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More than you ever wanted to know about
J-38 Keys

A Monograph in Four Parts
Apology and Disclaimer
"Types" of J-38 Keys
"Near" J-38 Keys
"NOT" J-38 Keys
Apology and Disclaimer


To the best of my knowledge it would be impossible to identify the manufacturer of the great majority of J-38 keys. There are four reasons: 1) Other than Lionel the keys are not marked, 2) Multiple manufacturers made identical keys, 3) Single manufacturers made different keys at different times, and 4) Many parts are interchangeable, and for over 60 years these keys have been in the hands of people who loved to experiment with equipment, which means there are many "mix and match" keys to be found.

If most keys cannot be identified by manufacturer, and "as found" keys may not be "as manufactured", then it seems that the best approach to categorizing J-38's would be to try to find identifiable types of keys based on physical characteristics. If enough identical keys of a given type exist, then it becomes an identifiable type.

I have tried to organize the information I've collected about J-38's by dividing the keys that I own, have seen, or have read about into several types based on "clusters" or "groupings" of characteristics. These characteristics are based on the types of metal used and the shapes and sizes of the various components. Since these characteristics are based purely on appearance I use either the term "white metal", or the term "brass", to describe the metal parts.

In order to use a consistent nomenclature I have tried to find appropriate names for each of the parts of the keys based on common usage among collectors and other sources. Click here to see a complete list of parts along with the names I am using for them.

I have made subjective evaluations of the availability of each type as I have seen them being traded or sold in the marketplace. I have no way of knowing whether this also reflects the number of keys held by collectors. Perhaps, if we can agree on some of the basic types of J-38's, we can discover which types collectors are holding the most, and least, of.

Click on the names below to see pictures of keys in my collection that I believe are representative of the type.




"Types" of J-38 Keys


The following are what I propose to be some of the distinct, identifiable, types of J-38 keys, along with a description of the identifying characteristics. I have invented names for the types purely for convenience. I feel sure that some of these types are incompletely identified, and that there are many other identifiable types. This is just a start.




1) ARH type:

American Radio Hardware is the most identifiable maker of this type because of the amazing number of keys that are still found with American Radio Hardware boxes. Radio Essentials Incorporated seems to have made a key which is exactly the same in appearance, but not nearly as common (or at least not as many boxes have survived).

The ARH type is identified by having all the metal parts made of brass except for the frame of the key, and the key lever, which are white metal, and the eye screw which may be either brass or white metal.

ARH type J-38's are very common in the marketplace, but I believe they are not quite as plentiful as the Lionel.

2) Lionel type:

The Lionel type is easily identified by the base, which has radiused corners and top edges, a solid, black painted frame, and lock nuts with angled rather than vertical knurling. In addition, the "L" logo is cast into the bottom of the base, and the logo and company name are cast between the trunnion supports on the top of the frame.

The Lionel is also the only J-38 I know of which has positioning pins in the inner binding posts in addition to those in the rear binding posts (4 pins total). These pins hold the holes in the inner binding posts at a 45 degree angle to the centerline of the key.

The metal parts on the Lionel keys I have seen are all brass except the rear shorting strap, the anvil strap, and the lever, which are white metal; and the frame, which is painted black.

Lionels seem to be the most common type of J-38 on the market (maybe because they sell at a premium), but there is a rare variation that has the words "THE LIONEL CORPORATION, N. Y." printed in white between the normal "J-38" lettering and the front edge of the frame. This Lionel variation was featured on the cover of "The Vail Correspondent" # 10.

Tom French at Artifax Books uncovered two more very rare Lionel keys which he was nice enough to part with so I could add them to my collection. The first of these is a standard Lionel that does not have the Lionel "L" logo on the bottom of the base, which is shown here.

The Lionel JK-38: The second is a much more interesting key called the "Bulkhead Practice Key", and given the designation JK-38 by the U S Navy. This key was meant to hang on a bulkhead (that's a wall for those of you with no salt water in your veins) along with a "Device 26B1, Bulkhead Blinker". You can see the instructions for the use of the key along with the JK-38 key designation (among the spare parts listed) on this page from the instructor's guide.

Finally, Lionel J-38 key frames are found on some other, non-J38, bases. Three different types that I have found are:

The Lionel J-47's: The J-47 is normally made up of a J-37 key on a plain base marked J-47. For reasons lost in the obscurity of time, J-47's were also made using Lionel J-38 key frames mounted on two different types of J-47 bases. One base, obviously made by Lionel, has the standard round corners and molded "L" logo on the bottom, while the other is square cornered and shows no Lionel markings.

The Philmore Code Practice Set: Probably the strangest place I have found a Lionel J-38 key is as part of this code practice set made by the Philmore Company. I am not certain that it was the original key on the set, but there are no signs that it was not. Philmore marketed many different keys over the years. You can see several of them on my Philmore key page.

