Artifax Books

151 Barton Road
Stow MA 01775 USA

Telegraph instruments for sale: J-38 keys

This page includes U.S. Army Signal Corps J-38 keys.
Sounders, bugs, and other keys (military and civilian)
will be found on other pages of this website.

Keys for sale follow the information and descriptions.

Before ordering, please check our home page for recent announcements.


All items are subject to prior sale, so e-mail me before paying to check that what you are interested in is still available, to confirm shipping cost, or to ask questions. In the winter we may be out west in our trailer and might not have your item with us (although we can place a hold on an item to reserve it for you). Our email address is

We accept US payment by (made to any of our email addresses), by money order, or by personal check with your shipping address imprinted on it. Foreign payment may be made by paypal or by international postal money order. If you pay by mail, let me know and I will hold your item for you.

Shipping costs are not cumulative. If you are interested in different items, I will provide shipping cost. Some small items will ship with a bug at no added cost. But others may be best shipped separately; for example, it is cheaper to ship a few knobs (first class mail) separate from a book (media mail) since knobs cannot be included with media mail.

Shipping of a single J-38 is $8.00 by priority mail in the USA. Inquire for foreign shipping.

U.S. Signal Corps J-38 telegraph keys

Left: Scarce Lionel variation (main lever removed to show detail).

J-38 keys are fun to collect and nice to use. They are a simple hand key with a lot of history behind them. A collection of this one type could fill a long shelf with its many manufacturers and variations. As "war surplus" in the 1950s, they could be purchased from military surplus houses for as little as 95 cents each. Many radio amateurs in the 1950s and 60s began with a J-38; not only was it inexpensive, it had excellent straight-key operating qualities. Even today, many hams who use a straight key prefer the J-38 for its "feel."

What is a J-38 ?

The Signal Corps J-38 was a Morse Code training key, included with various Army school systems during World War Two. The key was produced in huge numbers in the 1940s and later. Five were included in the AN/GGQ-1 code practice set; twenty-two J-38 keys were included with the World War Two EE-81 school system; and forty-four with the EE-95-F system.

As used in the larger school systems, each student's key was screwed to the table, and was wired into the system with two wires connected to the "LINE" terminals. The headphones connected to the "TEL" terminals. The staycord of the headphone cable was tied to the small eyescrew, to avoid strain on the headphone wires. With his circuit closer closed, the student could listen to the practice code generated over the line. To practice sending, the student would open his key's circuit closer.

You will occasionally see the hand key (less Bakelite base) advertised as a J-38 key. While it may be from a J-38 assembly, it is not, by itself, a J-38. The military nomenclature for the general purpose hand key with circuit closer is J-30.

Manufacturers of the J-38.

Several companies made the J-38 key. Some included theirs as part of a complete school system, while other makers probably provided theirs as subcontractors to suppliers of the training systems. Some makers, like McElroy, got a late start, after the specifications had been finalized (especially regarding the nomenclature to be placed on the keys), and so their J-38s are found in one variation only. Others, such as Lionel, seem to have been involved from the beginning, as their J-38s appear in several variations. Names of companies involved with making or supplying J-38 keys are:

-- American Radio Hardware Company (ARH; three variations)
-- American Radio and Telegraph Company (ARTEC cast into base)
-- Lionel (three variations)
-- L.S. Brach, New York
-- McElroy Manufacturing Corporation (their own; also Lionel in relabeled box)
-- Philmore (probably never used by the Signal Corps, see below.)
-- Radio Essentials Co. Name is on the box, but it is a ARH key. See ARH information below.
-- Reeve Electrical Co., Brooklyn NY
-- Signal Electric Manufacturing Company (SEMCO; three variations)
-- Telegraph Apparatus Company. J-38s found in the TAC sets are ARH or Lionel keys. See below.
-- Waters Conley Co., Rochester Minn. (reboxed Lionel)
-- The Winslow Company

Because J-38s are part of the five-key practice set (AN/GGQ-1) made by Telegraph Apparatus Company (TAC), some think that TAC made those keys. But the parts list for the set gives no manufacturer for the key, a hint that TAC would buy them from whatever source was available. The J-38s in those sets I have seen are ARH or Lionel keys (five from one maker, not mixed).

