Musings from “Fort Geezer”

The J-38 Telegraph Key

Jim Musgrove, K5BZH

A telegraph key I remember rather well I first saw in the 1950s was the J-38.  They were military “surplused” keys that sold for rather inexpensive prices.  To be truthful, Young Jim viewed them at the time as cheap telegraph keys.  They were offered for sale in magazines for prices in the order of 69 cents each.  Some novice transmitters included them.

The first J38 I saw came with a Philmore  NT-200 novice transmitter kit that Allen Colburn “Gar” Ward, WN5FIP, a friend of my brother, had purchased for his first transmitter.  That was in late 1953 or early 1954.  The NT-200 transmitter kit sold for $29.40:  it was a 2 stage novice transmitter that used a 6V6 for a crystal controlled oscillator and a 6L6 for a final amplifier.  The transmitter had a chassis for the power supply and another for the RF section:  the sides were open.  That would bring horrors in today’s world.  In those years one simply watched where they stuck their fingers.


Truthfully the J-38s were excellent telegraph keys.  They were made for the Army Signal Corps as a training key.  The key was mounted on a small piece of bake-lite.  Mounted behind the key on that bake-lite base was another set of connector posts with a shorting bar between them.  As a kid I never understood why the shorting bar existed.  Most ham users left those posts and shorting bar in place and never connected anything to that assembly.  Years later I learned the purpose of those posts and their associated shorting bar.  Understanding how the military used these keys it made perfect sense.  The key was never intended to be used outside a classroom.

Students learning Morse code were assembled in a class and their keys were connected in such a fashion (series) that they could pretend to be operators sending to others.  The scheme was to have one of the posts mounted over the shorting bar plus the one of the key posts connected to a pair of headphone via their tip connectors.  The other post over the shorting bar and the second key post were connected to a line that went to the classroom code oscillator through the sets of the other students. When it was a student’s turn to send, they would open the shorting bar that was part of the telegraph key itsef and send code.  When a student was receiving code sent by another student, they closed their key’s shorting bar to allow the circuit to be completed.

The J-38 was made for the Army’s Signal Corps, but they were used by all branches of our military.  The keys were never intended to be elsewhere but the classrooms.  Interesting enough some of the students loved those keys and “comshawed” them* to take to their ships or wherever and continue using them.  Not many disappeared in that manner but a few really did and were used at other military sites to send code on military circuits.


Many firms made J-38 keys.  There are several variations.  One example is that many had tiny key contacts, around 1/8 inch, as they weren’t intended to be keying circuits with much current.  Others have standard 1/4 inch key contacts.  Either of these worked fine for novice transmitters. Perhaps the best known J-38 is the Lionel.  Yep, the same Lionel that made model trains.  Other firms that come to mind are Signal Electric, McElroy, American Radio Hardware, and Winslow.  There were others.  During the war era companies supported the war effort.  In many cases their normal products were put on hold while our nation was busy in a World War.

While doing some digging on the internet I found some reviews of J-38s.  Most were positive for the key.  KG6R made the statement in those reviews “The J-38 has probably sent more code than any other key.”  I doubt it; however, they have indeed sent lots of code over the years and are still being used.  Be advised that the JJ-38 is a poor copy of the J-38 key in the event you get in the market for a J-38 telegraph key.  They were made years after the J-38s and not to our military specs. I stumbled across an internet site “J-38 Morse Code Telegraph Key – Video Results” and browsed some of it, found “How It Works: Morse Code” and took a look.  The video is 18 minutes and 36 seconds long and turns out very good.

*comshaw is the Navy equivalent of the Army’s “midnight requisition”

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“Joe and his IMP”

