Monday, September 14, 2009


Not this Zephyr, this one:
All photos, click for bigger.
The mechanism is John A. LaHiff's clever redesign of the Original Vibroplex, in which he replaced all the castings with standard rod and flat elements. First seen as the No. 6, his first version is better known as the Lightning Bug. The Zephyr bears the same relationship to the Lightning Bug as the Blue Racer does to the Original: it has a smaller, sleeker footprint, though it is a little bigger than a Blue Racer. Produced from 1940 through 1958, it is relatively uncommon, though not actually rare.

I don't own an actual Lightning Bug* but I do have a very nice clone made by Lionel (yes, the model train company) as the military "J-36" during the Second World War, and so, for scale purposes, here they are lined up with my Begali Intrepid:The Lionel was my first commercially-made semiautomatic key and has a little lump of bar solder added to the weight to slow it down.

The Zephyr arrived partially disassembled, lever freed from the pivots and fingerpieces removed, with each subassembly carefully bubblewrapped. This is an excellent way to ship a key, if the person taking it apart knows what he is doing. The guy I bought it from did, and the fragile fingerpieces and the easy-to-deform steel reed that is the heart of the key all arrived intact, Reassembly took a few minutes and I was once again glad to own an inexpensive multi-tip gunsmith's screwdriver set. I have roughly adjusted it and it runs nicely, though fairly fast.

UPDATE: If you look at the large version of the photo above, you may notice something that sent me scurrying to my basement hamshack this morning: I had not installed the "paddle" portion of the fingerpiece properly! It and the lever are tapped and there's a trick to snug assembly. I had not used it and as a result, the paddle was under some stress. All better now. Whew!

A bug key that shows up a bit more frequently than the Zephr is Vibroplex's Champion, with the same parts but on a full-sized base. (Or it's a Lightning Bug with a Zephyr-style damper, if you'd rather). The Champion generally sells for less than the other LaHiff-type bugs but it's a perfectly good key._____________________
*I was a little surprised to realize that.


  1. I could never get good with a bug. Being as I was 12 when I got my ticket, electronic keyers and paddles were *so* much more high-tech, that I gravitated towards those.
    The old guy that taught code at the classes I took used one, and had a special one he kept adjusted to send code for the Novice classes he taught. He blast the letters out at 10~15 wpm, but spaced them out so the "speed" was about 7 wpm. He told us that if we learned the individual letters at high-speed, we'd find it easier to increase our speed the more we operated.
    And he was right! Within a year I was rattling along at almost 20 wpm on my old J-38 key.

  2. The OT who taught you was using what's known as the Farnsworth method and he was wise. It strongly supports learning each symbol as a pattern of sound instead of totin' up the "dots and dashes" and therefore aids in acquiring speed.

    I have, for some reason, never been all that good with a keyer; they tend to get away from me. Bugs, I like; I built my first one after a month of heavy hamming with a Heathkit HW-9 left me with a mild case of glass arm.

  3. I agree! Long spaces after each letter are helpful - gives me a chance to write the darned thing down before the next letter comes along. If all I had to do to receive CW was sound the letter out, i.e. speak it as it was received, why, hell, I could do 30 wpm!

  4. yep. In a very short time we weren't hearing "Dots-and-Dashes", but LETTERS, and soon common words ('the', 'and', 'to', etc) followed.
    He had been a shipboard Radio Officer, and could talk to you, drink a cup of coffee, smoke a cigarette, and carry on a conversation with somebody on a noisy band at 35+ wpm, all at the same time.
    Quite an amazing old guy, and very patient with the youngsters in his class.

  5. Over the years I've had two bugs. The first was a "blue racer" I picked up at a 'fest. It went missing on a Field Day. Some years later I got a Deluxe Bug---all chrome and gold. I had that for years and finally gave it to a friend, a retired telegrapher who was just getting into Ham Radio.

    Currently I have two Vibroplex keyers. A single-paddle and a dual paddle. They sit side-by-side next to a custom paddle hand-built by a ham who is now SK.

    Never was much good at code. I prefer the digital modes, but I do move down to lower 20m and 40m from time-to-time.

    Nice collection.