In the Western World we are consumers. Advertising drives us to think we'd be a bit happier if we had that new "thing", whatever the thing is. It drives much of our economies and unfortunately keeps many burdened in debt.
That's certainly a pessimistic way to begin this but let's be honest. No one needs a ~$580 morse code key. Most of us are handy enough to make a straight key out of stuff laying around the house for free. I have a number of very fine keys that I've purchased used. I've purchased most of them for well under $70, including my 1970s Standard Vibroplex Bug.
BUT... If we are ham radio operators regularly doing CW, then we spend a lot of time with a morse key under our hand. I've said this previously, but when you are a CW operator you touch your key more than anything else related to the hobby. You are moving it many hundreds to thousands of times as you send code. Your keying becomes part of you and you are intrinsically linked with the ease or difficulty of operating the key for hours at a time.
So... having a key that is easy to operate; a key that disappears under your hand is an enjoyable thing.
Operating a Bug correctly, or more precisely in a manner that is pleasing to the person copying your code is more difficult than operating paddles with an electronic keyer. When the bug was invented it was a tool used by professional telegraphers. There were no electronic keyers, and having a tool that allowed them to send good code for hours on end with less mechanical stress on their bodies than a straight key was important, and they sought the best tool they could afford to allow them to do their work.
But no one reading this is a professional telegrapher, because that ship has sailed.
For those of us that choose to use a Bug, we do so for different reasons. For me, I enjoy the control I have in forming my characters, as well as the extra level of difficulty in sending good code. Why would I want it to be more difficult? Well, why do we do anything that is challenging. Being challenged is fun. It drives me to improve. It takes my mind off of things that might otherwise crowd my thoughts if I were not doing something challenging that is also fun.
I have operated a bunch of different bugs at my club gettogethers, from different makers. They all have a different feel. They all intrigue or annoy their user. I have two Vibroplex Bugs at my station. I've previously written about them. They each have advantages and challenges but they share the same design and they have more in common than they do differences.
A New Design
Fortunately for amateur radio operators there are still new keys being developed, and in this case a new design for a semi-automatic key that has a markedly different design from most of the bugs that came before.
The Begali Intrepid is distinctive in a few ways:
The pendulum hinge is at the rear of the key rather than the middle
The adjustments are all based on magnets rather than springs
The dwell for the dits has a real control, rather than using various pieces of foam, string or clips to change dwell time
The dit contact is a sprung plunger that always remains centered on the contact rather than brushing against it at various angles
The split lever mechanism operates at the center of the key placing the DAH and DIT contacts much closer to one another than a traditional bug
There is less mass in the pendulum itself than a Vibroplex Bug
It has a sprung, nylon wheel damper that doesn't clatter
It weighs a TON (well about 6 lbs) and feels welded to the desk without having to use non-slip material or using spit to semi glue them in place (yech, yes I use spit to hold my keys to my desk)
These differences really add up to make a semi-automatic key that feels markedly different than all other bugs available to amateur operators.
I've not had the chance to try the GHD fully automatic bugs, nor their bugs that use optical contacts. That would be interesting, but they still fundamentally follow the Vibroplex model.
Preparing for Use
The Intrepid ships with a cable but there's nothing to plug it into on the key. It's up to the owner to solder the connections. I understand that some transceivers require different plug wiring but in general they are fairly common. Be prepared to spend some time soldering under the key to wire it up.
I had some spare 1/8" plugs for projects, and with some heat shrink tubing and a couple pieces of wire I created a tidy connector for the male to male cable shipped with the key.
I spent about 2 hours practice sending into the practice oscillator that I built. I had a Vibroplex Deluxe Bug next to it that I alternated with. The range of DIT speeds on the Intrepid is impressive. Other makers like Vizkey have created bugs with a similar range of adjustment, and the Deluxe Bug I use has a Vari-Speed that can match the Intrepids speed range, bu the Intrepid is easier to quickly adjust and more importantly can be done one-handed. It will comfortably go from about 15 wpm up to 35 wpm and with the dwell adjustment makes changing speeds and keeping the DIT dwell correct, is singular. I don't think any bug can match it in that respect.