Like TAC, other companies, such as Cook Electric Company of Chicago, apparently obtained contracts and sold J-38s to the military, but most of their keys were made by others. The legend on one key box says "mfg'd for [not by] Cook..." and the key inside is a late variation Signal Electric. In fact the printing on the box is the same style as on the Signal Electric box.

The Lionel variations

The most popular J-38 is the Lionel, sought after not only by key and militaria collectors but also by Lionel model railroad hobbyists. On all of them the company name is cast into the metal key frame (remove the main lever to see it). Unlike other J-38s, the Lionel has nice large contacts on both the hammer (lever) and anvil (frame). For collectors and "rivet counters," there are three variations, all involving the Bakelite base.

-- First, the early one, with the Lionel company name engraved on the base (see first photo at top of this page). This does not have the "L" cast under the base.

-- The Army may have told Lionel not to advertise itself so obviously on the key (or, as Scott Hill surmises, it may have been a casting set-up error). In any case, the result was a second variation, which has neither the name on the base nor the "L" under the base.

-- Perhaps realizing that its name on the key frame alone was too inconspicuous, Lionel decided that a small but inobtrusive logo would not not raise the ire of the Signal Corps. An "L" was cast into the bottom of the base, resulting in a third variation (photo above at left).

The second variation (without the name on, or the "L" under, the base) may be the scarcest, but the difference cannot be seen as the key is normally displayed or used. This makes the earliest version the most desirable to Lionel collectors.

Navy Bulkhead Blinker keys based on the J-38.

The following two keys are U.S. Navy light-signaling keys. They are not J-38s, but are so similar, and built from J-38 parts, that they may be of interest to the Army Signal Corps J-38 collector. If we have such keys for sale, you will find them on the U.S. Military Keys page under Navy keys.

The JK-38 (shown at right) is a scarce visual code training key. It uses the J-38 design and parts, but it is a different key for a different purpose. This key was part of the Navy's Bulkhead Blinker Device 26B1, which consisted of the key and a light-bulb blinker unit. The unit was "designed for mounting on barracks bulkheads or in classrooms for blinker code practice." It typically has a SC7631A stamp under the Bakelite base.

Lionel provided this key in the usual "J-38" marked box, and indeed the key used the usual "J-38" Bakelite base; only the Navy instruction sheet (NAVEXOS P-1055) identifies the key as a JK-38. It does not use the brass connector strip between the outboard terminals; instead, the key terminals are directly connected to those terminals.

Another scarce Navy "bulkhead blinker" key based on the J-38. This uses almost all J-38 parts except for the outboard terminal connector strip. The metal nameplate notes this as NAVPERS 40008 and that it was "procured through Office of Naval Research, Special Devices Center.

The Signal Electric variations

The Signal Electric Manufacturing Company was making telegraph instruments long before WWII, and appears to have been one of the first contractors for this key. As with their commercial hand keys, the J-38s made by SEMCO can be identified by the cast "1852" on the bottom of the key frame.

The earliest of the SEMCO J-38s have a solid brass key frame stamped U.S.S.C. under the gap adjusting screw, and "TYPE J-38" engraved on the Bakelite base. (Left and center photos.)
This was followed by their second variation, which has the same brass key, but the Signal Corps stamp is gone from the frame, and the base is maked with the standard "J-38."
A late variation has the key frame cast in "white metal," and unusual conical terminals on the key frame. (Right photo.)

The American Radio Hardware Company variations

Povilas (Paul) Glemza, an immigrant from Lithuania, arrived in the United States in 1906. Later, he started several companies, including American Radio Hardware Company and Radio Essentials. (Information courtesy his granddaughter Paulette Velho.) The J-38 keys supplied by both companies are identical (in the 1947 Radio's Master, Radio Essentials is described as the sales agency for ARH).
-- On all ARH J-38 keys, the Bakelite base (likely stamped from General Electric Textolite sheet, for which ARH was the exclusive distributor) is rectangular with sharp corners and a bevel on the edges, the key frame is white metal (probably zinc), and the terminal posts are cylindrical.