One of my experiences as a young ham was joining the ranks of sidebanders before SSB became the preferred HF voice mode. The year was 1958 and there was still unrest between those operating AM with carrier and those operating with carrier suppressed single sideband.
As a teenager, I had become the proud owner of a Central Electronics SSB exciter.  It had a 6AG7 final amplifier that supposedly put out 10 watts PEP (peak envelope power).  It didn’t take me long to realize I needed a linear amplifier.  I had the Eldico TR-75 that I used as a novice and had inherited from my brother Sanford.  That TR-75 was an old fashioned 2 stage transmitter that had plug-in coils:  a 6AG7 oscillator driving a 1625 final amplifier.  It was rated at 60 watts input that resulted in 40 to 45 watts output.
Wanting more power and not having funds to make it happen,  I kept looking at that Eldico.  It occurred to me that some people were running 6AG7s grounded grid with 600 to 700 volts on the plates and getting a fair amount of power out of them, up to 25 watts for each 6AG7.  Many used four 6AG7s in small linears.  That thought wouldn’t go away.  Why not rework that Eldic, use a pair of 6AG7s in grounded grid, go for about 40 watts output?  One could use the socket that had served to hold the oscillator’s coil for the second 6AG7 and use the existing 1625 coil and its associated antenna matching coil for the output.  Later the modifications could be removed and the transmitter restored to its original form, no extra holes.  It wasn’t bad thinking for a kid:  it worked rather well.  I later realized my 10B was only putting out a bit over 2 watts due to insufficient VFO injection.  That no longer made a difference as K5BZH now had enough power using his modified TR-75 that people didn’t have to strain to hear him.  I blended with the rest of the sidebanders.
In this era the sidebanders were establishing their own culture.  Many of the operators tended to be somewhat innovative.  It would be a while before one could pickup a catalog and find what he needed in equipment and then simply take out his billfold or checkbook and make the purchase.  People here thought they had a problem:  what they hadn’t considered was it was worse in DX Land.  A lot of innovative things surfaced, though.  This was the era that Tony Vitale, W2EWL, a well known early sidebander, showed the world how to make a simple 80/20 meter SSB transmitter using a BC-458 World War II aircraft transmitter.  They were dirt cheap on the surplus market.
Time to introduce another well-known sidebander of that era, Joseph Galeski, W4IMP.  Joe was an optometrist by profession.  He owned a chain of offices.  He could afford nice gear and did have a Collins 75A4 for his station receiver.  The primary reason I remember the A4 is that he used it as a piece of test equipment when he designed a little 3 tube sideband exciter that he appropriately named The IMP.
Joe’s QST article describing that 3 tube SSB exciter, The IMP, was in the May 1960 issue of QST.  Those of you who are ARRL members can access the article in the QST archives.  It used a 6CL6 final amplifier plus a pair of 6U8s to take care of the RF carrier oscillator, audio amplifier and other duties.  The IMP was a filter exciter:  it used three FT-243 crystals around 5775 KC (KHz to you new folks).  The VXO (variable crystal oscillator) tuned a range of about 10 KC.   As a comment, the 6CL6 is a miniature version of a 6AG7.
Joe’s passion was chasing DX.  He wanted a DXCC that was composed of QSLs from all SSB stations.  There weren’t many DX stations in that era running SSB.   Joe wanted to help fix that.  One way to do that was to show other DXers how to build an inexpensive 20 meter sideband exciter with a simple VXO that put out a few watts which could drive a simple linear amplifier.  He envisioned many building a couple of these and sending them across the waters to hams in other parts of the world who had the ability to drive a simple linear amplifier created by the DX station.  A work-together win-win solution to getting more DX stations quacking.  The QST article made no mention of Joe’s intent, but word quickly spread.  I don’t know how many IMPs got built, but it was far more than just a few.
Joe had an amazing personality.  I wrote an article titled The First Fifty Years of Sideband which was published in Electric Radio several years back.  I was amazed at who was willing to contribute stories for that article:  Joe was one of several.  For years he was on my Christmas Newsletter, as were many others of that group, plus family and folks I have known through the years.  Truthfully, Joe was a bit special.  Hams and a lot of others years ago were more tolerant of each other’s beliefs than today’s world seems to be.  Joe, like Leo Meyerson, was Jewish.  They were still on my Christmas Newsletter.  In his later years, Joe and his wife moved into an upscale-care home.  Joe still had his car and lived reasonably close to a normal life.  Joe decided to take advantage of doing something he hadn’t been doing with his spare time:  he started going on a few ocean cruises each year.  He used a cartoon drawing he created of himself and another of an imaginary cat named Cat in different situations for each of those cards.  I figure there is a story behind that cat but if there is I don’t know it.  One year it dawned on me that I hadn’t received a “Joe Cruise Card” in a few months.  As I chewed on that thought, it hit me, no, surely not.  I got on the internet and checked the obits and sure enough, Joe had departed our world on December 7th, 2010.
Joe was from a family of optometrists, he was of the third generation. His son decided not to follow the path:  he made the decision to become a MD.  His Dad thought he did the right thing, following the path of his choosing.  Joe served our nation during World War II.  He was 88 years of age when he died. He and his wife had been married for 65 years.