The Lionel J-38 J-37 Paddle Combination Key: This absolutely fascinating key is obviously home made, but illustrates the ubiquity of the Lionel J-38 and the inventiveness of some amateur radio operator.

3) Brass Frame type:

This type is identified by a frame of cast brass that is not painted or plated. In all the J-38's I have seen with brass frames the spring is held on the frame by a small lip that attaches under the anvil, bends down toward the base and then bends back to horizontal to provide a ledge for the base of the spring. This spring holding arrangement is in contrast to all the white metal bases I have seen, which have a bulge cast into the front of the frame to hold the spring.

The other metal parts of these brass frame keys vary from key to key, particularly the back posts, which I have seen in several unusual shapes. Some of them also have angled knurling on the lock nuts. I have a theory that perhaps these keys were early models, rushed into production by using stock "triumph" style frames, but substituting the spring holder described above for the older (and very breakable) spring, which had the bottom end of the wire anchored directly in the brass frame. Stock binding posts from other sources could then have been used, accounting for the unusual shapes and sizes.

I have two keys which may either be a rare variation on the Brass Frame type, or may just be a prototype some company made. They are like the Brass Frame type except that the bakelite base has "Type J-38" on the front where there is normally only "J-38". In fact it is these keys that made me think that perhaps the Brass Frame type keys are all early, or preproduction, models. Now, thanks to Irvin Langel, KA3JVR, I have a picture of his brass frame J-38 which has "Key.Type J-38" on the front of the base. I later found a "Key.Type J-38" for my own collection.

4) TAC type:

The TAC (Telegraph Apparatus Corporation) type was identified in Lynn Burlingame's "N7CFO Keyletter", issue # 23. Lynn found 5 of the keys in a Signal Corps code training set with a TAC "Oscillatone" and a cut off McElroy tear drop key. As Lynn says, "if everything else is TAC, the reasonable assumption is that the J-38's are TAC also."

Lynn lists several identifying characteristics, the most unusual being that: 1) The contacts are of very small diameter and not the same size. Those on the lever are 1/8", but on the anvil the diameter is 3/32"; and 2) all the metal parts except the frame, lever, and spring are brass.

Tom French (artifaxbooks.com) has verified that the keys with his code training set are the same as those described by Lynn. Tom states however that "the fact that the parts list gives no manufacturer for the key suggests that TAC bought them from whatever source was available". Tom believes that the "TAC type" is a variation of the ARH, and I think that is a reasonable conclusion.

There do not seem to be many TAC type J-38's on the market.

5) All White Metal type:

On this type of J-38 all the metal components are of white metal. There are no brass parts on the key whatsoever. The other distinguishing characteristic of this type is that the eye screw is smaller than on the other J-38 types.

While there are only a few of these keys on the market, I believe that there are enough with these characteristics that they constitute an identifiable type.

A possible rare variation of the All White type is an All White key that does NOT have "J-38" engraved on the front of the base under the operating knob.




"Near" J-38 Keys


If you use the keys above to try to "reverse engineer" the WWII Army Specifications for a J-38 key, two of the most likely specs would be that the key is mounted on a bakelite base, 3" x 4 3/4", with the characters "J-38" stamped, in white, on the front of the key under the operating knob, and that the binding posts be configured as described for the ARH type. If you accept these requirements, then there are several very important keys which are like WWII J-38's in many ways, but do not meet this "spec". The following are the keys, that I know of, which I believe fall into this "not quite real WWII J-38" group. Several of them are probably Signal Corps keys, but are from the period after WWII.




1) The JJ-38:

A common Japanese made "ball bearing key" mounted on a bakelite base with "JJ-38" in place of "J-38" on the front of the base.

I have read conflicting accounts of whether these keys may have had some relationship to the Japanese Defense Force after WWII, but I don't believe anyone claims they were made for the US Army Signal Corps.

One company that marketed JJ-38's to hams was the Philmore company. You can see two examples of JJ-38 type keys packaged and sold by them on my Philmore key page.

JJ-38's are fairly common in the marketplace, but certainly less common than ARH and Lionel type J-38's.

2) The Artec J38:

The Artec key has "J38" (note: no dash) stamped in white on the base under the operating knob. In addition it has the circuit closing switch pivot attached under the right inner binding post (a very poor arrangement), captive thumb screws on the binding posts, and the name "Artec" cast into the top of the black painted frame on the left front of the key.

There seems to be a general consensus that the Artec is not a "real" J-38. Randy Cole, however, posted a note on the MorseCode internet reflector, 2/25/01, saying that he had found one in an unopened US Army package, so it appears that they were purchased and used by the Army at some time.

Artec J38's are fairly common in the marketplace, but again, less common than ARH and Lionel type J-38's.