-- On the most common variation (shown in the above photos), the terminals, back connector strip, shorting lever, hot contact connector strip and hardware are all unplated brass. The upper (hammer) and lower (anvil) contacts are small.
-- On the variation found in the AN/GGQ-1 set provided by Telegraph Apparatus Company, the keys thought to be ARH J-38s in that set are the same as above, except the upper contact is large. (TAC also supplied Lionel keys with some sets.)
-- A more noticable ARH variation has chrome plated terminal posts, with the other parts being white metal (probably cadmium plated brass).

Identifying other makes

-- McElroy: Black key frame. "McElroy" is cast into the frame at left front, mostly hidden under the connector strap. "J38" and other lettering silk screened (not engraved) on the Bakelite base.
-- Reeve: Two types by Reeve have been found. On one (the earlier?) type, the base is of the usual style and engraved "Key, Type J-38." On the other, the headphone stay-cord eye is cast into the Bakelite base (not a metal eyescrew) and the lettering "J-38" is cast (raised) in the base, not engraved. On both types, the key lever is of unusual shape (it widens at the spring screw) and is stamped REEVE.
-- Philmore: Same cast base as the later Reeve but also has "Japan" cast into the bottom; the key is the Japanese ball-bearing pivot type. This was probably never sold to the Signal Corps.
-- Winslow: The name is stamped into the center of the main lever.
-- American Radio and Telegraph Company: ARTEC is cast into the frame at left front, and the closing lever is pivoted under the back right wire terminal.
-- L.S. Brach: The name BRACH within a diamond is stamped at the center of the main lever.

The Japanese JJ-38

Finally, since it turns up now and then, I must mention the Japanese copy of a J-38. This is that inexpensive hand key with ball-bearing lever pivots, mounted on a Bakelite base. The key itself has been around since the 1950s; it was was sold by Radio Shack, Lafayette and others and is still available. However, the Bakelite base imitates that of a J-38; it has LINE and TEL silk-screened (not engraved) on it, and JJ-38 ("Japanese J-38"?). It is a fair imitation of a J-38, though it does not have the stay cord eyelet on the base. If you want every variation of the J-38, including the copies (and this is the only copy I am aware of), keep your eyes open for this key. We will list any we find below.

Collecting the J-38

J-38 keys are still relatively common and can be found at hamfests and on the internet. However, prices have increased, keys in good condition are becoming difficult to find, and the scarce variations have all but disappeared into collections. If you would collect one from every manufacturer, most makers did not mark their J-38 keys, so they must be found "in the box" if you want to visually demonstrate who made it.

A warning to collectors: Watch out for a Lionel key placed on an ARH base to make a so-called second variation. Note that the Lionel Bakelite base has rounded corners, while the base of all other makers have square corners. Also, while cleaning is acceptable, some J-38 keys offered elsewhere have been over-polished or wire-brushed. They look wonderful in a digital photograph, but such treatment can reduce a key's collector value.

For more information on the J-38 keys, see Scott Hill's (K6IX) pages on this interesting key. Be sure to click on his "more than you ever wanted to know" link.

J-38 keys for sale.

Unless otherwise stated, the keys offered on this page are complete and original, but do not include the original box or packaging. The finish is "as found," which may range from mint-as-new to well used and tarnished. We dust the keys, but do not polish them. We leave all cleaning to your judgement.

Shipping of any one key is $8.00 in the USA.

The number (#xxxx) is our inventory number, not a model number of the key. Please give our inventory number and a brief description of the key when inquiring about a key.

Photos: -- For some keys we have provided links to more photos, for some others (more recently posted) you can click on the main photo which is a link to another photo.

Keys are listed in this order: Lionel, ARH, others.

NEED PARTS? Knobs and springs are shown on this page.

#113DAH early Lionel J-38 - NOS with box..

This is the early Lionel variation with "The Lionel Corporation,N.Y." engraved on the Bakelite base. It is new old stock, with the original box. It has the red SC stamp on the bottom.

The box is imprinted on both ends, and has the Lionel logo on the top. Interestingly, the sealing tape was cut only on one side; the lid and bottom of the box are still attached.

Both the key and the box are in excellent conditon. You will not find a better early Lionel J-38.

The key.
Box legend.
Bottom of the box showing tape.


#514MEG ARH J-38.

