A Short History of Vibroplex Semiautomatic
In 1902, telegrapher and inventor Horace G. Martin of New York developed a new form of telegraph key that operated by a side-to-side lever and would send dots automatically as long as the lever was held in one direction, and send dashes manually when the lever was pressed the other way. This new key used an electromagnet that cycled to send the dots, and it was named the Autoplex. Although it worked well, the price was $20.00 (a princely sum in the days when a good telegrapher might earn $8-$12 a week), it required an extra battery circuit in the telegraph office to power it, and it was tricky to adjust, so it was not exactly a big seller.
By 1904 Martin had come up with a different design that used a side-to-side vibrating arm to form the dots, and Martin named his new invention the Vibroplex. First sold in 1905, the original price was $8.00 and it was an instant success. Here, at last, was a telegraph key that permitted high-speed sending without fear of the dreaded Telegraphers Paralysis which afflicted so many high-speed operators who manipulated a straight key in the standard up-and-down fashion.
Over the years a number of different Vibroplex bugs have come and gone. What follows is a thumbnail sketch of the various models.
A. One-piece frame models
NOTE: A one-piece frame model is an instrument with a cast, one-piece frame to hold the lever arm pinion and adjusting screws.
Original: First known simply as a Vibroplex, Martins original design was later called The Original Vibroplex or Martins Original Vibroplex to distinguish it from other models that came after it. Sometime in the 1920s it became known as just the Original. It is still offered today. Base size in 6-3/8 x 3-1/2.
Two variants of the Original are the Original Deluxe, which first appeared in 1940 with a chrome-plated base, jeweled bearings, and red knob and thumb piece and is still available, and the Presentation which appeared in 1948 and is an Original Deluxe with a gold-plated base top. It is also still offered today (newer versions have the entire base gold-plated).
Double-Lever: This instrument used two separate levers for dots and dashes, with two thumb pieces instead of a knob and thumb piece. Appeared around 1909 and disappeared before 1920. Same approximate size as an Original.
Model X: The Model X had an intriguing mechanism the allowed both dots and dashes to be formed by the same set of contacts. It first appeared in 1911 with a square shaft and weight, but around 1919 it was changed to a round shaft and weight. It disappeared sometime in the early to mid-1920s. Same approximate size as an Original.
Upright: Also called the Wire chiefs Key, this model featured a horizontal knob and thumb piece with a right-angle mechanism so that the lever arm and contacts were all vertical. It was designed to have a very small footprint on a desk, although its component parts were the same as an Original except for the right-angle lever arm. Built in the teens only.
No. 4 or Blue Racer: First appearing as the No. 4 in 1914, the name was changed to Blue Racer about 1920 when the key was offered with a cobalt-blue enamel base. The blue paint was dropped after several years, but the name stuck. This bug lasted until 1965 and was also offered in a Deluxe version after 1940. The only Vibroplex built on a 2.5-wide base, its parts were approximately two-thirds the size of Original parts.
Junior: The Junior was nothing but a set of Original parts mounted on a slightly smaller (6 x 3) base. It first appeared in the early 1920s, but most were built between 1932 and 1939. None were built after 1939. The Junior is unique in that it is the only Vibroplex ever built that had the nameplate facing to the right instead of to the left or towards the operator.
B. Assembled-frame models
Note: Assembled frame refers to a Vibroplex that uses two triangular plates and two vertical posts, all bolted together, to create the support mechanism for the lever-arm pinion and adjusting screws.
No. 6 or Lightning Bug: First appearing in 1926 as the No. 6, the name was changed to Lightning Bug sometime in the late 1930s. Same base size as an Original but with a flat lever-arm shaft and a square speed weight in addition to the assembled frame. Also offered as a Deluxe version from 1940 onward; discontinued about 1982.
Zephyr: First appeared in 1939. This instrument was a set of Lightning Bug parts mounted on a Junior-size base (6 x 3) but with a simplified damper design for the lever arm. Discontinued in 1958.
