Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Vibroplex Nameplates

I have had the photography for this post complete for some time but have been at a loss on how to transfer my thoughts on this subject into text.  For the past 18 years I have made a living in the nameplate business.  Industrial Screen Printing to be specific.  My company supplies nameplates, decals, and graphic overlays to the manufacturing industry.  A peculiar side effect of my vocation is that I am always examining the labeling of goods and equipment that I come in contact with.  I know I probably should not judge a piece of equipment by the quality of it's nameplate but this is just something I do.  A high quality, attractive label, while not essential to the performance of said equipment definitely says a lot to me about the manufacturer's philosophy.

During the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th century the world transitioned from manual labor and draft animal based economies to machine based manufacturing.  As a result of this change a specialized industry was born to address the need of documenting certain information for the many manufactured goods being produced in the world's shops and factories.  The nameplate was a way for a maker to proudly display his moniker and trademark on a good that he produced.  Other pertinent data such as patent and serial numbers could be recorded permanently on a metal plate by various stamping or etching methods.  When I am at a garage sale or an antique shop looking at old appliances or tools I like to admire the nameplates on these products from yesteryear. Unlike today the goods produced in times past were built to last and by nature so was the labeling.

The Vibroplex line of Morse code keys are a great example of a mass produced item that began in the hey-day of the industrial revolution and continues on today.  The bold brass embossed nameplate with the "lightning bug" trademark is instantly recognizable by hams and telegraphy enthusiasts around the world.  In my research which really just amounts to scratching the surface of what is out there concerning this company I have learned some interesting stuff.  According to an article by John Ceccherelli, N2XE that appeared in the January 2003 issue of QST, the brass stamped nameplates were first used by Vibroplex around 1920.  A rectangular black and silver nameplate was used on the earliest semi-automatic keys by Vibroplex.  John also stated that the same shop had been producing the brass nameplates from the original run right up to the time his article was published.  A nameplate production run by one shop spanning nearly a hundred years is simply amazing I believe.

According to the "Vibroplex Collectors' Guide", Second Edition by Tom French, W1IMQ there were 22 different types of  nameplates made for the Vibroplex line from 1905 to present.  The only difference between these types, aside from the early rectangular plates, are additional patent numbers and different addresses as the company was relocated during it's history.  Three "A" series, four "B" series and three "C" series plates made up the rectangular versions between 1905 and 1920.  The nine different "D" series plates made between 1921 to just recently are the familiar embossed brass plate.

Now a completely new style plate has been introduced by Vibroplex for all of the keys previously using the brass plate.  This new design is a very attractive and well made nameplate that I presume is screen printed gold anodized aluminum.  From here I will simply speak my mind, my opinion. That is what blogs are for after all.  I don't like the new plate.  I've spoken to a couple hams who share my opinion and I know we can't be the only ones.  I know change is inevitable and progress marches on but in the case of these legendary instruments and their iconic nameplate I think the change was a poor decision.  As I said the new plate is fine and does not effect the performance of the key whatsoever.  I love my new Iambic paddles but the new plate looks too "modern" especially when sitting in it's spot beside the bug on my operating desk with its old style embossed plate. 

I have no idea of the reasons behind the decision to revise the nameplate.  My industry like most are plagued with ever increasing material costs and tightening environmental standards making some processes too cost prohibitive to be profitable or even possible.  Perhaps the hard tooling used to stamp the plates has finally worn out and it would cost thousands I'm sure to retool for the job.  In any case I would like to see Vibroplex acquire some new old style plates and start a trade in program at the very least.  Owners if they so desired could remove and send back the new style plates to Vibroplex and receive an old style in trade with the same serial number stamped.  I would do this even at my expense.  I would have gladly shouldered a price increase of the key itself if that is what it would take to continue with the embossed brass plates.  I know it's a minuscule issue in the grand scheme of things but as a nameplate guy it just gets under my skin.

The following pictures show the plates on each of my four Vibroplex keys.  The plates are bare brass and I love how the embossed detail has begun to tarnish while the back ground remains brighter.  In other words these plates have loads of character and compliment the hardware they are riveted to in a way that can't be beat.
Straight Key -- Type D9 Nameplate

Original bug -- Type D9 Nameplate

Vibrokeyer -- Type D9 Nameplate

Iambic -- (New Knoxville, TN plate)

Here is a photograph of a D3 Nameplate from the  The Vibroplex Collector's Page  Maintained by Randy Cole, KN6W.  Based on the seven patent numbers, the 796 Fulton St., Brooklyn, NY address and the serial number it can be determined that the Vibroplex that wore this badge was produced in the years between 1926 and 1939.

This last photograph taken by Bill Crosier, NT9K clearly shows the new style nameplate.


  1. Great write-up Mike. Interesting details and information. I also like the patina/tarnish that your Type D9 plate has. It seems that your key is getting more attractive with time! You ought to send Vibroplex a link to this entry.

    Nicely done sir.

  2. Hello Mike,

    I'd never thought of nameplates in these terms before, but I can see where you're coming from now. Although I don't own a Vibroplex key, I naturally associate the older, traditional QUALITY with those "brass" nameplates. Vibroplex has done a masterful job of marketing over many years and some products demand nothing but the very best in every detail.

