite attractive. These were telegraph operators, and the "Bug" in question was the semi-automatic telegraph key introduced by the Vibroplex Co. in 1905. 
    Unlike the common “straight” telegraph key in the photo at right, which required one to press the knob down to generate each dot or dash, a Bug (photo below) had a sideways moving paddle: push left to close a contact and generate dashes, or push right to put in motion a weight on a spring that would create a rapid string of dots. In the hand of a practiced operator the bug could create much faster code than a straight key. Telegraph operators back then would save their pennies to buy a Vibroplex -- they were paid by the message sent, so greater speed meant more income. Straight telegraph key
Click photo to enlarge
Vibroplex "bug" semi-automatic telegraph key
Click photo to enlarge
    The Vibroplex keys were a marvelous piece of precision mechanics, and as a teenage radio amateur I would have loved to own one -- were it not totally out of my financial reach. So instead I did what an electronics hobbyist would do in those days -- I made do with what I could get: I built me a Vibroplex clone.
    I mostly followed an article in “The Young Amateur”, a magazine catering to Israel’s electronics hobbyists in the sixties. You can see a scan of the entire article here. This led me to the device you see here:
Homemade semi-automatic telegraph key
Click photo to enlarge
    It is interesting to compare this makeshift key with its commercial counterpart:
Vibroplex "bug" semi-automatic telegraph key and its homemade clone
Click photo to enlarge
    As you see, the materials and workmanship are very different. The Vibroplex is solid, heavy (a necessity when actuating it rapidly with sideways swipes!), and made in beautiful chrome plated metal. My version used a hodge podge of improvised materials, from Plexiglas to Balsa wood (I was also building model gliders at the time); the contacts were scavenged from electrical switches and terminal blocks; and the required heavy base was achieved with an inclusion of home-cast lead.
    I bought the real thing on eBay, as a collectible, many years after going inactive as a radio ham. But the homemade version was put to real (and quite effective) use in my ham station, 4Z4GE. It may have been made of scraps and leftovers but its Dits and Dahs rang fast and true!
    And why are these keys called Bugs? There’s a wealth of alleged origins, but in any event my commercial key shows the red bug that was (and still is) the Vibroplex trade mark.


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Nameplate of a Vibroplex "bug" semi-automatic telegraph key
Click photo to enlarge

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