It did require a change in how I operate. The Vibroplex Bug fingerpieces stick out further and I have the habit of placing my index finger out over the top of the Bug. The Intrepid doesn't allow for that. I have to curl my index finger down to avoid hitting the bracing for the pendulum.
Because there is less mass in the pendulum it operates with a much lighter touch than Vibroplex Bug. The pendulm movement is initated with less force and due to the isolation of the pendulum from the paddles you don't feel the pendulum moving as you do with a Vibroplex. I kinda like the feedback I get from Vibroplex pendulum. The Intrepid feels more like a single paddle key with an electronic keyer than a bug.
Because of the how the lever is split in the middle, the actual DAH contact is almost dead center in the key rather than toward the front. It is far closer to the DIT contact than a bug. I have no way to describe it other than to say it feels as if the DAH and DIT operations are more similar than they are different.
I tend to pivot at my wrist when I operate a Vibroplex bug, to control the timing of DIT to DAH transitions. That doesn't seem to be as necessary with the Intrepid. Again, it feels more like a paddle than a Bug.
The DIT contact is a sprung plunger that is always centered. This is one of the biggest problem areas on a Vibroplex Bug and Begali has masterfully designed the proper contact. Most Bug operators spend more time adjusting the U-spring to try and get proper contact than any other part of the key. I assume this level of precision is just not something that Vibroplex wanted to spend the time on in manufacturing.
You'll notice there are spare holes. I assume they are to allow the frame to be used for left handed operation.
The sprung teflon damper makes for clatter free operation. No more ker-thunk as you transition from DITS to DAHS. They key is markedly quieter in operation than any other Bug I've tried. The only other key that comes close is the right-angle Vizkey.
The weights are easy to adjust but I have found that the set screws don't bite the pendulum as firmly as a Vibroplex bug and I have had them come loose a few times. When they accidently come loose they flop to one side and touch the frame, completing the circuit, resulting in a continous carrier. I'm a bit concerned about leaving the bug connected unattended to my tranceiver and having one flop over into transmit while I'm not at the station.
The laser etching is nicely done. The model name can appear, white, gray or black depending on the angle of light.
The pendulum is hinged at the back of the key, making easy access to the adjustment weights.
This is a very fine piece of engineering. It will take me months to decide if stick with it over a Vibroplex Bug, but for now I'm thinking it was a fine birthday gift.
I've enjoyed using my "new" GRC-9 radio for making CW and AM contacts over the past month. During that time I've also discovered https://worldradiohistory.com/Archive-Radio-News/ which has magazine articles about radio dating back to 1919. Reading about amateur operators building and using equipment at the time where CW (continuous wave) was beginning to replace spark-gap operation in wireless communication made me consider just how enduring the ability to communicate using CW and AM have been.
Prior to the introduction of continuous wave transmitters and receivers, the detector used for spark gap communication would have made it difficult to hear a CW transmission (lacking a BFO). So, even though wireless transmission and reception of International Morse Code dates back earlier than 1919; employing CW (continuous wave) to send Morse Code seems to have began its popularity around that time. AM (amplitude modulation) phone mode was also in use at the time, and grew in popularity during the 40's and 50's until more efficient voice modes overtook it in popularity for voice communication.
Radio Telegrapher School for Enlisted Specialists 1921
What other modes have remained as popular standards using standard ham equipment and continuously in use by amateur radio operators as CW?
My GRC-9 was designed near the end of WW2 (circa 1945), and was in continuous production for various armed forces around the world until around 1974 (3 decades is a long production run). My particular unit has a receiver manufactured by Telefunken in 1955 and a Lewyt manufactured transmitter from 1966. I have made CW and AM QSOs with other amateur radio operators whose equipment ranged from home-brew xmtr/rcvrs, Drake and Collins radios as well as shiny new Icom 7300 and Flex radio systems.
A modern amateur radio (typically a HF model) can be used to communicate with radios built 100 years in the past. The same might be said for AM fone (phone), but that mode has become a niche for a much smaller set of enthusiasts.
There are lots of new and exciting modes of communication in amateur radio. Many are pushing the boundaries of weak signal reception, or alternatively allow for high transfer rates of data. But it is somehow comforting to me to consider that amateur radio hobbyists have kept one mode in particular, CW, popular and in continuous use for over 100 years using equipment that remains compatible to communicate with one another. I wonder if that will be the case in another century?
