The Silent Key

The Vibroplex Deluxe Original telegraph key, first manufactured in 1939.

I was moved recently by an unexpected item encountered while clearing out my parents’ home.  They both passed away in recent years leaving, as we all will, a lifetime of accumulated possessions.  Perhaps it is a rite of passage that we all mark our parents’ passing with tributes and shared memories, and then respectfully distribute their earthly possessions.

Those possessions usually include home furnishings of a previous era, and clothing that might fit but doesn’t match anyone’s current style or fashion.  Many kitchen utensils will find their way to donation centers.  Easy items to dispatch are those for which there are few memories.  The more difficult are those with sentimental attachments.  

My dad was an amateur radio operator, a “ham”, which is a term for the enthusiasts across the world that participate in this form of communication, ever since Marconi sent his first wireless message.  There is a broad and varied number of these practitioners of a discipline that requires technical expertise and skill, and a desire to share their experiences “over the air”.  

I grew up in this culture, listening to the chirps and squawks of my dad’s radio receiver late into the nights.  One of the essential ham skills was to tap out Morse code messages with a telegraph key — the first level of an amateur radio license (“Novice Class”) required proficiency at five words a minute.  My dad was extremely skilled at this and could signal at much higher rates.  As one improved in this skill, the limitations moved from brain-hand coordination to the mechanical key itself.

This limitation was recognized early on, and various ingenious adaptations of the simple momentary contact key were invented.  Some worked better than others.  Over the course of my dad’s ham career he acquired various makes and models of telegraph keys with which he competed in amateur radio contests, to see who could make contact with the most other hams in a weekend.

His amateur radio station equipment will find homes with other ham operators, but his set of telegraph keys were distributed to his children, all of whom have those memories of dot-dash Morse code beeps in the night.  This is the item I received:  on a beautiful chrome-plated base, the key itself is a delicate collection of mechanical components, carefully balanced and customized to the hand of the operator.  I am told that operators have a distinct “signature” that can be recognized when listening to the delivery of Morse code, each hand having its own rhythm and style.

This identifies the manufacturer, Vibroplex, and proudly displays its serial number and patented status.  The logo is a lightning bug, carefully anodized or painted red on the brass plate, a feature maintained even on current models.  This may be a collector’s item as there are many similar to be found at

The ham community has an endearing term of respect for their fellow amateurs who have since passed away: Silent Key.  It is a reference to the early days of telegraphy where the letters SK were sent to designate the end of a transmission, and then the station would become silent.  

There is a national silent key registry,  the cumulative obituaries of the ham community, where you can look up life accounts of past amateurs, including my dad, K0TO.

His station is silent now, but my memories of it will remain until I too become silent.

Full House

Eight years later, we re-create a photo given as a Christmas gift to our parents in 2011.

Growing up in a home headed by a “ham” (an amateur radio operator), we often would hear my dad’s radio conversations with remote, distorted, and static-filled voices.  In one such contact, the usual exchange of technical banter was augmented by a personal one.  Dad mentioned that he had a “full house”, the poker hand, in describing his children: three boys, and a pair of girls.  

We all overheard such over-the-air dialogs, as well as evenings filled with the clicks and beeps of Morse code.  Such are the experiences of the children of a zealous radio amateur.

But it has been a very long time since we were all together for any extended time under the same roof.  My dad’s Morse code telegraph key went silent a few years ago, and it is the second passing of a parent that now brings us together to figure out the final disposition of their possessions.

The last time we spent this much time in such proximity we were on a family backpacking trip in 1972.  It was a wonderful and new shared experience, but as teenagers there was always plenty to bicker about.  Some things never change.

And although we still sometimes act like squabbling siblings, the things we argue about are no longer the outrages of personal space violations (“Mo-om, he’s looking at me funny”).  Instead, they are the banalities of politics.  On the things that matter, we all seem to agree!

Over the course of four days we came together under the roof of the house our parents enjoyed at the end of their lives and we applied our individual strengths and skills to the task at hand.  We unearthed familiar artifacts, discovered old photos, revived faded memories, and re-told family stories as the contents of a very full house were processed by the “full house” of siblings.