Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Side-Swiper

This post has sat for a while as a draft.  Since it has been raining on and off for a while now and the bike trails are mud I have decided to take the opportunity to get this one to the light of day.

Back at the turn of the 20th century during the advent of the first semi-automatic keys another kind of key was also being developed called the Side-Swiper.  This key got it's name from the sideways back and forth motion used to operate the key.  The horizontal movement of the lever is where the likeness to the bug key ends.  The side-swiper is a very simple Single Pole Double Throw Switch.  Like a straight key the dot, dash and spacing of Morse Code must be manually constructed by the operator.

Using a side-swiper or "Cootie-Key" (another nickname this key picked up somewhere in history) is a unique method for generating code.  I always begin my transmission by moving the lever left.  Each subsequent element of code be it a dot or dash is accomplished by swinging the lever back to the right and closing the opposite contact.  In this fashion I am always maintaining a left-right-left-right-left-right rhythm.  The difficulty in using this kind of key arises from the fact that all the Morse characters are different.  Some characters are all dashes while some are all dots and others are combinations of dots and dashes.  I have to build each character carefully allowing a small pause between each letter and a longer space between words all the while keeping up the back and forth motion or swing.  It's very easy to make errors.  I practiced quite a while with this key before putting it on the air.

In appearance the side-swiper looks similar to any single lever paddle (Double Pole Double Throw) that makes dashes one direction and dots the other.  In fact when I first learned of the side-swiper I converted my Vibrokeyer to a Cootie by attaching a jumper wire between the dot and dash contact posts.  The side-swiper in the pictures I made last fall for the October SKCC Craftsman Key Sprint.  The aluminum bar stock I ordered from McMaster Carr.  The angle pieces I cut from aluminum square tubing recycled from old screen printing frames.  The brass hardware I purchased at the local hardware store.  The lever I made from my hacksaw blade (once I was done cutting all the other parts).  The pretty piece of wood for the base and the finger piece I recycled from a shipping crate.  This project took a couple of weeks working for an hour or two in the evenings. Other than the table saw, a bench top drill press and belt sander I used simple handtools.  To go to the trouble to learn Morse Code and use it on the air is an accomplishment on it's own but to make my own key and use it is icing on the cake.       

It is my opinion that because of the advertising and marketing blitz carried out by Horace G. Martin and his Vibroplex Company that the sideswiper never really gained widespread acceptance.  The side-swiper's one great quality is it's simplistic design perfect for the cw homebrewer.

A couple websites I often visit concerning all things telegraphic: 


  1. Another win! I'm on fire today ;)

  2. Hi frilly,
    Very nice of you to grace the top spot on my podium. The season has just gotten underway- I hope your not peaking too early!

  3. Mike,

    Could you give the dimensions of your cootie key? I am interested in building something similar, but I don't really know where to start.


    Joel - W4JBB

    1. Hi Joel, Yes I will be happy to send you a drawing if you'll give me a couple days to work one up for you. I was completely flying blind when building this cootie. I just approximated the dimensions by looking at pictures of various keys online.

      The sideswiper works fine as is but there is a couple things I would do differently. One I would make the length of the arm a little shorter by maybe 1/2" -3/4" or so and I feel it needs to be stiffer maybe 2 saw blades epoxied together would provide a stiffer action.

      I will measure out the exact dimensions of the key and send a pdf to the email shown on your QRZ listing unless you want it to go somewhere else.

      Thanks for checking out the blog and your interest.

      73 Mike