Some of the other names for a cootie key might be more familiar– sideswiper, double-speed key, and slap key. The simplest definition is a double-sided straight key, operated horizontally.
Around 1910, during the heyday of manual telegraphy, it was common for telegraphers to spend entire shifts either sending or receiving, often at the same speed and with the same operator on the other end of the line. The incidence of RSI or “glass fist” became a serious problem. The solution was to eliminate the vertical motion of the wrist typical of straight key operation and replace it with a horizontal movement of the entire hand. The two devices developed with this in mind were the “bug” or semi-automatic key, and the “cootie key.” Both feature a horizontal motion in which the lever is held (not tapped). The thumb and fingers do not flex and the hand is rocked back and forth on the “heel” of the palm. Since there is no flexing of fingers or wrist, there is very little chance of RSI.
The cootie key consists of a single lever which can be swung back and forth between two contacts, either of which will close the circuit like a straight key. Thus the return stroke of a dot or a dash can become the stroke of the following element, almost doubling the speed of operation. You start each character on one side, and each subsequent dot or dash is made on the opposite side, in a back and forth motion. If you’d like more information about using a cootie key, read Jerry Bartachek’s “The Art of Side-Swipery.”
A cootie key can easily be made using a hacksaw blade. Bugs were very expensive by comparison, so most cootie keys were home-made. The few commercial cootie keys were also relatively expensive and so are very hard to find today.
When we first started selling the LTA model GMM cootie key a customer bought one thinking it was a single-lever paddle that had some kind of a short internally.
GHD‘s model GF601 was initially designed as a cootie key, and while it used the traditional saw blade lever and the distinctive “lollipop” fingerpiece, there were two innovations that made it much easier to use than the original format. First, the blade can be clamped at an intermediate position allowing for shorter lever and greater tension. Second, there is a magnetic damper on the yoke so that the blade will center itself and not “chatter” when you let go of it.
Bringing things full-circle, a user thought the GHD GF601 would make a great single-lever paddle if the contacts were separated, so GHD added a third terminal and designated the new key as model GF601MP (multi purpose).