American Radio Hardware J-38 key. This was the radio operator's training key for the United States Army Signal Corps, built to military specifications. There is chipping around the base mounting holes (click on photo for a larger view) and the metal parts would benefir from cleaning and polishing, but from the slight wear on the circuit closer this key seems to have had little use.


#912CGY ARTEC J-38.

American Radio and Telegraph Company (ARTEC) J-38 key. This J-38 has unique wire terminals, and an unusual design for the circuit closing lever attachment: It is held under the key ground terminal (a poor design which tends to loosen the terminal when the CC lever is moved - early Bunnell keys shared the same design flaw).

An interesting feature is that the nomenclature on the Bakelite base is "J38" (no hyphen). Also, the legends are printed or silk screened onto the Bakelite base, not etched like others.

This scarce key appears to be in NOS unused condition, though the steel main lever and the brass parts do show a little patina.

Legend cast into key frame.


#614CLO ... McElroy J-38.

Rare T.R. (Ted) McElroy J-38. Not many of these are known. It is identified by McElroy cast into the frame (see close-up below) and the unique circuit closing lever.

This is suspiciously similar to the Artec J-38 in a few respects: The cast key frame, the silk-screened (rather than engraved) legends on the Bakelite base including "J38" without the hyphen, and the style of the wire terminals. Perhaps "Mac" had contacts with Artec.

Excellent condition, perhaps unused -- one of the most collectible of the J-38s.

Legend cast into key frame
J38 on base
Rear view


#611BEY Signal Electric J-38.

A Signal Electric J-38 key with almost no use, but it needs cleaning. There is a small chip in the knob, and some crusty patina on the Bakelite base (it looks as though the original glossy Bakelite finish is gone, probably from storage conditions); this could be polished out.

Another view.


#407CLO "KEY, TYPE" J-38.

A rare, early J-38 with a solid brass frame. The Bakelite base is engraved "key, type J-38." I believe this is one of the first Signal Electric J-38 keys; however, I cannot state the maker with certainty. The key itself is similar to the early brass Signal Electric keys, but it does not have the tell-tale number (1852) cast into the underside of the key frame, and the connector strip has a bug lip.

The metal parts show age but it is complete and original. One of the outer wire terminal screws is slightly bent.


#711CTH Brach J-38.

The main business of L.S. Brach of New York seems to have been making antennas, but during the wars (WWI and WWII) the Company made items for the military, including telegraph keys. Here is a rare J-38 by Brach. The key is unplated brass; the terminals are similar to those on the Signal Electric J-38, so Brach may have bought parts from SEMCO. The plated lever has the name BRACH in a diamond (other Brach keys simply have a B in a diamond).

Although this could use cleaning, it appears to be nearly unused; there is barely a scuff on the circuit closer. The bottom stamps (including SEP 1942) are clear. This is the only Brach J-38 I am aware of.

Wire terminals.
The logo.
Bottom stamps.


#514CLH Japanese JJ-38.

This is a cheap Japanese ball-bearing pivot key on a Bakelite base. The base has the extra terminals and is lettered like a J-38, but the nomenclature is "JJ-38."

This was never a military key, but is an interesting copy of the real thing. Besides the key and the nomenclature, the other difference from a J-38 is the lack of a stay cord eye-screw.

This appears unused -- the base is excellent, but the metal parts (mainly the key lever and closing switch) have acquired a freckling of oxidation.

Another view.


#911BOX J-38 practice set case.

This is the wood box, part no. CC350, for the AN/GGQ-1 code practice set made for the Army Signal Corps in 1943. This set was made by Telegraph Apparatus Company, a partnership created by Ted McElroy during the war. The set contained an oscillator ( Oscillatone ) with a built-in hand key, two spare vacuum tubes (117P7GT or 117N7GT), wires, and five J-38 keys. A picture of the complete set is shown below.

This is the wood case for the set. It measures about 16-3/4" wide x 8-1/2" deep and 8" high. It has a latch on the front and a carrying handle on the right side.

It is used; there is some paint loss on the left side, and a split in the cover at front left. I have a few, some better than others, I will ship the best available. Email me for information.

A great item for the military communications and J-38 or McElroy collector to complete your collection. Note that this is only the case, no other parts are included.

Right side .
Left side.
Figure from manual.

$65.00 (Please provide your address so I can figure shipping, which would be about $20 - $30).

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