    I can't help but think of the classic "Harley Davidson" motorcycle when reading your entry. Recently, they've opened a factory in China. Over many years, they've developed a marketing campaign around the concept of the AMERICAN motorcycle. That's going to be a massive problem for them now.

    I hope both these companies take a closer look at their marketing techniques. As you say, a nameplate doesn't change the quality of the product but that's not always important. It's all how you look and think about it.

    Great post.

  3. Thanks guys for the comments. I've thought alot about this and come to the conclusion that Vibroplex being such a niche market they are in a unique position to be able to not change anything in regards to their products and still be successful.

    As you pointed out John HD is a very similar situation. Many bikers scoff at the hundred year old V-twin design but it is what it is and many love the distinctive exhaust note of the HD v-twin. Kind of like that telltale bug fist on the air that so many either love or hate. Any way a neat analogy and it will be interesting to watch how these companies carry on in these changing times.

  4. I couldn't agree with you more. I have recently restored a Vibroplex Champion that I purchased in 1953 with my hard earned lawn mowing money. I decided I would like to purchase an Original as an upgrade. I checked out the Vibroplex web site and was astonished to see that they had gone to a new nameplate. To me, without the old nameplate it wasn't the classic Vibroplex. I was lucky enough to find an Original Deluxe on Ebay from 1995 that had never been out of the box with the original nameplate. Vibroplex lost a sale because of the new nameplate. I agree with you that it was a serious mistake to "upgrade" the Vibroplex nameplate.

  5. Sure glad to hear that others feel the same way about the new nameplate.
    I was both shocked and disappointed to see this boldly featured on the Vibroplex website.

    In this ham's opinion, the new plate design diminishes the product, for it is a clear concession the modern method of manufacturing, and such the bug or key appear to be just another mass produced, rather than handmade, item. When you change a key element like this, a wise move would have been to solicit feedback from or form a focus group of the end users.

    Great company's fail because they forget to pay attention to the corporate culture that made them successful in the first place. Nowhere is this more true than when a company changes hands, all end users are anxiously waiting to see if the new owner remains true to that which made the firm great, or if he is going to meddle with the secret sauce.

    The secret sauce, if you will, with Vibroplex was the feeling of custom craftsmanship, much akin to the comment made by an earlier poster about Harley Davidson. When that element departs, then the Vibroplex becomes just another key. If we wanted a cheap key I would have bought a MFJ.

    Yes, there is expense to maintaing dyes and stamping equipment, and yes that cost must be passed onto the consumer in the price of the product. But I seriously doubt that any of us would balk at paying an additional $5 or $10 for a Vibroplex bug which has the "original" design. Once does not buy Vibroplex products as an economy measure, the value proposition of Vibroplex is that the keys are works of art, feature a timeless design, and often outlast the original purchaser.

    In my opinion, this was a serious misstep on the part of the new ownership, one can only hope that this may be a learning lesson, not to be repeated. Penny wise and pound foolish in my opinion. If we can heart in anything, thankfully it was not an adhesive sticker...

    73 Bruce W1UJR

  6. Thanks Bruce for your thoughtful comments. Seeing others share similar opinions on this matter has proven to me that my gut feeling was right about the nameplate. And that some of you care about this as deeply as I do.

  7. The new name plate looks Ten-Tec-ish. I wonder if the new owner of vibroplex sent some business over to his old employer (T-T makes enclosures in addition to radios, and I assume that they're well-equipped to make the new nameplates). I agree with other comments about the new nameplate, but if this were true, it would add a bit of interesting lore to the new keys. 73, Tom W2CRG

  8. Do you think Rolls Royce would drop the winged victory hood ornament for an adhesive decal in order to save a few pounds?

    The nostalgic brass plate set Vibroplex apart from the crowd and said 'Tradition and Excellence". The new plate says "Changing anything to save a buck". Bill, KB4QAA

  9. As a neophyte Vibroplex Original collector, I am seeing devices on which they're is not a shred of paint left on the name plate. Nevertheless, they can be cleaned an polished such that they add distinction and a little gravitas to the key.

    I wonder what the future collector will find? A smooth piece of unlettered metal with a stamped serial number? What a shame to lose this iconic piece of Americana. Bob, KD2UJ

  10. I wanted to buy a new iambic key while visiting the US and almost placed the order when I noticed the new name plate. What disappointment. It makes it look like a poor mass produced import, certainly not a Vibroplex. I was lucky enough to obtain an "original" on Ebay and saved money too. I have always promised myself a Vibroplex, but there is no way any fan of this iconic key would consider this poor offering, at least it will stimulate the second hand market.

  11. FWIW, the word from Vibroplex is that the company that stamped the plates went out of business and the dies were scrapped.

    The expense of having new ones made is staggering.

    They have added a border to the plates, which IMO helps a bit.

  12. At the beginning of 2012, I sold my 100aniversary model because of the nameplate. With the money I bought an older one with the "fancy" nameplate.
    At first when I took the 100anni from the box when bought directly from Vibroplex, was the dissapointment after seeing that crappy nameplate.
    I used it a few months then sold it again.

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  14. I've only been refurbishing Vibroplexes for a year since I retired from tool and die work. The one thing I hate is those new name plates. I will never own a key with that low cheap looking name plate. Its a disgrace to the Vibroplex Name.

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