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“Crystal History Tidbits”

By Jim Musgrove  K5BZH

The first Amateur Radio Operators used Spark Gap transmitters.  A few used Arc Gap transmitters:  they are different and came a little after the first Spark Gap transmitters and before the first vacuum tube transmitters.  Arc was similar to Spark, but had some serious differences.  Arc produced what is known as continuous wave, what everyone references as CW.  There was just a small percentage that used Arc transmitters.  Vacuum tube transmitters produced continuous wave.  That term continuous wave or CW is a bit misleading: it isn’t continuous, but out of convention as we progressed through some time eras, I think it best we continue calling it CW.
The first vacuum tube CW transmitters were not crystal controlled.  One of the primary reasons for electing to use crystal controlled oscillators was to maintain constant frequency when the winds blew their aerials (we call aerials antennas these days).  Without getting into a major discussion let me just leave this with the comment that winds caused changes to be reflected back to the frequency determining part of the oscillators.  The cure in that era was to use a crystal controlled oscillator.
Early crystals were a bit different than those with which most had any familiarity.  The crystals, this included the holders, were rather large compared to what most of us have ever seen or used.  I started  out as a novice class operator in 1955 and used FT-243 crystals. The FT-243s were a product of World War II.  The piece of quartz itself in the crystal holder was rather small compared to the large crystals used in earlier transmitters.  I have been told by various people that quartz became our military’s number 2 priority during World War II.  If I had to place a bet, my money would definitely be on quartz being number 2.  The point here is that something had to be done to conserve on the amount of quartz used.
Our Military moved into crystal controlled operators in World War II.  Most of our quartz was being harvested in South America.  My understanding is that it was dangerous to ride aboard a ship carrying quartz, our enemy loved to sink those vessels.  Apparently we had to start transporting quartz with aircraft.
Most today wouldn’t believe the number of “Mom & Pops” crystal firms that surfaced during World War II to meet the nation’s need for FT-243 crystals.  One of the largest was Scientific Radio Products at Council Bluffs Iowa.  The head was Leo Meyerson, W9GFQ, who previously ran Wholesale Radio Products that focused on amateur radio operators.  After the war Leo sold his part of the crystal operation to his partner who wound up moving the firm to Colorado.  Leo put his amateur radio store back in operation.  A bit after the war, hams had been given their bands back.  Leo changed the name of his store soon after to World Radio Products.  The FCC at some point created the zero (0) call district and Leo’s call became W0GFQ.  Some of you will remember the Globe Scouts, Globe Champions, and Globe Kings.  They were WRL transmitters.
Back in the 1990s I was a test engineer at Motorola and wound up with a job assignment that took me to McCoy Electronics at Mount Holly Springs, Pennsylvania, just a few miles out of Carlisle.  There were times I got some really fun assignments and this was one of them.  McCoy was a firm that had been in existence for several years, they were manufacturing some rather precise double oven crystal oscillators at the time.  McCoy also made crystals.  They weren’t the first firm in that area to make crystals.  Several crystal firms existed in that area.  Three students and a college professorstarted the fire” that resulted in many area businesses being created to meet the demands.
Dickinson College in 1930 hired W.A. Parlin as a physics professor.  They also had an amateur radio club station, W3YC.  Some of the students decided the transmitter needed to be crystal controlled and, with the help of a father of one of the boys, they acquired a crystal.  You know how this works, 2 crystals would be better than 1:  thinking about it, 3 or 4 would be even better.  Three of the students, Edward Minnich, Howard Bair, and Charles Fagan plus Dr. Parlin turned to the idea of grinding their own quartz.
Grover Hunt, a college maintenance staff member watched the students finishing crystals one night.  He had been working with some petrified wood he had brought back from a trip to California to make a chess set.  He asked a few questions and quickly visualized a cash register going clunk, clunk, clunk as it filled with money and quickly lost interest in his chess set.
Cumberland County, Pennsylvania would up with a significant number of people involved in the world of crystals, oscillators, and crystal filters given a bit of time.  The world changes too, and as I type this, I don’t know what, if any, of the crystal operations still exist in Cumberland County that served as home of these firms.
There was also a synthetic quartz firm owned by Motorola in that area.  The term synthetic is misleading:  regenerated quartz would be a better choice of words. Synthetic quartz is created using huge underground pressure cookers over a period of a few weeks.  The process allows one to use small chunks of quartz that earlier would have been useless.  The final results are bars of quartz that are purer than what the firm had been cutting earlier.  My understanding is that virtually all quartz now is synthetic.
As I think back, a much younger Jim fell in love with that part of our country.  The area was beautiful:  the crystal and oscillator manufacturing was neat, too.  The people of that area were fantastic.  I was impressed enough that I took Carol, my YF, there on vacation later.  Yes, she was given the grand tour in 2 or 3 of the crystal facilities.  They all spent time explaining various things about the operation and the products.  The countryside was absolutely gorgeous.  I have some memories of a beautiful stream.  Pretty sure Carol had a great time.  I took her to see Gettysburg, too.  The regional food might not have been barbecue or chili, but it was still a definite winner.  Truthfully I would like to kick around there again.

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