J. Casale W2NI

The Origin of the Word "Bug"

The technical and legal history of the name given to semi-automatic transmitters

There are two meanings to the word "bug" in the history of the telegraph. The first use of the word has its roots as a technical problem heard on duplex and quadruplex telegraph circuits. The second meaning evolved from the technical problem to become a nickname given to semi-automatic transmitters.

The Bug Trade Mark

With permission by The Vibroplex Co., Inc.
During the 1870s, long before the semi automatic key was invented, a "bug" to telegraph engineers, inventors and telegraphers had a very specific meaning. It was commonly associated with false signals that were heard on early multiple telegraphy circuits, specifically on duplex and quadruplex circuits.

A duplex circuit allowed two messages to be sent in opposite directions at the same time with two operators at each end of the wire. When false signals occurred, the wire was considered "bugs" or "buggy." There is one story that this terminology originated on a duplex circuit when a cockroach covered in ink crawled across a tap of a rheostat causing the circuit to go out of balance. A rheostat was used in multiple telegraphy systems to create an artificial line for balancing the current of the main line. It is hard to verify if the cockroach story is true or merely folklore but the rheostat/duplex reference adds some creditability to it.

Later, when then Quadruplex was developed, there was a more specific use of the word "bug." In the Quadruplex, four simultaneous messages were possible on a single wire - two from each direction. One of the relays used in the "Quad" was called a neutral relay. When the current was reversing polarity on the line, there was a period when there was no magnetism on the coils of the relay. The armature on the neutral relay had a tendency to fall back on its stop generating false and interfering signals, or breaks on the wire. The sound of these false signals were refered to as a "Bug" on the wire, and the neutral relay's armature in this case, being the cause, was the "Bug."

Thomas Edison was plagued with these false signals with his early Quadruplex designs. According to The Papers of Thomas A. Edison, Edison's approach when he could not eliminate the cause of a problem, was to come up with "an arrangement that rendered the effects insignificant."

Edison designed various electro mechanical circuits to take care of the transition time when the polarity was reversing and he called his designs, "Bug Traps." His first bug trap consisted of a repeating sounder installed between the neutral relay and the local sounder. The delayed response of the repeating sounder isolated the false signals from ever reaching and activating the local sounder. After Edison, several other inventors came up with their own designs to eliminate these false signals on quadruplex circuits. By 1890, the term "bug" in the telegraph industry had evolved to commonly describe a fault heard on multiple telegraphy systems and was used to identify the source of a problem on a circuit.*

Semi-automatic Transmitters

When the first semi-automatic keys appeared on the wires around 1904/1905, they were first advertised and called transmitters. But, around 1908, a change occurred when telegraphers started to call them by the nickname, "bug," because they frequently sounded like one on a circuit.

The first telegraphers to use the new transmitters were some of the best telegraphers in the country. They were considered "First Class" or "A1" telegraphers and worked the important circuits where high speed was a necessity -- they were paid bonuses to send fast and thus motivated to buy them. Naturally with that much practice, they were the first to master the new transmitters. But, the majority of the telegraphers trying out the new semi-automatic transmitters worked slower speed circuits with plenty of intervals with no activity. When they started using the new transmitters, they were criticized for sending many errors. Their lack of experience and mis-adjustment of the transmitters sometimes resulted in excessive and "clipped" dots also causing what sounded like a "bug" on the circuit.

Telegraphers using the new semi-automatic transmitters, in addition to learning to use them properly, had to learn to modify their sending technique and speed depending on circuit conditions and the type of circuit they were on. This too was to prevent false signals from being transmitted. This was noted by telegraph engineer and author, Donald McNicol in 1913: ....although the sending machines at present in use have surely made for increased speed of signaling, they have, in many instances, been the cause of poorly founded reflections being cast upon the electrical efficiency of a certain class of circuits.

The Bug Trade Mark

During the 1920s the right to use the word "bug" in trade was challenged in court. The case was between two of the best known key manufacturers is the U.S. at that time, The Vibroplex Co. and J.H. Bunnell & Co.

Vibroplex attempted to stop J.H. Bunnell & Co. from using the word "bug" in association with Bunnell's semi-automatic transmitter the "Gold Bug." Vibroplex had recently failed to stop Bunnell from manufacturing the Gold Bug in an earlier law suit that they lost in appeal. Prior to this law suit, Vibroplex had a very successful track record of stopping competitors in their tracks, and in some cases, even preventing them from even getting beyond the experimental stage. But, after Vibroplex's loss in appeal to Bunnell, they felt their only legal option left was to try stop Bunnell from using the name, "Bug" in a new law suit.

Vibroplex probably took on more than they bargained for when going up against the Bunnell Company and in a bitter court case, also lost this trade mark suit in both the lower and appeal courts. Beneath the Judges opinions in both courts are some interesting details on the history and use of the name bug and the character of the two companies selling them. I will highlight a few of the arguments for both sides in this case.

