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Keys to the World

Telegraph Keys as Industrial Archaeological Artefact
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  1 KEYS TO THE WORLD Telegraph Keys as Industrial Archaeological Artefact   objects of historical significance and testament to all the ingenuity of design, stylistic variability, engineering solutions, absolute precision, and wonderful craftsmanship possible …  recognition, admiration, preservation © Kees van der Spek (revised 2019) 1  Introductory background notes to: ‘   Journal d'Entrée et Catalogue Raisonné  –   Morse Keys in the Collection of  Kees van der Spek, National Service Telegraphist with the Dutch Armed Forces in Suriname, South America, 1973-1975 ’     2 Between the late 19 th  and late 20 th  centuries, telegraph keys produced at industrial scale were used by professional radio operators who maintained what was then the predominant mode of international electronic communication. The demise of commercial radio telegraphy occurred on 1 February 1999, when the last ship-to-shore radio stations fell silent and satellite communication became the norm. The occupation of ships’ radio Officer disappeared overnight and by worldwide agreement, itself a remarkable occurrence in the history of occupations and international labour relations. The use of telegraphy for use by the military had already ceased during the mid-1970s. 2  Seen in that light, Morse keys as used for radio telegraphy, and its predecessor, the electric landline telegraph, have become artefacts of industrial archaeology: remnant signposts of the material culture of a bygone commercial and military communications era. As industrial-archaeological artefacts they occupy an important place in the history of western technological evolution and innovation. Today, they have  become the tell-tale remnants of technologies, industries, social and economic  practices that have changed or no longer exist. They embody the history of  particular occupations that have disappeared and the social, commercial, and military significance of Morse communication that made those occupations important. They still hold within them  –   if only they could speak  –   the connections with the electrical engineers, instrument makers and telegraphists who designed, manufactured and worked with them. Other than their industrial-archaeological significance, Morse keys are also of interest as an artefact of western material culture. Their evolution has resulted in an endless variety of designs, forms, materials, and degrees of greater or lesser complexity. Their visual appearance can often be readily identified with specific use categories (postal, army, navy, air force, merchant navy, emergency services, amateur radio), and often we will know the names of their manufacturers by simply looking at them. Certain types and manufacturers’ names can even be said to be symbolic for the economic, political and nationalist aspirations of the countries that produced them. Variations in style occur over time in most commercially manufactured  products. We can all observe changes in the design of household implements and motor vehicles as the years go by. Similarly, the stylistic variability of telegraph keys provides a visually explicit reminder of our common need for difference. For a cultural anthropologist who was also a one-time telegraphist, Morse key designs, their craftsmanship and the many engineering solutions that 2  At least, this is true for The Netherlands: as a result of the introduction of modulated Single Side Band (SSB) equipment, in 1975 the Dutch Army ceased its training of Morse code to National Service conscripts at the Signal Corps Training Centre in the Simon Stevin Barracks in Ede, The Netherlands, this writer’s CW ‘ alma mater  ’ .  3 nevertheless all had the same, singular objective of producing dots and dashes, are therefore a source of wonderment around form and function that continues to instill endless fascination. Apart from their significance as archaeological artefact, telegraph keys are also small works of art, with their untold forms and shapes; the myriad ways in which different design, technical, and engineering solutions achieved the desired objective, and evidencing both precision and often wonderful craftsmanship. In essence a simple on-and-off switch, they are nevertheless truly worthy of recognition, admiration, and preservation. Although commercial radio telegraphy communications have now entirely disappeared, the art of sending Morse code is maintained by the world-wide community of amateur radio or ‘ham’ operators who prefer CW transmission (that is, Continuous Wave or radio telegraphy, using Morse code). They are specialist Morse code radio telegraphers, often working at incredible speed, and they are the only group of people who keep the art and skills involved with this form of communicating alive today. Many are also active and avid Morse key collectors, and there is a lively eBay trade among those who recognise the intrinsic historic significance and engineering merit of what, for more than a century, provided, literally and metaphorically, the ‘ key ’  to the world. Indeed, what motivates many amateur radio operators is to keep elements of that history alive, as an ongoing reminder of the social context within which commercial Morse communications existed. When collecting Morse keys, it is not always possible to know the precise  provenance of a new acquisition, and therefore the exact history of individual keys or the location and work environment in which they were used may only be known in the broadest terms. Nevertheless, one can try to establish as much as  possible the historical and operational context in which these keys were put to work, even if the actual story inherent in each key can no longer be known. A catalogue of Morse keys may therefore not only include the detail of their acquisition, but can also be supplemented by notes gleaned from different sources resulting in an independent narrative. It serves to provide the  background that situates their historical and industrial qualities and that go some small way towards documenting their earlier working life, their manufacturing  processes, their historical use, the variations in style that occurred over time and  –   where accessible  –   the human content that informs all of these and that makes any narrative about Morse keys as a cultural artefact meaningful. These more socially informed aspects  –   while often invisible or accepted without question  –   are also a part of the telegraph keys we admire and collect.  4 At the time of writing, the focus of the collection is predominantly  –   but not exclusively so  –   on those industrially produced keys for commercial civilian and military radio use, but including a small collection dating back to the era of the electrical landline telegraph and less so on the more recent range of Morse keys  produced for amateur radio operators. Among the latter, private small-scale ‘ artisan ’  producers and specialist manufacturing companies create both beautiful and technically highly accomplished keys that excel in craftsmanship (for example, Gerhard Schurr in Germany) and in their ability to achieve incredible speeds (for example, Begali in Italy). However, and other than the American Vibroplex company with its long history, these ‘ham’ keys can be seen to be distinct from those professionally employed Morse keys used during the commercial and military era of both landline and radio telegraphy communications . These ‘working keys’ remain as the visible remnants of an occupation and professional specialisation now entirely lost. As the repository of all those lost messages held within them  –   even if only inferred in the vaguest of terms  –   they are worth preserving. ‘  Alma mater  ’: The author ( right, front row) learning Morse code at the Signal Corps Training Centre of the Dutch Army in the Simon Stevin Barracks, Ede, The Netherlands, 1973. The se ‘working keys ’  have fallen silent and those that remain are now dispersed among collectors.  
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