Champion: The Champion was the low-end Vibroplex for many years, and featured a set of Lightning Bug parts on a standard-sized base, but with the simplified damper design of the Zephyr and the circuit-closing switch omitted for cost reduction. Discontinued sometime in the 1980s.
Midget: The rarest of Vibroplexes; only four are known to exist. This tiny, nickel-plated piece of handiwork was truly pocket-sized and featured a small, articulated rear leg that could be swung out for stability. To be truthful, its small size and light weight make it only minimally functional as a useful instrument. As far as is known, the Midget was only built from about 1918 until 1920.
The thin-base or Norcross bugs: During 1907 and 1908, Horace Martins original company, the United Electrical Manufacturing Company (UEM), which had been incorporated in 1904, moved from New York to Norcross, GA. While there, Martin built a number of Original and Double Lever instruments using a very thin base (about 3/16 thick as compared to the standard ½ thick). Because of the absence of base weight these instruments were equipped with an articulated leg that could be swung out to provide stability. UEM went out if business in 1908, and it is doubtful if Martin built any more of the thin-base instruments between that time and his reappearance in New York in 1910.
Notes on base paints and plating
From its inception until 1938 or 1939, the Vibroplex was offered with a standard black japanned base and gold pinstripe decoration with nickel-plated top parts. An optional nickel-plated base was available with most models. Vibroplex experimented with colored bases in the late 1920s to mid-1930s, using red, blue and green enameled paint on special order. Only a few red ones and one blue one are known to still exist, and there are no known green ones.
In the late 1930s Vibroplex began switching over to black wrinkle paint instead of japanning. Some 1937-38 period instruments have been found with black wrinkle paint and gold pin-stripe decoration. In 1940, Vibroplex switched completely from nickel to chrome plating for the top parts, black wrinkle for a standard base, and chrome for a deluxe base.
From 1943 until 1946 deluxe instruments used a battleship gray wrinkle base paint to conserve chrome for the war effort.
In 1958, the standard base paint was changed from black wrinkle to gray wrinkle (a lighter shade than the battleship gray of the WWII deluxes). In addition, some Champions and Lightning Bugs were offered with a beige wrinkle base in the early 1960s.
Post-1979 Vibroplexes have used a variety of paints including textured gray, powdered black, etc.
Instruments offered as Deluxes (post-1940)
Original, Blue Racer, Lightning Bug
Some notes on Horace G. Martin and the Vibroplex Company
Although Martin met with some success in selling his instruments he was never much for actively marketing them, so his business didnt really take off until around 1911 when he teamed with J.E. Albright. Albright was an entrepreneur who had been selling typewriters since 1890, and he readily took on the task of manufacturing and selling the Vibroplex instruments. Together, Martin and Albright formed The Vibroplex Company, Inc. in 1915.
Martin sold his interest in the company to Albright in 1920. During the late 1930s, after all the original patents (now owned by Albright) had expired, Martin began selling his own versions of Originals, Lightning Bugs and Blue Racers as Martin Flash Keys. Less than 5,000 were ever built. Martin also developed a Rotoplex in the early 1940s that featured a rotary pivot mechanism, but that was his last known invention and only a few were ever made.
Albright and his family owned the Vibroplex Company until sometime around 1965 when it was sold to John La Hiff, a mechanical engineer and long-time company employee who was the designer of the assembled frame instruments (the No. 6 or Lightning Bug, the Zephyr, and the Champion) and probable designer of the Presentation. La Hiffs sons sold the company to Peter Garsoe in 1979 and it was moved to Portland, ME. Garsoe sold the company to Felton Mitch Mitchell, W4OA, in 1994 and it was moved to Mobile, Alabama.
The Vibroplex Co., Inc., 1890-1990, William R. Holly, K1BH, 1990.
Vibroplex Collectors Guide, Tom French, W1IMQ, 2nd edition, 1996.
Assorted articles in The Vail Correspondent, 1992-1998, Tom French, W1IMQ, editor.