That's all for now, so lower your power and raise your expectations
I don't recall where I first read about the Angry Nine, but it captured my imagination. I read everything I could find about them and decided it would be great fun to operate such an antique on the ham bands. There is no logical reason to desire such a QRP radio. The low power output on CW is indeed, 5 watts and high power is a pileup busting 15 watts. The AM transmission are 1 watt and 7 watts respectively. That's almost QRPp for AM mode.
I'd had some experience restoring old tube equipment; my Heathkit HW-101, Knightkits VFO and Hallicrafters keyer, and I figured I'd take the next plunge and learn to use a receiver-transmitter combination and see how mobile high-voltage power worked from Vibrators and Dynamotors.
These radios seemed to have been more plentiful in the surplus market 10 - 20 years ago. Now you'll occasionally see one come up on eBay or other sites, but often times they are in very rough shape or the they are foreign language versions. I bid on a few auctions over the past couple of years and the bidding always exceeded my threshold for what I thought it was worth. The one above was part of an auction from an individual who had actually trained on these units prior to deploying to Vietnam. Later in life he became interested in finding one and spent time in military surplus warehouses going through pallets of equipment to find one in good shape. This particular unit is made up of a Lewyt manufactured transmitter and a Telefunken receiver. The original owner preferred the receiver characteristics of the Telefunken over the Lewyt manufactured model, so he paired the two.
Many of these old units are radioactive, due to the radium paint used on the front panels to make the lettering glow in the dark. This particular unit is off the lower scale on the Geiger counter and must be handled with care. Basically, I have to be careful to not touch my face with my hands after operating the unit and wash my hands thoroughly. Radium emits Alpha particles, which are not especially strong but the resultant radioactive dust from the front panel shouldn't be breathed or ingested. I plan to paint a clear-coat over the remaining lettering to lessen the Alpha particle emissions..
Hot receiver, in more ways than one
The AN/GRC-9 is a set of components primarily comprised of the RT-77/GRC-9 receiver-transmitter, capable of operating between 2-12 MHz in CW, MCW and AM modes. MCW is a modulated form of CW that can be received by radios that do not have a BFO (i.e. a normal AM receiver).
It is a mid to late 1940's design and was first documented field use in the Korean War, and was in active use through the Vietnam War and continued to be maintained in US military warehouses until 1974. It was in use by other nations long after, most notably the Dutch military.
Out of the case, tracing a low B+ power problem
Receiver as seen from the underneath with shield removed
Transmitter with a coil for each band and that nice 2E22 final output tube
Power on the move
Designed to be used in the field, both vehicle mounted and carried by mobile infantry; there were a number of ways to supply power to the unit. There were a few different Vibrator/Dynamotor units, that could operate from common DC voltages of the time (6v, 12v, 24v) as well as a hand cranked, field portable generator.
Keep in mind that the state of the art at the time of its design used vacuum tube technology and in the case of the RT/77-GRC/9 it required the following voltages:
Transmitter Plates -- 475 - 580 v @ 100ma
Transmitter Filaments -- 6.5 - 6.6 v@ 2 amps
Receiver Plates -- 105 - 120 v @ 45ma
Receiver Filaments -- 1.35 - 1.5 v @ 500ma
Keying Relay -- 6.0 - 6.9 v @ 575ma
That's a tall order for mobile and portable power supplies but designers in the 1940's were quite clever in packing power supply units. I managed to obtain both the hand cranked GN-58 generator with the base chassis and seat for portable operations, and a DY-88 for fixed / mobile operations.
DY-88 mobile power supply
DY-88 set to 12v powered by Amateur 12v supply
Vibrator power supply for low B+
I supply the DY-88 from either an RV battery or an amateur 12v power supply. When in Standby the DY-88 draws less than 1 amp, but placing the radio in Send mode switches on the Dynamotor which draws 12 amps @12v, without key-down and up to 14 amps on high-output key-down. It will drain an RV battery pretty quickly at that rate if the radio is left in Send mode, and works an amateur power supply pretty hard as well. So don't expect to operate remote off a battery alone for too long if your having lengthy QSOs. An added benefit of the DY-88 is that when the enclosed Dynamotor is running you'll have a nice extra 85 dB of generator noise to accompany your listening pleasure.
