The Evolution of a Triumph
J. Casale - W2NI

The Evolution Of A Triumph

ca. 1906 Triumph
A ca. 1906 Triumph. "Pat. Applied For"
markings on the bottom, slotted screws
on the binding posts, no "Bug Lip", and
the lever has "Bunnell" enclosed
in a rectangle.

Some of the most successful telegraph keys in U.S. history were the steel lever keys made by J.H. Bunnell & Co. They were produced by the hundreds of thousands, copied by many manufacturers, but because they are so seemingly common, are typically ignored by collectors, and frequently sit unclaimed at the close of flea markets. Most of these keys have been incorrectly pigeonholed into a common category called "Triumphs".

The steel lever key patented by Jesse Bunnell in 1881 was not called the "Triumph Key", although the steel lever design was certainly a triumph for his company due to its popularity. The top of the line key that was specifically called the "Triumph" did not show up until twenty five years later.

As early as 1868 inventors and makers were experimenting with various lever designs attempting to solve the problem of a brass lever becoming loose on its steel axis when subject to consistent lateral pressures. This lateral movement produced a secondary problem called "sticking" that occurred when the lever was released. The key contacts would slide back across themselves instead of breaking clean especially when closely gapped. The heavier brass lever designs of the 1870's were actually an attempt to minimize this problem, but the trade off was a heavy, less responsive lever. During the 1870-1880's makers, including J.H. Bunnell & Co., promoted the cure of "sticking" with their new designs.

Nine years before the Bunnell patent in a July 1872 article, Franklin Pope, one of the most respected telegraph engineers of the nineteenth century, talked about this problem with keys :

"The lever is very apt to become loose on the arbor in the hands
of many operators who "send" with a heavy side motion. It has been
suggested, as the remedy for this, to have the lever cast either in
the form of a cross or a hollow rhomboid..."

Franklin Pope had the reputation to freely and unselfishly help others with their ideas. It was common for inventors to come to him for advice and he would frequently work with them to develop an idea and expect nothing in return. The degree of Pope's involvement with Bunnell's invention is unclear. But what is clear is that Pope, who was also a patent expert, is listed as the patent attorney on Jesse Bunnell's historic February 15, 1881 steel lever patent. Bunnell's words in his patent, drawn up by Pope stated :

"I claim as my Invention: A telegraphic key lever constructed...from a single piece
of wrought metal in the form of a cross, of a breadth greater than its depth or vertical
thickness, and provided with trunnions formed upon the extremities of the traverse arms
of the cross."

'Legless Pattern Steel Lever Key'
J.H. Bunnell's "Legless Pattern Steel Lever Key" ca. 1881
Jesse Bunnell's steel lever invention solved the problem of lateral stability and gave the operator a strong, lightweight, and responsive lever. The key shown in Bunnell's patent was a leg key. When it was introduced in 1880 it was called "J.H. Bunnell's Steel Lever Solid Trunnion Key," or simply "The Bunnell Key", and even before the patent was granted the keys were being sold in big numbers. A legless version of the key was introduced in the spring of 1881 that was intended for use on "fine desks" that could not be subjected to the holes necessary for the under the table connections to a leg key. The "Legless Pattern Steel Lever Key" had a solid brass base and provided top mounted binding posts. The solid base key was built until 1898 when the base was replaced with a hollow version that the Bunnell Company referred to as the "skeleton" base. This key was produced by Bunnell well into the teens and was sold with at least two variations in binding posts.

'Skeleton' based Steel Lever Legless Keys
"Skeleton" based Steel Lever Legless Keys.
Early on left, later on the right.

Triumph Ad - September 1906
The First ad for the Triumph - September 1906
From The Telegraph and Telephone Age.
Beginning in March of 1906 the Bunnell Co. began putting out teasers to watch out for their new "Legless Key" that would be the "acme of perfection". Introduced as "the best regular key made", the Triumph made its debut in September of 1906. Also introduced was their new logo with "Bunnell" enclosed in a rectangle on the lever. (Prior to this "PATENTED FEB. 15, 1881 was stamped on the lever.) The Triumph's rugged base differentiates it from the skeleton base of the Standard Steel Lever legless key. This new base included thicker standards, a separate anchor for the circuit closer, and solid binding post connections to the frame and the lower platina contact. A glaring difference, though is the introduction of a new style binding post. When considering all the different binding posts available to Bunnell at this time, I find it more than coincidence that they selected a style that was similar to the standard binding post used by The Postal Telegraph Co.

