Participate in Straight Key Month 2024 this January: Straight, Bug, and Cootie Keys, Oh My!

So, you’ve mastered Morse code! But does that include dit-dit-dahing the old-school way using manual CW operation on a mechanical key like a bug, straight key, or cootie? If it does or even if it doesn’t, this January is the perfect time to try something new or show off your hand-crafted Morse code skills during Straight Key Month 2024 hosted by the Straight Key Century Club (SKCC). 

The special event runs until January 31 with SKCC members worldwide operating special event CW stations. The catch (if you want to call it one)? Participants must use straight, bug, or cootie keys to participate—instruments used in early telegraphy, which the event commemorates.

The event (open to members and non-members) will also celebrate the 18th anniversary of the SKCC, founded in 2006, and its nearly 21,000 mechanical-key CW operators. These members will have special event stations set up across the globe including 13 regional call areas that will use call signs K3Y/0 through K3Y/9, plus K3Y/KH6, K3Y/KL7, and K3Y/KP4 in U.S. jurisdictions.

Why only the K3Y call sign? At its founding, the SKCC used more—K1Y, K2A, and K3Y. But when an especially observant ham noticed that “K3Y” closely resembled the word “KEY,” like the mechanical straight, cootie, and bug keys the organization so actively touts, use of the K3Y call sign took on an almost serendipitous feel, difficult for any CW operator to ignore, so moving forward, the K3Y call sign gained exclusive use.

Speaking of which, what the heck is a straight, cootie, or bug key anyway? Here’s the scoop:

Straight Key

Also known as a “telegraph” key, the straight key is the simplest and oldest way of sending Morse code messages. It’s an electro-mechanical switch that can be moved in an up-and-down motion by its operator and is wired directly into a radio transmitter or telegraph wire. On display, the switch stays open but is pushed down to turn on the transmitter and send a dot or dash. 

Since it’s manually operated by the movement of your hand, dits and dahs may be spaced less uniformly than with electronic keys, giving each operator their own personal style known as “fist.” The downside to its use? The up-and-down motion of using the switch can cause a repetitive strain injury over time called “glass arm,” which is why newer keys employ a side-to-side motion.

Cootie Key 

Next up, the obvious fan favorite on name alone. Surprisingly, the cootie key does not require you to be chased down by a high-strung kindergartener, tapped on the arm, and thus “infected” by imaginary body germs called “Cooties,” we promise, heck, we even pinky swear!

No. In actuality, a “cootie”—also called a “sideswiper”—is similar to a straight key that’s been turned on its side with no electronics and is wired directly into a radio transmitter. It employs (or you employ as you use it) a side-to-side motion versus the up-and-down of a straight key. At rest in the middle (where the switch is open) you can manually push the switch to the left or right, alternating between sides. Pushing it left or right completes the same circuit. And, just like the straight key, the operator has full control over the timing of the dits and dahs, adding personal style to the movement and communication. 

Bug Key

Bug keys made by Vibroplex were patented in 1904 and are fittingly dubbed “bugs” based on the featured electrified-insect logo imprinted on every key. Also known as the “semi-automatic” key, they are the most complex electro-mechanical keys, allowing for higher code speeds to be achieved than possible on a straight or cootie key.

However, like the cootie, the switch on a bug can be maneuvered manually from left to right. What sets it apart from its cootie counterpart is that when the switch is pushed to the right and held there, it uses a mechanical device that will repeatedly send dits with automatic spacing between characters to allow for faster message transmission and more uniformity. It is also wired directly into a transmitter.

Now you’ve got the basics, but if you’re interested in learning more, check out this blog post by our own KE8JFW on the history of radiotelegraphy, CW’s role in the railroad industry, and what manual CW equipment from DX Engineering takes home the most rave reviews. Also check out Ward Silver, NoAX’s article on picking the right key or paddle.

And just like that, you’re ready to participate—or are you? If you’re short on equipment or are just looking for the perfect excuse to get more (wink, wink), DX Engineering can help with everything you need to get started, add to, or showcase your Morse code collection, including Vibroplex straight keys and Bugs in a variety of authentic and beautiful finishes, miniature straight keys to operate portable, double keys, iambic paddles, a Vari-Speed Kit to slow Bug speed down to 10-12 WPM or less, code practice oscillator kits, cable assemblies, and all the other CW equipment you spend time daydreaming about.

Once fully stocked with the right info and equipment to have a heck of a good time, be sure to participate in Straight Key Month 2024. The details are below:

Jan 2-Jan 31, 0000Z-2359Z, K3Y*, Worldwide. SKCC – Straight Key Century Club. 3.550 7.055 14.050 21.050. Certificate & QSL. SKCC c/o Ted Rachwal – K8AQM, 6237 Twin Lakes Drive, Smiths Creek, MI 48074. *K3Y/0 thru 9 plus KH6, KL7, KP4 and DX member stations in six WAC areas operating straight key, bug, and cootie keys. QSL card confirms one QSO per area, up to 19 for all-area sweep.

Or head to the SKCC website for more info and to register for free lifetime membership in the club.

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