Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Historic Telegraph Key Comes Home to Ellicott City Station

In early August 2015 Albert Grimes, the President of Curtis Engine headquartered in Baltimore, contacted the Museum and donated his grandfather’s telegraph key used when he was stationed at the Ellicott City Station in the 1940’s. Al’s memories of his grandfather are rich and inspiring. So much so that, early in his career, Al followed his grandfather’s legacy and went to work for the B&O doing various administrative and operational duties from being a warehouseman to working in the real estate department.
Francis Vernon Grimes (1902-1988)
Francis Vernon Grimes (1902-1988) worked for the B&O Railroad for 51 years from the 1920s through the 1970s. He started his career loading water into steam engine tenders and after learning telegraphy he served in many B&O depots on the Old Main Line including a long stint as the telegrapher at Ellicott City Station in the 1940s. In fact he met his future wife on the platform in Ellicott City! He ended his long career as the interlocking tower operator at Riverside in the Locust Point section of Baltimore City.

Vibroplex Semi-Automatic "Bug" Key used by Francis Grimes at Ellicott City Station

The key is a Vibroplex Semi-Automatic “Bug’ Key. Telegraph operators that used a standard or “straight” telegraph key for long periods could develop a type of repetitive motion disorder known as glass arm or telegrapher’s paralysis.  In 1904, New York inventor Horace Martin patented a different type of key. It used a side to side motion as opposed to the up and down motion of the standard key. Martin called his invention a Vibroplex. It used mechanical vibration to send dots when the lever was held to the right. Dashes were made by pressing the lever to the left. This semi-automatic action not only relieved telegraphers of the dreaded glass arm syndrome, they could also send messages faster, over 40 words per minute when operators of standard keys could only send about 25 to 30 words per minute. Since many employers were slow to adopt the new type of key, telegraphers would often purchase their own to use “on the wire.” The copper plug on the end of the cord could quickly be connected to the standard key in the telegraph office.

The term “bug” was old telegrapher slang for a poor performing operator. When the semi-automatic key came on the market, it took time to get used to it and send accurate Morse Code. Other operators on the line called the person with the new key a “bug.” Soon the key itself became known as a “bug.” The Vibroplex Company came to adopt the term and used an insect for their logo. Vibroplex is still in business today and continues to manufacture “bug” keys for amateur radio operators who use Morse code.

Mr. Al Grimes (left) presents his grandfather's telegraph key to B&O Museum Director Courtney B. Wilson on August 4, 2015.
We are very grateful to Mr. Al Grimes for returning this historic key, along with information about his grandfather Francis Vernon Grimes, to our historic Ellicott City Station.  An exhibit is being prepared share this artifact with our visitors. Keep an eye out for a notice of when it is open.

No comments: