Ham Radio: Alzheimers & the Digital Human

Carrying, as I do, one of the genes associated with Alzheimer’s disease, there are many, many things done around here to keep that risk “managed” – as much as one can.

That includes the usual:  Working on “mental projects” a  lot.  Reading voraciously, though that’s as much for pleasure as anything.  Benchmarking reaction times,  regular blood work, the End of Alzheimer’s diet guidelines, 8 grams of vitamin C per day, plus some 20-odd other supplements.

You get the idea…be active, be optimistic…keep sharp, and above all, remember AmeriTrade and E-Trade are always closer than Las Vegas.

As one of the relatively few “digital humans” there are some other things being done as well.  Like learning a whole new kind of Morse Code key that until a few months ago, I didn’t even know existed.

Yeah, sure, big deal, right?

Well, it is, really.  Because when you force yourself to learn a new skill, you’re working on maintaining neuroplasticity.  The more you learn, the more you  can  learn.  And that’s important.

A New Kind of Morse Key?

Well, yes…and no.

“Direct digital humans” don’t need fingers to type, or to take our eyes off the road while driving.  We can keep eyes on the road at all times because with Morse code, you can send faster than you can text, as was shown a long time back on the Jay Leno  Tonight Show.

The real More aficionados, should there be any around, would notice that the Morse sending on Leno employed what looks like a chrome-base Bencher electronics electronic keying paddle.  These are by one of the oldest automatic speed key companies in the world, Vibroplex.

Competition, being what it is, a very similar product (and less expensive) was introduced several years ago by MFJ Enterprises.   Mine’s been around a long time but works quite nicely.  Up close, a keyer “paddle” rig looks like this:

So you understand the four major types of Morse keys, let me run them down for you.  There’s a story in here of technical progression.

1. Conventional (Straight) Key

This is the one that everyone thinks of.  It’s most iconic version is probably the WW-II rendering as the J-38 key.  The very best of these were make by Lionel.  Yes, that’s right, the model railroad people made Morse keys during the war.

The operator uses the wrist (slang is “fist”) to press down on a knob.  Some ops like an ‘open knob’ while others like a finger rest under the key knob.  In old times, the best finger-rest was a plastic poker chip drilled with a 3/8th’s hole through the middle.

2. Side-Swiper or “Cootie” Keys

These date from the period around 1880, or so.  Unlike the “straight key” (which is hard to send with for long periods – your arm will feel like it’s dying 10-minutes, or so, into a chat), the “Cootie” is used by rocking your wrist back and forth.

Lots of telegraphers suffered from carpal tunnel injuries – in slang passed off as a “glass arm” from sending.

This morning’s discussion of Morse code keys is occasioned by the arrival this week of my first “cootie” key.

Essentially, it’s like mounting 2- straight keys, back to back.

If you want one, drop me an email at George@ure.net and I will pass along contact info for the maker…

3.  Semi-Automatic (Bug) Keys

As good at the “cooties” were (you could send faster and better than a straight key) their run didn’t last long.  That’s because right after the turn of the century, Vibroplex “…first manufactured and sold in 1905 by the Vibroplex Company, after its invention and patent by Horace Greeley Martin of New York City in 1904. The original device became known as a “bug”, most likely due to the original logo, which showed an “electrified bug”.  The Vibroplex Company has been in business continuously for 114 years, as of 2019. Amateur radio operator Scott E. Robbins, also known by the call sign W4PA, became the 8th owner of the Vibroplex Company on December 21, 2009. The company is located in Knoxville, Tennessee. ”

My first “bug” was acquired in 1965.  It was a Vibroplex “Lightning” bug.  Traded away long ago (horse-trading gear is a large part of ham radio, even today), there is still a Vibroplex 100-year commemorative key in my collection.  It gets used (sometimes) on Straight Key Night (SKN) (New Years Eve to non-digital humans).

Did I mention Vibroplex bugs are collectible?

When the paddle (right) is pressed to the left, a contact is closed (that vertical post right foreground).  However, when the paddle is pressed to the right, the long arm (extending right front to left back) vibrates.  And this is the magic part:  It completes “dits”
(dots are the short part of the Morse, “dahs” are the dashes) automatically.  Properly adjusted, one of these can make 15-20 dots before it stops.  The most anyone ever needs is five in a row, in real code exchanges.

Well, wouldn’t you know it?  Along came the Japanese after WW-II and they came up with a knock-off, also in my collection, called a “HiMound.”  And in a fine example of Japanese engineering excellence on the rise, their keys were almost completely enclosed:

With their key, the placement of a weight on the vibrating lever is what sets the speed.  You can send dits incredibly fast, but if the dashes aren’t sent at the right ratio, you’ll be accuse of what ancient shipboard operators would call “a banana-boat swing.”

