Thursday, October 30, 2014

Bugs that Talk

Oh, the things you learn every day. I just found out that the original "keys" used by telegraph operators had a major problem: they caused repetitive stress injuries.

Not a big surprise once I hear it, of course. Sitting with your arm in one position for hours on end pressing down your finger so that a button makes contact over and over again sounds like a perfect recipe for arm problems. I also learned they used to call the injuries "glass arm."

A solution wasn't found until after the turn of the century, when the semi-automatic key was invented, then improved over the next decade or so. These keys went sideways instead of up and down, with the Morse code dots automatically created in one direction and the dashes made manually in the other.

I don't claim to fully understand it, but the upshot was not only fewer arm problems, but also much faster sending, which increased the pay of operators (at least for a while) since they were paid by the word.

Here's what one kind of automatic key looks like:

The increase in speed and ease of use inspired a lot more people to go into the business, and soon they were adopted by amateur radio operators as well.

All of this was inspired by finding this logo for the Vibroplex Company, maker of keys:

Keys are also called bugs, hence the charming logo. How did the word "bug" come to be used? According to the Vibroplex Collector's site,

In those days a poor telegraph operator was called a “bug,” and some operators bought a key from Vibroplex or a competitor and started using it without much practice. The result was poor sending, and the keys themselves became known as “bugs.”
Now the term is used affectionately, rather than pejoratively.


1844 key photo from the history page.

Semi-automatic key photo from the site of amateur radio operator AC2C, where you can find more photos of keys.

1 comment:

Gina said...

The only time I had a repetitive injury was during my temping days. It wasn't from typing, ironically, but from clicking the mouse. I was astonished my how much it hurt! Of course, another reason was my arm position when I was using the mouse. It was during a time I had to click a lot but I can't remember exactly what my primary task was for this. Definitely not scheduling!
My doctor told me it was a workman's comp injury and I needed to discuss more ergonomically correct set up for my desk and equipment which I did. No more problems.

I know a guy who was a telegraph operator in the military back in the early 1960's. He has some fun stories to tell about the work.