J. Casale - W2NI

The Bunnell Double Speed Key:

Was it Really Introduced in 1888?

The Bunnell Double Speed Key has been used as a milestone in the evolution of the key by many historians. It is considered the first successful manual key that operated horizontally and is placed as the precursor to the semi-automatic key. Yet, the oldest examples of this key do not really have the appearance of a key that was manufactured during the 1880s. You might be saying that it has been well documented by contemporary authors both in print and on the web that Jesse Bunnell invented this key and that J.H. Bunnell & Co introduced it in 1888. But, did this really happen?

Style W and Style G Double Speed Keys

The first ad showing both the "W" and "G" styles.
From the Journal of the Telegraph, October 21, 1907.

Looking through the telegraph journals from the late 19th century you would think J.H. Bunnell & Co. would be heavily touting a key that could help telegraphers suffering from the strain of using a conventional Morse key. But, not a single Double Speed Key ad was found. No evidence was found in the text books of this era either. One of the most comprehensive books on telegraph technology was, American Telegraphy by William Maver Jr. The first edition of this book was actually published by J.H. Bunnell & Co. in 1892. In this edition, Maver illustrates Bunnell Steel Lever, Steiner and Victor keys, but there is no mention of the Double Speed Key. You would think such a radical new key design would be mentioned by Maver in book published by the Bunnell company. It was not until several years later when Maver started mentioning its existence. Even more glaring, a search of the full catalogs from J.H. Bunnell & Co. for the years 1889 and 1898 do not show a Double Speed Key. And finally, a search of patents issued during this era found none resembling a Double Speed Key that were either granted to Jesse Bunnell or assigned to the Bunnell Company.

So when was it introduced? The reason might be best understood by considering why the country's largest telegraph instrument manufacturer was motivated to introduce a horizontally operated key. The very first ad that I could find for the Double Speed Key was in the Journal of the Telegraph, dated November 20, 1904. If you think about what was going on in the telegraph industry in 1904, the Double Speed Key's arrival at this point in time makes a lot of sense. The wave of horizontally operated semi automatic keys and the interest in them was rapidly growing. Horace Martin's patent for his Autoplex was granted in June of 1903 and during 1904 he was actively selling them. In January of 1904, William Coffe filed for his patent for an all mechanical vertical key and beginning in January of 1905, the Mecograph Company, operating initially off of Coffe's patent, were advertising a semi automatic key. All this followed by Martin's spring 1905 introduction of the Vibroplex.

Two weeks after that first Double Speed Key ad, (November 20, 1904) a business announcement was published in The Telegraph Age on December 1, 1904 formally introducing the Double Speed Key. Under the title of, "A New Telegraph Key," the following was announced : "J.H. Bunnell & Co., 20 Park Place, New York, have brought out a new telegraph key, to which has been given the name of "Double Speed." The following month, on January 28, 1905, John Ghegan, a long time telegrapher and inventor, who was the president of J.H. Bunnell & Co. filed for a patent for a legless, horizontally operated "Telegraph Key." The object of his invention was "to provide a cheap, efficient, and simple telegraph key of the kind in which the lever is elastically mounted at one end and is preferably provided with a pair of contacts at the other end."

Wireless Double Speed Key above
Style W landline key below

Above: a Bunnell Double Speed Wireless Key.
Below: the "Style W" landline key.
From the AWA Electronic History Museum Collection.

The first Double Speed Key as introduced in 1904 was an all metallic version. It had a large hole in its brass base and had an adjustment for the lever's spring tension. It is exactly what is shown in the Bunnell ad in this article as, "style W." But when it was first introduced, the Double Speed Key had no "style" designation. The "W" designation did not come about until 1907 to distinguish it from a second key in this series called, "style G." Some collectors have mistakenly claimed that the "W" stands for wireless but both the "W" and "G" styles were introduced as landline telegraph keys. The true Bunnell Wireless Double Speed key, a third key in this series, did not show up until the 1920s. It had larger contacts, no spring tension adjustment and was mounted on a heavy base.

The most intriguing part of the Double Speed Key's history to me, is the meaning of the "W" and "G." At first I thought they were just arbitrary letter designations, similar to what Bunnell used in their catalogs to identify different dealer discount schedules. But, I believe their meaning is much deeper than that and at the very root of the Double Speed Key's origin. It appears the designations represent the last names of the inventors who designed the lever styles used in the two keys. In the "style G," the lever's leaf spring is anchored to a block of ebonite and it has no spring tension adjustment. This style is precisely the one shown in John Ghegan's patent granted on March 20,1906. I believe the "style G" was named after Ghegan.

Roye M. Wood patent drawing

Drawing from Roye M. Wood's November 29, 1904
patent showing the "Style W" lever and
spring tension adjustment.