'Pat. Applied For'

The bottom of the ca. 1906 Triumph
Faintly engraved and hidden on the bottom of the ca. 1906 Triumph pictured in this article, (which was made for The Postal Telegraph Co.), is "Pat Applied For". But no patent was issued and no reference to one has been found in any of their ads or marked on later Triumphs. The only patent activity related to a legless key by J.H. Bunnell & Co. at this time was John Ghegan's patent for a key with an insulated base with embedded conductors. Nevertheless, with this new design, J.H. Bunnell & Co. under John Ghegan's direction, gave the commercial telegraph industry the most widely used legless key in U.S. history.

A view showing how a Bug
wedge is used.
A post 1918 "Standard Steel Lever Legless Key"
that shows a wedge being inserted underneath its
"Bug Lip".
By 1918 Bunnell upgraded their skeleton based Standard Steel Lever Legless key and gave it a design to look very similar to a Triumph. The new standard legless got the Triumph's base and its binding posts with slotted screws. It also received a new one piece lower contact assembly and the option of either silver or tungsten contact points.

Bunnell's description of the improvements made to the 1918 Triumph in their ads was somewhat vague with nonspecific wording like "other valuable improvements". But the differences justifying the Triumph's higher price tag included: tungsten contact points as standard, the use of slotted nuts instead of screws on the binding posts, a unique lower screw contact assembly (similar to a Vibroplex screw contact), and mica insulation. It appears the thin mica insulators may not have been able to withstand the constant vibration. Many repaired Triumphs from this era have had the mica replaced with fiber/rubber insulators and the wording was changed in 1924 ads from "mica" to "improved" insulation. Both keys now included a "bug lip" to facilitate the use of a wedge when an operator wanted to use his bug. Previous to this it was common for an operator to place his wedge in line into the circuit closer's lip. 1918 also shows the use of another new Bunnell logo with "Bunnell S" stamped on the levers. Later Triumphs had no lever markings at all.

Bottom view of a 'Standard Steel Lever Key'
 and a Triumph
A "Standard Steel Lever Key" on the left,
A Triumph is on the right.

These two excellent keys are the most commonly found Bunnell keys today and side by side it's often hard to distinguish a Triumph from the Standard Steel Lever key. But original, post 1918 Triumphs will have all three of the following differences : Viewed from the top a Triumph will have slotted nuts on the binding posts and a squared off retaining nut on the lower contact assembly. Looking at the bottom, the lower contact on a Triumph shows a screw head and on the Standard Steel Lever key there is a nut.

A post 1918 Triumph
A post 1918 Triumph
Frequently discussed on the air and internet reflectors are recommendations for a good straight key to use. It is amazing that the suggestion of using a Triumph is rarely heard. Here you have a rugged, brass based key with a nickel plated steel lever, along with tungsten contacts, that was used by thousands of professional telegraphers. J.H. Bunnell & Co. built the Triumph for Western Union, The Postal Telegraph Co., and countless railroads. The key is symbolic of twentieth century landline telegraphy itself and fine examples are still available at flea markets for usually under thirty dollars. The ca. 1906 Triumph shown in this article was found in a neglected condition at a recent AWA convention for fifteen dollars.

John Lennon once wrote: "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." Well, you might consider using a Triumph while you're busy looking for that "perfect" key.

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Copyright (c) by John Casale - W2NI
Troy, New York
The Telegrapher, June 27, 1868, July 27, 1872
Journal of The Telegraph, June 1, 1880, August 1, 1881, October 20, 1914
Telegraph Age, 3-16-1906, 9-16-1906
The Berkshire Courier, October 17, 1895
U.S. Patent 237808
J.H. Bunnell & Co. Catalogs 28, 29