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The photographs above are of a Lionel J-38 Morse code key. The wood base is not original. The most common variation of Lionel J-38 keys will be found with their name on the key and their logo, an "L" on the bottom of the black bakelite base. When one thinks of the J-38 key, the name Lionel often comes to mind and for good reason. But beware of the many Lionel imitations that are out there. Some have shown up for sale with just the letter "L" stamped into the base. If you are after an original Lionel J-38 key, the type you will want to be on the look out for will have "The Lionel Corporation, New York, N.Y." in raised letters in the center top of the oval key base directly under the lever as shown in the picture below. Other factors that identify a Lionel made key is the key has a solid oval base, the black bakelite base will have radiused(rounded) corners, the shorting bar handle is not swelled at the base.

Lionel Base Variations:

1st variation will have the words "THE LIONEL CORPORATION" engraved on the top of the bakelite base directly above the J-38 engraving. Very rare.

2nd variation will have only J-38 engraved on the top of the bakelite base and no Lionel "L" logo cast on the bottom of the bakelite base. Rare but found more often than 1st variation. In December 2020 one sold at an online auction site for $74 shipped which is the highest price ever paid for this variation that I am aware of.

3rd variation and most common will have the Lionel "L" cast into the bottom of the Bakelite base. I’ve discovered two interesting sub category’s in this 3rd variation of the Lionel base that I have not seen any data on. This sub category concerns the location of the Lionel “L” found on the bottom of the base. (see pics at bottom of page.) The "L" mold on the bottom of the base can be found rotated in numerous positions.  

Sub-category 1 the Lionel "L" is found on the bottom right corner of the base.

Sub-category 2 the Lionel "L" is found on the bottom left corner of the base.


Where does the J-38 name come from?

The short answer is the black base. Remove the straight key from the base and it is no longer a J-38. According toThe Vail Correspondent #10 January 1995 the proper nomenclature for the Signal Corps closed circuit key alone, without a base, is J-30 and is described as being for "general purpose application". Now for the longer answer.  The U. S. Signal Corps assigned their telegraph keys with the letter "J" and then a number. This practice started during the WWI era and ended in the 1950's. According to an article by W1IMQ in the The Vail Correspondent #4 July 1993, before 1943 both the Army and Navy had separate nomenclature systems. In 1943 these separate nomenclature systems gave way to the Joint Army Navy nomenclature system(AN System) for all new equipment. Although existing items continued to be made and marked under the old system. The AN nomenclature is known today(1993) as Joint Electronics Type Designation System(JETDS). Under the JETDS nomenclature keys and other keying devices carry the unit indicator KY. Thus the Signal Corps J-45 leg key became known as the KY-116U and KY-562/U. The Vail Correspondent goes on to note that the J-number keys range from 1 to 51. Excluded in that list are the J-8, J-9, J-13, J-39, J-42, J-49, and J-50. According to the book J-Series Telegraph keys of the US Army Signal Corps by Larry Nutting he states that J-49 seems to be an AC motor driven “Automatic Keyer” used with the BC-751. And he notes that J-13 and J-39 appear in a 1946 Signal Corps listing of type-numbered items, but that further information is unavailable.

Unlike the J-37 key which uses a leaf spring, the J-38 employs a coil spring to return the arm after it has been depressed.

The J-38 CW key has a vast and wonderful history behind it. The J-38 key was used by all branches of the U.S. military. The J-38 key was produced by numerous manufacturers in very large numbers during the 1940's and later. Some of these manufacturers(or at least suppliers) were Bunnell, Johnson, Western Electric, Signal Electric Mfg. company, Waters-Conley, and McElroy Electronics Corporation, American Radio Hardware, Manhattan Electrical Supply Company..

Do not be surprised if you have a J-38 key in your collection without a manufacturers name on it. Many of the manufacturers did not place their name on the keys that they produced for whatever reason. Many collectors try to identify the maker of their J-38 key by the physical characteristics of the key. They use such things as the shapes and physical size of the various components along with the types of metals used on these components. But it is a difficult task. There are differences in style between the manufacturers, and slight variations within lots made by each manufacturer. Some manufacturers were based in the same city as other manufacturers so it is possible that they sold parts to each other and used the same suppliers. K6IX has come up with an interesting way to catalog these keys with no maker marks. Visit his excellent J-38 site HERE .

When the J-38 was used for training, each student's key was secured to a table, and was wired into the training system with two wires. One wire was connected to the "LINE" terminals, while the cans(headphones) wire was connected to the "TEL" terminals. With the circuit closer on the key in the closed position, the student could listen to the practice code that was being sent over the line. When the student wanted to practice sending, he would simply open the keys circuit closer and tap away. More information on how this training system was configured can be found in the February 2, 1942 dated United States manual TM 11-432. Of course the J-38 was used for much more then just training, and the history of these telegraph keys and where they were used can be quite fascinating. Although their main use was for training as the J-38 was designed specifically and solely as a code practice key.  

The J-38 can sometimes be found in its original training configuration. But when these items were war surplus and selling for .25 cents each many folks removed the back terminals and connecting strip at the end of the key and tossed them. Some would spray paint the frame and base to put it in mufti. Afterwards they turned the key around on the black base which helped secure it so that it would not tip while in use. Today it is becoming increasingly difficult to find one complete.    

A source for terminal pins is located about half way down the page HERE.



The picture on the left is of a Lionel made J-38 key. Othen the two rear terminals and connecting strip have long since been discarded and tossed.

The red arrow in the picture on the right is pointing to an "L" which is found on the bottom of 3rd variation(most common) Lionel J-38 bases. The black bakelite base found on Lionel J-38's have radiused(rounded) corners as seen in the pictures above.



The picture on the left is of a Lionel J-38 key. On an original Lionel J-38 key, the type you will want to be on the look out for, will have "The Lionel Corporation, New York, N.Y." in raised letters in the center top of the oval key base directly under the lever(removed for photo). Also note that the oval base of a Lionel key is solid unlike other manufacturers as seen in the pictures below.

The picture on the right is of an original Signal Corps  U.S. Army Kry J-38 box from the Lionel Corporation.





These next two photographs are of the very rare 2nd variation Lionel base. Including the one shown here, I know of only three in existence. Notice in the picture on the right that there is no Lionel logo of an "L" found on the bottom of the base.




Anyone ever see a J-38 in this configuration? If so please  me. Is it military? If so, I’ve never seen any reference to one as of yet. Is it homemade? If so, someone did a really fantastic and professional job. Did an enterprising company build and sell J-38 practice sets with the addition of the buzzer back in the days when these J-38 keys were surplus at a dollar or less each? 

Here is what I know: The CW key and base were both made by Lionel. The base is a 3rd variation Lionel base with the "L" logo. The buzzer has the word “Signal” stamped onto the top of it. Two holes were drilled through the bottom of the buzzer and also through the bakelite base. Next screws were inserted through the holes and secured with nuts on the bottom of the bakelite base. All holes were drilled from the outside in so that any burrs would be hidden. The placement of the holes and the buzzer is perfectly centered with the bakelite base. Someone really knew what they were doing. The builder took the additional step to save the connecting strip that would be attached between the two rear terminals. The connecting strip is secured by one back terminal and under the oval key base. Both of the two small alignment pins on the bottom of the two rear terminals is missing. I asked the seller for any history on the item and was told “The best I can say is it came from a WWII Veteran selling at the flea market. I am uncertain if it was his, or just something he collected over the years as he had several telephone line related items too.”

A March 1941 Signal Electric MFG. CO. sales ad list the buzzer as the model R-60. It goes on to state that it is the same buzzer used on their model R-68 wireless practice set, is adjustable, and has a standard resistance of 2 Ohms. Finish is black crystallized lacquer. List price was $1.25.

The buzzer works. When I received the key the contact in the buzzer was horrendously dirty. It was either used a lot or severely misadjusted. After cleaning and applying 6 volts it now works perfectly.



3rd variation sub-category's 

These sub-category's concern the location of the Lionel “L” found on the bottom of the base.

Sub-category 1 the Lionel "L" is found on the bottom right corner of the base.

Sub-category 2 the Lionel "L" is found on the bottom left corner of the base.

The "L" mold on the bottom of the base can be found rotated in numerous positions.  

Anyone know why this is? Pre and post WWII?? Please  me if you can provide any further information.




February 2, 1942 United States manual TM 11-432 

The Vail Correspondent #4 July 1993 

The Vail Correspondent #10 January 1995

Tom Perera's(W1TP) Telegraph Collectors Guidebook

Tom Perera's(W1TP) Telegraph Collectors CD-ROM

K6IX J-38 website

J-Series Telegraph keys of the US Army Signal Corps  by Larry Nutting(K7KSW)



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