The "style W" has a spring tension adjustment and the lever's leaf spring is anchored to a block of brass. The person who designed this lever was Roye M. Wood from Chicago Ill. On November 29, 1904, within days of the Double Speed Key's formal introduction, he received a patent for a horizontally operated leg key that had a unique spring tension adjustment for its lever. A single thumbscrew holds two small brass blocks that grip the lever's leaf spring from both sides. When the thumbscrew is loosened the blocks can slide forward to increase the stiffness of the spring. There is nothing documenting that the Bunnell Company acquired his patent or obtained a license to use it. But, there is no question that Wood's lever and spring tension adjustment are incorporated in Bunnell's, "style W" key. A strong argument could be made that J.H. Bunnell & Co.'s development of the entire Double Speed Key series evolved from Wood's patent.

Minimum Tension Maximum Tension

The right image shows brass blocks of a "Style W" Double Speed Key adjusted for maximum tension.
This lever and spring tension adjustment was patented by Roye M. Wood, November 29, 1904.

The Bunnell company had high hopes for this key that they termed, "the coming key." Like the semi-automatics, it had the potential to help a telegrapher achieve two of his goals - high speed with less physical strain. "Don't pay a big price for a mechanical transmitter until you have seen the merits of this simple, low-priced device...," early Bunnell ads stated. There is evidence it was initially peddled to the "A1" telegrapher market. A popular dealer in Chicago during this era who catered to first class operators was O.T. Anderson. His name should ring a bell with Vibroplex historians. He was a 26 year old telegrapher and typewriter dealer who was an early agent for Horace Martin. In January of 1905, he was specifically mentioning only two keys in his ad, the Autoplex and the Double Speed key.

Stlye W Double Speed Key on factory base.

A "Style W" Double Speed Key shown with its portable base, cord and wedge.
In this configuration, it could be transported by a telegrapher just like a "bug."

Originally, the Double Speed Key was offered in three patterns: leg, legless, and portable. The portable pattern sold for $6.50 and came with a cord and wedge (and later a base) with the idea it could be carried to work by a telegrapher just like a bug. When considering the rarity of the leg pattern today it appears most telegraphers did try to use them as portables. Another rarity is a Double Speed "KOB". Bunnell built sets that included a legless, "style W," Double Speed Key with an aluminum lever sounder on one base. Their nickname of a "sideswiper" simply grew out of the the way it was operated - the "sidewise rocking movement of the hand." The key's high speed, explained by the Bunnell Co., was the result of the key requiring about half the motions of a conventional Morse key. For example, the letter "P" in American Morse (five dots) required ten movements of the hand, five down and five up. The Double Speed Key required only six. (including the final release)

By 1914, Ghegan and the Bunnell Company were still trying to get a piece of the semi automatic key market with ads like : "For only 2.40 you can get a Double Speed Key and with a little practice do better work than with a high priced bug." This seems a reasonable statement but the key was unable to take on the popularity and speed capabilities of the bug. The "style G" as it turned out was short lived and is difficult to find today. The "style W" with the spring tension adjustment proved to be the more popular style and was produced by Bunnell for many years with some minor variations. Today it is still sought after by collectors and continues to have a loyal following of users.

Late Style W Double Speed Key

A late "Style W" Bunnell Double Speed Key.

The bottom line in all this is that J.H. Bunnell & Co. introduced the Double Speed Key in late 1904 (not in 1888) at the same time when the semi automatic key was emerging. Is was offered as a simple alternative in a new and competitive key market. Credit for introducing all three Double Speed Keys should go to John Ghegan. History seems to have over looked the Ghegan era of the Bunnell Company. Part of the problem is the interchanging of the names, Jesse Bunnell vs. J.H. Bunnell & Co. in respect to what was introduced. Ghegan's tenor as president and head of manufacturing at J.H. Bunnell & Co. was actually longer than Jesse Bunnell's. (Jesse Bunnell passed away in 1899) And if you consider the number of different telegraph instruments that were signed off by Ghegan to go into production between the years 1899 to 1926, it really represents an incredible list of products...

Sources :
American Telegraphy, William Maver Jr., 1892, 1897, 1912
The Telegraph Age : March 1, 1900, June 1, 1902, December 1, 1904,
January 1, 1905, April 1, 1906, September 16, 1906
J.H. Bunnell & Co. Catalogs : #10, 17, 28, 29, and 30
The Western Union Archives, National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C.
Journal of the Telegraph : November 20,1904, October 21,1907, October 20, 1914
U.S. Patents :
John J. Ghegan, 815,809, March 20, 1906
Roye M. Wood, 776,160, November 29, 1904

Back to the Telegraph-History home page

A version of this article was originally
published in the November, 2003 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