3) The McElroy J38:

The easiest way to describe this key is that it is almost exactly like the Artec J38, except that it has McElroy cast into the base, and the circuit closing switch is attached by an independent screw on the rear of the frame.

The McElroy also has the black frame, captive thumb screws, and "J38" in white on the front of the base.

The McElroy J38 is a rare key. Tom Perera says on his web site that "The only known example was in the McElroy collection until a small number of them showed up at the 1999 Dayton hamfest."

4) The Winslow J-38:

The Winslow is another Artec/McElroy look alike. It also has the black frame and captive thumb screws, but it DOES have a dash in the "J-38" on the front of the base.

In the N7CFO "Keyletter" #28 there are copies of an advertisement from The Winslow Company for 15 different "J" keys, including the J-38. The advertisement is from the June 1943 Electronics Magazine, and states that all 15 types are "now in production".

I do not know how rare the Winslow is, but I currently know of only 8 keys. Two of those are in the collection of Dave Johnson, N0MNO. One of the pictures on Dave's web page shows the mil-spec packaging for a Winslow key.

I finally got a Winslow of my own when Sherman Harrison, K4KU, decided to liquidate his large J-38 collection. Sherman has some beautiful old radios on his web page.

5) The Spanish J-38:

I got this key from Jack Klobuchar, W1TEC, who wrote that: "I think I got the key with Spanish writing on it during a trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina in the late 1980s . . . There was an antique section in the city and I found several keys there, but I only purchased this one."

The base is brown bakelite, 1/4" shorter than the standard base, has the word "TELEF." on the left side in place of the usual "TEL", and "LINEA" on the right side in place of the standard "LINE". There is nothing stamped on the front of the base where the Signal Corps key always has "J-38".

The key itself is made like a standard Brass Frame Type, but the frame seems to have been nickel plated. There are no positioning pins in the terminals, and there are no holes for them in either the terminals or the base.

Up until January, 2004, my key remained the only one that I knew of. I now have mail from Ralph Brock, KC2IZM, saying that he purchased one, also from a seller in Buenos Aires. His key is pretty much identical to mine, but it does have an eye screw, which mine does not. His key, like mine, is missing the circuit closing switch. I still believe that this is a very rare key.

6) The J-38-FR:

Known as the French J-38, this key is totally unlike any of the other J-38's or even near J-38's. The key looks like a typical unmounted, legless triumph key. There is no base. The binding posts have slotted, rather than knurled, screws, but the front of the frame does have the bulge inward to form a holder for the spring.

Cast into the bottom of the frame is "J-38-FR / Vuillemot / Creteil". John Elwood thinks that Vuillemot is probably a manufacturer's name, and Creteil is the city in France where the key was made. I wrote Henri Heraud, F6AOU, a French key collector, about this key and he responded that: "...Vuillemot was a French Society manufacturing radio items for (the) army ... Your J38fr is a copy of US J38 made by Vuillemot from ca. 1940 until (the) end of (the) CW Era, ca. 1980. ... You can see also ... the (crossed flags) of (the) French Army...".

I think that the French J-38 is a very rare key. Lou Moreau told John Elwood about the key after she had purchased one at an Army Surplus store in Pasadena. John went to the store and bought the last 4 that they had. He restored one, keeps one as his "before" key, traded one, and gave the fourth one to a new key collector to "help him get his collection started"! Obviously, I think that John Elwood is one of the grand characters in key collecting.

A couple of years after John gave me that first J38FR I got a second one (along with a French J-45) from a collector in England named Wyn Davies.



"NOT" J-38 Keys


There are some keys around that are just plain "fake" J-38's. Sometimes this is on purpose, in order to capitalize on the reputation of the J-38, and sometimes it is just something that some ham, or other key user, put together out of his or her parts bin.




1) A Soling J-38?

Here is a fake J-38 made with malice aforethought. The end printing on the box has most of the markings of a real J-38 box, including the File # and double line outline found on all J-38 boxes. Inside is a key on a rectangular bakelite base with beveled edges and the lettering "J-38" boldly stamped in white in front of the key frame.

The only catch is that the key frame and mechanism is a Japanese made Soling J-37 replica! I wonder how many eager young hams bought these keys thinking they were the real thing?

2) A Western Union J-38?

Many strange key frames are found on "Type J-38" bases (see the Brass Frame type above), but I think this one is a little too strange. The frame is stamped LEGLESS KEY 2A W.U. TEL. CO, and the circuit closing switch is stamped MENOMINEE ELECTRIC MFG. CO. The spring is attached directly to the inside of the oval, and the binding post screws are slotted. As a final disgrace , the screws with which the frame is attached to the base were apparently too long and were ground down, taking some of the material off the bottom of the base with them.

This is an ideal candidate for a "parts bin special J-38".




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