GN-58 portable field hand-cranked power supply
Generator head in carry bag
Unmounted as seen from the bottom
On the stand with cover and handles disconnected
The GN-58 is a tough workout since it has to be cranked by hand at 60 rpm continuously. Obviously, you need a partner unless you can figure out how to crank it with your feet while sending CW. You will also want that partner to help you carry the GN-58, and the accompanying accessory bag for the chassis and seat. IT'S HEAVY. I haven't weighed everything, but according to the manual that came with the set, the radio / generator / accessories including antennas comes out around 120 lbs.
If you have a BA-48 battery hooked up then your human power supply can pause cranking while your receiving. I have a BA-48 battery enclosure that has been gutted of the original, long-dead material and replaced with 10x 9v batteries in series for the low B+ and two D-Cell batteries in parallel for the receiver filament supply.
Bag of goodies
The radio itself has a carry bag, as well as a bag for the GN-58 legs and seat, the vertical antenna, and miscellaneous.
There's another bag (shown above) for carrying power supply cables, keys, hand mic, long wire and doublet antennas, external speaker, torture device headphones, torture device in-ear phones, as well as a box of spare tubes for the radio.
If you're traveling in a squad sized group, then many hands make light work, otherwise you're going to be making a lot of trips hauling your QRP rig up the hill.
These Western Electric headphones clamp tightly over your ears sealing out QRM and squeezing your head like a vice. After 10 minutes I was confessing to sins I'd never committed.
In order to use the headphones the RT/77 receiver must be removed from the case and an impedance switch on the back, changed from 4000 to 250 using a screwdriver. The ham I bought my set from had constructed a CW audio filter along with an impedance switch on an outboard box, that allowed the use of the headphones without switching the impedance on the receiver unit.
Homebuilt CW filter with impedance switch
The external speaker is a rugged, high impedance device (4k Ohms), that after all these years can still output audio at high volumes without distortion. It has a built in thumbscrew clamp that allows it to be attached to vertical or horizontal objects.
Alternately, the thumbscrew can be used in combination with the vice-like headphones to extract information from a prisoner.
The AN/GRC-9 comes with 3 antenna systems; a multiple section, whip vertical for quick field setup and mobile use, a long wire that can be quickly deployed in a fixed station as a sloper, and a doublet for best reception, transmission in a fixed location.
For testing purposes I have my radio hooked up to my 80m Windom, which it tunes very nicely on 80m, 60m, 40m and 10m bands.
When the weather warms a bit I will be taking the radio out for some portable use and I'll try it out with the antennas that are part of the AN/GRC-9 set.
As a military radio, it was expected that repairs should be performed in the field when possible. The radio shipped with spare tubes for the receiver-transmitter, as well as spare tubes and vibrators for the DY-88 power supply.
More to come
In the few days I've had the AN/GRC-9 the only problems I've encountered have been related to the old DY-88 power supply. Old vibrators cans are generally seized up, as was the case with mine. Eventually mine became un-stuck after repeated applications of power but there are some methods to restore truly frozen ones using AC current and light bulbs (see Notes section below).
I've made about half a dozen contacts on the ham bands, including a 40m contact to a station in TX which is kinda DX for my locale. I've received nice signal reports. I've specifically asked stations about my "chirp" during QSOs and they've reported it as "not bad" and "charming". When operating from the VFO (master oscillator) rather than a crystal, the GRC-9 will "chirp". It was considered an acceptable design trade-off at the time. I've listened to the transmitter from a remote WebSDR station to hear the chirp for myself, and I agree that it isn't extreme and lends some character to the station. The unit does drift about 200 Hz during a QSO which I also think is quite acceptable for it's age. It's possible that if I spent more time in Send mode prior to a QSO to allow the transmitter tubes to warm up the drift might be lessened, but keeping the radio in Send mode puts quite a load on the power supply (both the 12v supplying the DY-88 and the human cranking the GN-58).
The RT-77 Telefunken receiver doesn't offer much in terms of selectivity and on a crowded band there's a lot of stations to contend with in the passband. The outboard CW filter deals with this nicely, but it is so narrow that when shifting from Send to Standby, the resulting frequency shift often throws the station I'm receiving out of the filter's passband, so that's a bit tricky.
