Since Horace G. Martin made the first Vibroplex in 1904 or
1905, about 300,000 Vibroplexes have been made, and the Original
model Vibroplex is still being made after more than 90 years.
Vibroplexes were by far the most predominant bug on land line
telegraph systems like Western Union, Postal Telegraph, the
railroads, and hundreds of others. Beginning in the Twenties,
commercial, military and amateur wireless operators began
using Vibroplexes. Production peaked in the Fourties and Fifties
along with the popularity of ham radio, but the Vibroplex
Company is still making them -- be sure to visit the Vibroplex
Co. This Web page is intended to help owners identify their
Vibroplexes, determine when they were built, and learn about
the interesting company and people that made them.
What's a Bug?
The telegraph key was invented in 1844 by Samuel Morse's
associate, Alfred Vail, and was called the "Vail Correspondent".
It was basically a switch with a knob mounted on a spring-loaded
lever. The design evolved somewhat until the modern design
was invented and patented by Jesse Bunnell in 1881. He called
his key the "Triumph Key."
However, many telegraph operators who used a key for long
periods of time developed a debilitating problem, which they
called "glass arm." Today the same type of problem
has a kinder name -- "Repetitive Motion Disorder,"
or RMD. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is one type of RMD.
In 1902, Horace G. Martin, a New York inventor, patented
the first semi-automatic telegraph key, which he began to
manufacture as the "Autoplex." Using a battery and
coil like those in an electric bell, the Autoplex made endless
strings of dots when the operator pushed a lever in one direction.
Dashes were made manually by pushing the lever the other way.
Since only dots were made automatically, the key was called
a semiautomatic key. Unfortunately, the Autoplex required
a separate battery and was probably fairly expensive.
Two years later, on May 7, 1904, Martin filed a patent for
a completely mechanical semiautomatic key, which he named
the "Vibroplex." The Vibroplex was based on a lever
that rotated around a vertical pivot. Pushing a paddle mounted
on one end of the lever to the right and holding it there
caused a spring-mounted contact on the other end of the lever
to vibrate against a stationary contact, making strings of
dots. Dashes were made manually by pushing the lever to the
left and releasing it.
Martin was probably not the sole inventor of the semiautomatic
key. William O. Coffe of Cleveland patented a mechanical semiautomatic
key with a vertical pendulum on January 11, 1904. He must
not have sold many copies of his "Mecograph" with
the vertical pendulum, because only one is known to exist
today. However, he made and sold a number of Mecographs in
several different versions with horizontal pendulums.
The Vibroplex did help telegraphers avoid RMD, but it also
helped them send faster, which meant they earned more money,
since telegraphers were generally paid by the word. Within
about ten years, the Vibroplex and a number of clones made
by others became very popular.
In those days a poor telegraph operator was called a "bug,"
and some operators bought a key from Vibroplex or a competitor
and started using it without much practice. The result was
poor sending, and the keys themselves became known as "bugs."
The Vibroplex Company has made a variety of bugs during its
long history. Some models are unusual, some are scarce, and
some are common. Several other manufacturers made clones and
copies of Vibroplexes, some legal and some illegal. Some of
the people involved are interesting and colorful, including
Martin himself and J. E. Albright, who ran the company for
more than forty years, many of them spent in court defending