K0GKJ – Just Another Ham
The New QTH – A Floating Shack

Score One Bug at Orlando ‘Hamcation’!

This is only the second time I’ve attended what I believe is Florida’s largest annual hamfest, and so far, I haven’t ever been disappointed, torrential downpour and low 50s temps notwithstanding! And this is just day 1 (of 3)!

I’m very proud of one of my newest acquisitions – a 1962 vintage Vibroplex Original ‘bug’ with 3.5″ base and an ‘L’ damper (don’t ask – I’ll tell you below!), serial number 226473. After getting it back to my hotel room, my first high priority task (after devouring a great salmon dinner downstairs), was to identify this baby. Not only could the gentleman at the swap meet table not tell me anything about this bug, he couldn’t speak at all, so I paid my money (cash, of course, but I’m sure it will become reported income ūüôā ).

Before we go any further, you need to watch this short video, or you’ll become befuddled by what follows if you’re not already familiar with bugs (in the Morse Code sense). The bug in this video is also the model I lust after, not the one that I bought today (pics below)… Notice how each speed change¬†is preceded by a series of the letter V (di-di-di-dah, di-di-di-dah). That’s to calibrate the operator’s fist to the change in the rate of speed that dits are generated. Cool beans…

You’ll also notice that these babies wanna scream faster than many folks can generate (or copy) code, especially when learning to use the bug. There’s even a less-traditional device that you can attach to the bug’s arm to slow it down, called a Vari-Speed. Gotta have one!¬†

Fortunately, there are dedicated aficionados of Vibroplex bugs, The exhaustive six year study of Vibroplex key history compiled by John, WW7P, and additional info offered by KN6W revealed much of the history behind this unit, as well as some 3,000 others. I intend to follow this particular bug’s lineage, but that will take more than a few hours downrange from its discovery.

To know how to use a bug is an art form in and of itself, but to know how to use a bug well, and at speed, is to be admired.

Now that last statement is the real trick. First, you gotta know the code. Second, you should know how to use a straight key (manually depressing a ‘telegraph key’ with downward pressure to generate dots and dashes (di-dits and dah-dahs, for you CW mavens) one by one, holding the key down longer for dahs than for dits, and ensuring the appropriate duration of silence between them by letting up on the key. Third, you should know how to use a ‘paddle’ (usually something called an iambic paddle), that is a more automated key, if you will. Press the dual paddle affair to one side, to generate one or more dahs. If you hold the paddle (to the right in my case), it will continue to generate dahs until those cows are home and in the barn, or until you release your sidways pressure on the paddle. Push it to the opposite side (left, in my case), and it will automatically generate dits with the appropriate silent interval between each one, until you once again, release your gentle, but insistent sideways pressure.

NOW we come to the ‘bug’. This is considered a SEMI-automatic device where you still use sideways pressure, but there are two key (no pun intended) differences between the iambic paddle and the bug. The first difference is that dahs and the silence between them (and dits) are generated manually like the straight key, but with sideways pressure, not downward pressure. While dits are automatically generated, this is accomplished mechanically, and not electronically via a dampened pendulum affair. Quite elegant in its simplicity, and heavily patented in its day!

These things really are¬†functional works of art, and when you hear a key on the air, the sound and rhythm is something to behold (and easily recognize). A good ‘fist’ with a bug is to¬†be admired indeed. Plus, the mechanical ‘clacking’ experienced by the operator is a reminder of history all by itself. Music!

And the entire topic of these bugs is to scratch the surface of a passionate sub-culture of operators and collectors deeply devoted to these amazing but somewhat silly devices!

Maybe that’s why I, like a very few others, are drawn to them, like I’m drawn to Morse code in general, and celestial navigation with a sextant and the¬†Inuit style of kayaking with a hand-carved West Greenland paddle. I guess practiced determination born of obscurity breeds a satisfying depth of fascination and satisfaction.¬†

This particular bug was dirty and dull, but in fine shape behind its crudely fashioned price tag on a piece of masking tape. All the thumb screws turn easily, the metal is not pitted, and while the label plate is dull and tarnished, it is not scratched, and the original serial number is easily read. It should clean up handsomely (yup, another project), and that distinctive logo will be gleaming just hours after returning home and my metal polish is within reach! Although, I’m told the complete detailed cleaning, if¬†executed properly,¬†will take significantly longer (aw shucks).

The elongated paddle below is where the thumb of my right hand rests (I’m not willing to embed the additional layer of complexity to learn this beast by throwing my natural right brain (left hand) into the mix, however!).¬†With rightside pressure, the thumb sets the pendulum in motion, creating one or more dits ‘automatically’ (until the spring-loaded pendulum dampens to a continuous dah – fortunately, no CW character requires that many dits). Applying pressure to the left¬†using the smaller paddle creates a continuous tone, so one must release the key between each dah. Yup, a tricky dribble. ¬†¬†

Here’s my new bug posing for the lens:

That small horizontal U-shaped affair is the spring that causes the thinner portion of the arm to wiggle back and forth to create dits.

The speed at which dits are automatically (and mechanically) generated are controlled somewhat by the location of two counterweights. See them below, held in place with thumb screws on top… the farther forward one or both weights are located, the slower the dits generated.

and that famous logo…

They say it can take years to become an accomplished fist with a bug. Oh well ! No time like the present, right?

I scored some other cool stuff at the show today, but that can come later, along with the description of other delightful acquisitions yet to be made. Right now I’m basking in the light of the little red bug on the logo of my new forty-eight year young Vibroplex bug – hopefully only the first of many – well, at least several!

73 dit dit

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