The receiver's tuning knob also is very coarse, in that fine adjustments are made by breathing on the knob. However it has zero backlash, which is amazing in a piece of equipment this old. The markings on the receiver are in 50 kHz intervals so the only way to really figure out where you are is to look at RBN for your spot.
50 kHz spacing when reading the frequency on the receiver Note the 7.2 is 7.200 MHz in the 40m band
Enjoy the pictures of the AN/GRC-9
Phosphor glowing nicely on the GRC-9 As opposed to the degraded glow of the radium infused lettering on the RT-77 half
That's all for now
So go heavyweight for you QRP station to get your excercise.
Instructions for restoring a vibrator to operation
Instructions posted by:
VB-1 and VB-7 are interchangable. I think I recall reading somewhere that VB-7 is a "lightweight" version of VB-1 but I won't swear to that.
The base is 4-pin, and the pin numbers are counted as on a vacuum tube with the same base. I wish I could post an image here without uploading it somewhere but if it's possible I've not figured out how to do it. The pins count clockwise from 1 to 4 looking at the bottom of the vibrator or the wiring side of the socket. The two large pins are 4 and 1 and the two small ones are 2 and 3.
There are two basic types of vibrators, called Series and Shunt. The Series type has a contact in series with the coil. VB-1, 7 and 16 are all Series types. I'll skip the Shunt type for now.
Pin 1 is common. Pin 4 is coil. Pin 2 is the NO (Normally Open) switching contact and Pin 3 is NC (Normally Closed). To test a VB-1/7, use an ohmmeter to check continuity from 1 to 4. If the reading is infinity, the coil could be open but this seldom happens. The problem is probably the vibrator contact. If the reading is a few ohms, connect +6 VDC to Pin 4 and -6 VDC to Pin 1. The vibrator should run. If it doesn't, most likely the contact is welded. About the only solution is to open up the vibrator, unstick the contact and try to burnish the burn marks out of the contact.
If the vibrator does run, go to the end of this screed and do the final test.
If the reading is infinity, here's how to use the two or three lamps to (usually) fix the vibrator. SAFETY NOTE: bear in mind you are dealing with either 120 or 220 VAC. If you jury rig the hookup, do all of your connections and disconnections with the "rig" not connected to the AC line. In other words, don't touch anything except the plug on the line cord or (if you go to that much trouble) the ON-OFF switch when the line cord is plugged in.
Connect the hot side of the AC line cord to one side of both lamps. Connect the ground side of the AC line cord to Pin 1 of the vibrator (or socket if you use one). Connect the other side of one of the lamps to Pin 4 and the other lamp to Pins 3 and 2. If you splurge and use three lamps, connect the "cold" side of the second and third lamps to Pins 2 and 3 respectively.
Check all the wiring and when satisfied all is OK, plug in the line cord. Probably nothing will happen immediately. Within a few minutes to a few hours lamp 1 should begin flickering and you should hear the vibrator hum. Run the test until the second lamp begins to flicker or until both the 2nd and 3rd lamps flicker.
If you are only using two lamps, when the 2nd lamp begins to flicker, wait 1 or 2 minutes then remove power (unplug the line cord). Connect the 2nd lamp only to Pin 2 and plug in the line cord. If the 2nd lamp flickers, remove power, move the 2nd lamp connection to Pin 3 and apply power. In either case (with the 2nd lamp now connected to pin 2 or 3 only), let the test run until the 2nd lamp again flickers.
For a final test, connect one lamp to Pin 2 and one to Pin 3. Connect 6 VDC to Pins 4 and 1. With the vibrator vibrating apply power to the two lamps. They should flicker alternately. Note that for this test, either use a 6 volt battery or a 6 VDC supply with both outputs not grounded. I wouldn't try to use the battery in the Jeep just in case you mis-identify which side of the line cord is grounded and which is hot.
Although a vibrator that is going to be fixed by this procedure will usually begin to work after say no more than half an hour, I have seen it take several hours. So if I have one that didn't start working fairly quickly, I'll let the test run up to about 8 hours max (or overnight) before giving up.