4 Fully Automatic Keyers

The late 1950’s and early 1960’s were an exciting (to geeks) period to become involved in ham radio.  Single sideband was just coming into its own for voice coms..  It would eventually replace most AM (ancient modulation) signals.  The AM’ers would decry “single slop-bucket” as a terrible thing.  And somewhere in here, the radio’s I love most restoring (but never seem to get to) were born.

Hallicrafters was taking on Collins which had a grand receiver/transmitter combo, the 73-S3B and 32-S3 transmitter.  Hallicrafters battled back with the SX-117 receiver and the HT-44 transmitter.

Where Collins (later part of Rockwell)  didn’t excel was in Morse code.  They treated code as a “step-child” of voice using, for example, an audio oscillator to “make fake CW” in their KWM-2 transceiver, for example. Not a great note…but a good voice-only rig.

Hallicrafters went the “other way.”  They  accessorized and one of these was a device invented by W9TO called the  T.O. Keyer.

This is my Model HA-1 T.O.  The later version was the HA-1-a and its main difference was (going from memory here) a solid-state diode in the power supply and the red H (meatball) logo on the right side of the black speaker grill.

The particular magic of the T.O. Keyer  was that it was (a spin on a bi-stable multi-vibrator) driving a sealed mercury-whetted relay.  (Modern reviewers count this as a tube, it’s not!)

The T.O.  keyer (and a knock-off made at home I picked up in a trade from a ham radio buddy when young) would generate the cleanest, fastest Morse in the world.  Up to 60 WPM, though I only met one or two people who could manage more than an occasional callsign at those speeds.  Let alone chat.  30 WPM is a good “chat speed.”

To make all this happen, there was the special “keyer paddle” which made separate circuit closures for the dits and the dahs.  The T.O. had other nifty attributes, too.  Like the long dashes being “self-completing.”

I realize this may seem like a bit of an esoteric discussion, especially if you think “texting is cool.”

I think it’s cool to be able to take any of these keys, from simplest to most complex, and communicate anywhere where in the world.  No connect fees, no roaming charges, no nothing.  Just your ears and a free hand, though my pal  the Major and I have, on occasion when young, done things like see who could “work” the most distance keying with a left foot, for example.  Left hand Morse?  Hell yeah!

Even now, I remember a young woman up in Burnaby, British Columbia that I had a crush on in high school.  Laurie was her name and this was 1966, or so.

We would play chess for hours on either 40 or 80 meter CW (Morse).  “VE7 (whatever it was) p to kb4.  BK”  (that means pawn to king’s bishop 4, go ahead.)

Eventually, “the code” will likely go extinct, but for now, organizations like the International Morse Preservation Society and the Straight Key Century Club are keeping alive one of the most important lessons in life.

Life is less about the “having” and more about the doing.”  What can you do with what’s between your ears,  reminds a digital-direct human.

–…   …–    .-   -.-.   –…   -..-


6 thoughts on “Ham Radio: Alzheimers & the Digital Human”

  1. One nice thing about straight keys is the way old-timers could recognize each other merely by listening to the unique rhythm of each sender. Electronic keys pretty much killed that, though.


  2. Morning George,

    Thanks for the great pictures and history/life lesson’s.Seems like Morse Coding could be coupled with a texting app and with some adaptation maybe younger folks might be interested. Or if adapted right could mix with texting and back to coding so MC’s could use it to speak with the texter’s.

  3. CODE, for when the message absolutely must get through. Around the world on 5 watts? I’ve let my code go but have just recently started playing with my MFJ code tutor again. This is a skill that we should not let go. I’m curious when and who will start recording all code chatter for storage in the great data bank in the sky in Provo. Not likely.

    • Actually, pretty trivial to do the morse to text and then text searching it. Unless you got a good banana boat swing, that is. Few know how to convert that, except with the BTE processor (between the ears)

  4. Twitter is the newest version of Ham Radio. You can blurt out to the world whatever is in your mind in 284 characters. You can follow or Tweet anyone without their approval making them a massive news generator. Trump recognized this early. I guess he is not that dumb.

  5. Was on 3.916 phone tonite. Lots of Texas folks on that one, moved to 3.855 phone for the AAU net. Its nice running an SDR and watching the waterfall beside my FTDX1200. I’m surprised really, that security conscience folks don’t appreciate the utility of HF and FM radio. Such as the weekly FM simplex nets, just in case the repeaters are lost.

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