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?
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."
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.
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.
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
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 )