Vibroplex phamplet

From a Vibroplex Co. pamphlet
showing their various Trade Marks

The arguments by Vibroplex:
Vibroplex felt that a trade-mark relates solely to something in trade, and not at all to what is used in mere conversation. Vibroplex stated that on or about March 1, 1919, they adopted and began to use three new Trade Marks. First, the representations of a bug with conventional lightning rays radiating from it. Second, the words "Lightning Bug," and third, the word, "Bug" itself. Some of these trade marks along with "Vibroplex," were placed on all machines that they manufactured from that date forward. (Vibroplex formally applied for the three new Trade Marks a year later, on May 11, 1920.) They claimed that there was not one instance in existence of the word "bug" having been used in trade by anyone prior to them using it as a trade mark on March 1, 1919. They felt the word bug was never used by an inventor, maker or seller and challenged Bunnell to produce an ad that showed the word "bug" being used in describing an instrument.

Gold Bug Ad

Bunnell Gold Bug Ad

The arguments by Bunnell:
Bunnell felt that Vibroplex knew that its "broad patents" were about to expire and in view of the approaching termination of its "patent monopoly," applied for a trade mark in 1920 for the common name "bug," well aware of the fact that it had existed for at least a dozen years previously. In 1913, six years before Vibroplex claims to have first used the name bug, Bunnell designed an experimental bug of its own and named it the "Gold Bug." They felt that Bunnell has the right to use "Gold Bug" just as Vibroplex has the right to use "Lightning Bug" in trade.

Bunnell felt that all "fluttering arm, multi-legged appearing telegraph keys," had been known to and called by everyone in the telegraph art or trade, by their common name bug and that the name was used to distinguish them from the other genus telegraph key, "Morse" which is made and sold by many manufacturers. Bunnell stated that the entire trade applied the word bug not only to Vibroplexes but to all other species of "bugs" that were known to telegraphers, i.e., as with a Mecograph Bug.

During the lower court case, Bunnell's lawyer, Philip Farnsworth grilled Vibroplex president James Albright on the stand. Here is a brief sample where Farnsworth is trying to get a reluctant Albright to name the machines produced by its competitors in the past:
You know that there were a number of machines, six, or eight, or ten machines; what were their names before 1920, give us a list; you were president of this concern ?
Albright: I do Not remember.
Farnsworth: Do you remember the Mecograph bug?
Albright:Oh, yes.
Farnsworth: Do you remember the "Auto-Dot" bug?
And one by one Farnsworth asked Albright for the names, each time framing his questions with "bug" until it was finally objected to by Vibroplex's attorney, Murray Corrington - but overruled.

Judge Winslow asked Albright if there was any relationship between the fact that his trade mark applications were filed in May of 1920 one month before the first of their four primary patents was going to expire and wanted to know if there was any significance in that.
Albright's answer:None that I know of.

Vibroplex label from the early 1920s

Vibroplex nameplate designed by James Albright
in the early 1920s with the Bug Trade Mark.

In the Appeal case Bunnell cited the lower court's decision by Judge Francis Winslow who stated his opinion on the appearance of a semi-automatic transmitter: This vibrating or fluttering arm, because of its aptness, probably suggested the name 'BUG'.

Bunnell went on to argue that Vibroplex would have more of a case if Bunnell were calling their instruments Bunnell Vibroplexes, but instead thought Vibroplex was trying to take a public word and turn it into a private monopoly. The case is precisely the same as if a plaintiff piano-maker were seeking exclusive trade-mark to the name 'piano.'   In January of 1928, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court's decision in favor of J.H. Bunnell & Co.

All this legal activity obviously had little effect on the Vibroplex's popularity. The Bunnell Gold Bug was short-lived and quickly faded. Ironically, J.H. Bunnell & Co. during the law suits, was an active dealer for Vibroplex and had been selling Vibroplex Bugs continuously since around 1912.

In the early 1920s, Vibroplex Company president, James Albright, designed a new metal name plate that included their bug trade mark. This move probably made the names Vibroplex and bug synonymous from that point on.
Today the Vibroplex Bug is admired just as it was when Horace Martin first introduced it over a hundred years ago.**
If you hear one on the air it is usually very recognizable, because it simply sounds like a bug.

Vibroplex Bug from the late teens.

* By 1890, the term bug may have been adopted for use in other technical fields.
** Horace Martin's first Vibroplex patent was issued August 9, 1904.
The first public showing of the Vibroplex by Martin was at the Telegraph Superintendent's Convention
in Chattanooga, TN on May 17, 1905.
The United Electrical Manufacturing Company, (UEM) the company that originally manufactured the Vibroplex, first advertised the Vibroplex for sale in June of 1905. Horace G. Martin was the vice president and general manager of UEM.

Back to the Horace G. Martin page

Back to the Telegraph-History home page

A version of this article was originally
published in the February 2004 issue
of "The OTB," the quarterly journal of
The Antique Wireless Association.
( A nonprofit historical society )

Copyright (c) by John Casale - W2NI
Troy, New York
Sources :
Electricity and the Electric Telegraph, George B. Prescott, 1877
The Quadruplex, WM. Maver Jr. & Minor Davis, 1890
American Telegraph Practice, Donald McNicol, 1913
The Papers of Thomas A. Edison Vol.II, Rosenberg, Israel, Neir, Andrews, 1991
National Archives and Records Administration, New York, N.Y. :
U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, January 1928
U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, May 1927
The Vibroplex Co. Inc. vs. J.H.Bunnell & Co., on Trade-Mark, Bug, Files E29-337/ 9720.