In late October 2010 I bid on and won this old Vibroplex Lightning Bug that was for sale on eBay. I am NOT an expert on these old keys and I am not a collector. However, several things caught my eye about this old Bug:
- It was in great condition.
- It came with a carrying case that also is in great shape.
- Attached to the carrying case was a Southern Pacific railroad baggage tag identifying this Bug as belonging to W. E. JOHNSON TELEG OPR. I contacted the individual who sold this key on eBay and asked about the history of the key. He said he bought the key at an estate sale and was told by a family member that the owner had been a telegrapher with the Southern Pacific railroad. As of mid-2011 I am still trying to track down more history on this key, it’s owner, and railroad telegraphers.
It works. As soon as I received it, I plugged it into my ham radio station and made a couple of contacts with it — it was already adjusted and worked smoothly.
Identifying the old Bug
The Bug’s serial number is 169693 and it is a Lightning Bug model. The serial number indicates it was manufactured in 1950. Here is a link to the Vibroplex Collector’s Page with articles about the history of the Vibroplex keys as well as a list of Vibroplex serial numbers and the corresponding date of manufacture.
There is one part that is not original — the clear plastic dit thumb paddle. I have ordered a new black thumb paddle that is shaped like the original and I’ll replace this non-original part. As far as I can tell, the rest of the key is original.
Here are photos of the key.
I have tried and tried to locate information about the person whose name is on the baggage tag that accompanied this Bug. First, I assume the key belonged to W. E. Johnson and that he was a railroad telegrapher for Southern Pacific.
From the early days of railroads until well after the 1950’s, railroad communication was done by telegraph. Each station had at least one position with a telegraph key and a “sounder.” There was always a telegrapher on duty. Messages went back and forth between stations with information about trains, schedules, the make-up of trains, and other operational and administrative information.
I won’t try to write the history of railroad telegraphy here . . . if you are interested, do a Google search and you’ll find lots of information online.
- Here’s a YouTube video of the railroad code being sent. Instead of reading dits and dahs (dots and dashes), the railroad code uses the space between the clicks as the dit or dah.
- Very good site: The Railroad Morse website.
- The Railroad Telegrapher. Article about railroad telegraph and telegraphers.
- Western Union and the Railroad Telegraphers.
I was born, 1944, in Centreville, Wilkinson County, Mississippi. We left in 1951 when my father’s business transferred us to Knoxville, TN. We went back home each summer and one of my favorite places to visit in the little town of Centreville was the railroad station. The stationmaster was Mr. Mc????? who also was an amateur radio operator. He sold tickets, took care of incoming and outgoing baggage, monitored the train traffic, and ran every aspect of the rail operations through Centreville. Many times I watched as he sold tickets, talked to people about baggage or schedules while, at the same time, the telegraph sounder was going “clickety-clack-clack-click” in the background. He could read the code in his head, then, write down the incoming message, go to the telegraph position, and send a reply.
W. E. Johnson
I have searched for information on W. E. Johnson with very limited results.
The railroad telegraphers appear to have had a strong union, The Order of Railroad Telegraphers — go to eBay and search for “railroad telegrapher” where you will find letters, documents, journals, and union membership cards for sale. The magazine, The Railroad Telegrapher, was published for many years and appears to be the union journal.
Here are some pieces of information I have found that may pertain to the owner of my old bug, or, possibly, to his father or grandfather.
Sunset Magazine, Vol 6, #1, November 1900, lists the Southern Pacific stations and station masters. Corinne, Utah, station master is listed as W. E. Johnson.
An entry in The Railroad Telegrapher, Vol XXX, 1913, reads:
Bro W. E. Johnson bid in Union agency, received on third there by Bro. H. S. Stephen.
I don’t have a clue what this entry means. If anyone knows what this means, please send me an email.
In The Railroad Telegrapher, Vol XXXI, No. 4, April 1914, I found this entry. The heading states “The following births have been reported since the last issue of The Railroad Telegrapher.” From this information, then, it seems as though the Johnson daughter was born between February and April 1914:
Bro & Mrs. W. E. Johnson of Benton Harbor, Mich., a girl.
Update, April 9, 2018
From time to time I receive email messages from folks who read this site and have suggestions or questions. In early April 2018 I received two messages from another amateur radio operator, Dave Johnson, WA0SPF, of Mason City, Iowa. Dave provided more information about telegraphers, Southern Pacific, Union Pacific, and certain stations. Here are Dave’s comments on my attempts to identify W. E. Johnson.
THANKS, DAVE, FOR YOUR ASSISTANCE!!! Amateur radio really is a friendly fraternity!
First message from Dave:
And here is his second message:
Let me add to the info …. I traced the old roadbed going west out of Corinne, Utah and low and behold it goes through what is now the Promontory Point historical site, so …. this must have been the original Central Pacific / Union Pacific main line and golden spike meeting place. The Southern Pacific might have gotten their hands on the CP before 1900, I suppose it was abandoned shortly after the Great Salt Lake cut off was constructed, I don’t know the date thereof. I have no idea at this stage of research, and if they did it would make sense the W. E. Johnson was indeed an operator there in Corinne. A transfer to Union, CA would have likely been across seniority districts, but then again railroad men back then moved around for a variety of reasons. My uncle was A. E. Johnson but then he ran a grocery store in Malvern, Iowa so was never in the railroad game.