Morse Code Keyboard 1939 Style!

If you want to learn Morse code and you don’t have a teacher, you’d probably just head over to a website or download a phone app. Before that, you probably bought a cassette tape or a phonograph record. But how did you learn Morse if you didn’t have any of that and didn’t know anyone who could send you practice? Sure, you could listen to the radio, but in 1939 that might be difficult, especially to find people sending slow enough for you to copy.

Wireless World for August 3rd, 1939, has the answer in an article by [A. R. Knipe] on page 109. While you probably wouldn’t use it today, it is a great example of how ingenious you can be when you don’t have an Arduino and all the other accoutrements we take for granted today.

A Little Help From Your Friends

The idea was to build something so that your friend, your mom, or your little sister could be imposed upon to send code to you even though they didn’t know it. From the article:

The greatest handicap to the learning of Morse is undoubtedly the lack of a skilled operator to work the key so that proper receiving practice may be obtained.

The device contained a buzzer and a battery along with terminals for a key. Across the key though were two connections. One went to a “signal plate” made of brass or tin. This plate sat on a baseboard and above the plate were strips of wood. The other connection goes to a stylus which could be nothing more than a piece of wire wrapped up.

Under the strips of wood is a stencil made of paper or empire cloth which is — apparently — some sort of oil-treated cloth used as an insulator. The stencil has holes in it corresponding to each letter. The person sending you the practice code simply moves the stylus over the right part of the stencil using the wood strips as a guide.

Pros and Cons

Almost anyone could build something like this. You could probably use scrap wood, wire, and metal. You’d have to buy the battery and maybe the buzzer. But this would have been well within the technical capabilities of even a young person in 1939. With the proper use of screws you probably didn’t even need to solder.

Obviously, there are some limitations to this method. The speed could be spotty if you don’t do a nice steady glide across the stencil. The spacing between characters is probably going to be erratic as your accomplice searches for the next letter.

However, what a clever solution! Sure, today you could devise many other ways to have people send you Morse code or write (or download) a program to send your favorite website or RSS feed. There’s also plenty of code practice resources around. But if you didn’t have that, this would solve your problem.

Other Training Aids

This reminded us of the Omnigraph which was a common way to learn code way back in 1904 and beyond. These used a clockwork spring and a metal disk (effectively a cam) to operate contacts.

The military had a great interest in training Morse code operators at one time. They had machines that used inked paper tape like the TG-34-A in the video below. There was also the Instructograph (second video).

It is hard to remember when knowing Morse code was a hot job skill and not just a hobby. Then again, if telegraph faxing had caught on, all those operators would have been out of work even sooner. Of course, Morse might still come in handy if you get kidnapped. If you want to learn the sending part, the military film below might not be your best bet, but it is entertaining.

29 thoughts on “Morse Code Keyboard 1939 Style!

      1. When your livelihood depends on one or a small kill set, even if you don”t loose those skills, you become unskilled as demand for those skills diminish or disappear entirely.Not a really hard question to answer.

  1. I made aa slightly different take on a morse keyboard a few years back. II laid out strips of copper foil on a plank of wood and cut slits in them corresponding to the dots and dashes for each letter. Then dragging a stylus across across the strip for each letter I want to send at a constant speed. Definitely saves remembering the morse alphabet. I even put in a few common words as longer strips.

    1. Awesome device. Does it use actual mechanical contact between the tape holes?

      I always want to build an opto-interrupter tape reader, maybe even with multiple parallel holes, but I have _no_ application for it. But when I do find that nail, I’m ready with plans for a hammer…

    1. That’s interesting, because it sounds different from the stuff we called “fish paper” in the telephone business. Surely a common origin there, but ours was stiffer to the point of feeling almost like a sheet of plastic. It’s basically Tyvek but a little thicker than a postcard. The unwoven fiber structure is obvious at a glance, but I’m not sure what the fiber is.

      We used it for wrapping cable bundles where they were subject to contact with equipment edges.

  2. I bought a couple of these code practice oscillators from a war surplus place in Roseville, Mich. They used a photoelectric tube that read a tape then gated an oscillator, then into a nice push-pull 6L6 power amplifier and fed a roomful of earphones. The fidelity was so good (for a 1 KHz tone??!) that I turned them into a stereo amplifier that I used until about 1980.

    1. That wouldn’t be Ark Surplus up in Mt Clemens, nah…. I think I remember a surplus place in Roseville though, back in the 80s. I bought a VTVM there when I was too young to realize how special that was. East side of Gratiot near what’s now a Guitar Center?

  3. At this dayes it will be not easy to find such paper strips. But when u’ll look for material for the “white stickers” perhaps u’ll find store that have paper strips for the braille printers…

  4. It’s not a keyboard – it’s a key. If you would like to see a 1939-style Morse keyboard, please look at the perforator unit of a Creed-Wheatstone sautomatic Morse system as used on submarine telegraph cables until the late 1950’s.

  5. When I worked on an Air Force RADAR site in Alaska, I watched the guy who maintained our fire alarm system. Each station had a springwound mechanism that turned a cam, and a D-cell battery, that sent the code for that station to the central fire station. But these were fixed – there was no reason to ever change the code transmitted by any of these units, so there was no process in place for creating cams or changing their codes. They were also pretty short messages – about ten seconds max, if I remember correctly.

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