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Article about my dad, Melvin E. Hanson (Inventor of the Melehan Valiant Telegraph Key)

15 min read

From Neal McEwen (Dallas) (
Mel was “an intercept operator for the Radio Intelligence Division of the FCC... Their job was to find suspicious signals be they enemy signals or traiters on American soil.“
by Randy Cole, KN6W
Mel Hanson stared with amazement at the haywire circuit connected to Ed Hahn's Vibroplex.  The wires weren't even soldered, just twisted together.  "THAT is what you've been using?" he asked Ed, "Look at all the hours I've spent on this one", handing him the impressive-looking key he brought with him.
That's how Ed Hahn, W6NHZ, remembers a meeting with Melvin Hanson in 1938 or 1939.  Ed had developed a keying circuit based on a Type 27 tube which was connected to the dash contact of his Vibroplex.  The result was a keyer which made dots mechanically and dashes electronically.  He and several of his friends who lived near Long Beach, CA were using them on the air.  That's how they met Mel Hanson, who lived about 15 miles away in Huntington Beach.  Mel operated a machine shop in Huntington Beach, and was experimenting with a mechanical key that made both dots and dashes automatically.
Mel Hanson was born Melvin Elbie Hanson in 1918, and grew up in Huntington Beach, CA.  He got his ham license and the call W6MFY in 1936.  Callbooks from then until 1946 list his address as 821 Main Street, Huntington Beach.  He was apparently a first-class CW op, and later he and W6NHZ would compete with each other at speeds up to 65 WPM.
After considerable experimentation, W6MFY perfected his key, named it the "Melehan Valiant" and began selling them just before the war.  The Melehan is one of the most elaborate mechanical keys ever made.  It's also one of the largest, with a base that measures 4 inches by 7 inches.
Although the Melehan is sometimes called a fully automatic key, it's really a dual semi-automatic key.  There are three levers, each with its own pivot.  Twin paddles are mounted on the center lever, which either pushes the left (dot) lever to the left to generate dots or the right (dash) lever to the right to generate dashes.  As a result the Melehan can generate strings of dots or dashes but not both at once like an iambic keyer.
The dot lever generates strings of dots just like any bug, but Hanson added one twist, namely two separate contacts on the dot spring, giving two dot speed ranges depending on which of the two contacts is used.
A much longer mainspring and dash contact spring on the dash lever are used to produce the slower period of vibration needed for dashes.  However, a "movement limiting finger" is attached to the dash contact spring's collar.  The purpose of the metal finger is to keep the dash contact closed longer than it is open.  Otherwise the spaces within a string of dashes would be too long.  Ted McElroy made a similar device for the dot spring of some of his bugs, and called it a "dot stabilizer."
To produce CW with the proper weighting and spacing, both sides of the Melehan must be adjusted to the same speed -- not an easy job.  Then the operator must learn to develop a rhythm that keeps both halves of the key in synch.  A Melehan is very difficult to learn to use.  To quote ace CW op Ray Furlong (W6QIL, SK): "It'll pick you up and throw you down".
There isn't much doubt that that Mel Hanson made and sold the Valiant before the war, but he apparently didn't advertise them, relying on word of mouth and his on-the-air contacts to sell his new key..  Another friend of Mel's, Marion Hensen, W6NKR, met him in late 1937 or early 1938, when he was starting to develop his original key.  At that time the dot spring didn't have the second contact, and the dash spring was more "rounded".  Marion had a prewar Valiant with an unplated brass base, which he sold during the war.  Marion also sold a few more Valiants while he was stationed in Alaska from 1940 to 1942.
W6MFY probably had no trouble making on the air contacts, because he had a monster antenna.  Nowadays Ocean Avenue in Huntington Beach is lined with expensive ocean-front condominiums, but back then there were about as many oil derricks along Ocean Avenue as there were houses.  Ed and Mel snuck out one night and erected a flattop antenna between two derricks about 1100 feet apart, and 102 feet in the air.  It ran parallel to the beach, and likely spanned both 9th and 10th Streets.  Now THAT's an antenna...  
In March 1942 the Melehan Valiant was described in a collection of four short QST articles entitled "New Ideas on Semi-Automatic Keyers."  The other three articles discussed the motor-driven Equable Key, a home-brew key which also made both dots and dashes mechanically, and an improved two-tube electronic keyer and paddle.  Early users of electronic keyers often used keyer paddles made from modified jack switches, which the developer of this particular keyer and paddle described as being like "a wrestling match with a clock spring."
The QST article may have prompted W6MFY to seek patent protection for his design, and he applied for a patent on May 5, 1942.  He made two claims, a general claim describing all the features of the key, and a specific claim describing the retaining finger which restricted the movement of the dash contact spring (more about that later).  Patent Number 2,329,531 was granted on Sept. 14, 1943, two days before Hanson's 25th birthday.
Unlike almost all of his contemporaries, Hanson apparently never served in the military during the war.  He may have been deferred because of his skills as a machinist or because he was the sole support of his mother and sister.
Ed Hahn was discharged from the service in early 1946, and in early 1946 while he was waiting to go back to college Ed visited his old friend for two weeks.  Ed built W6MFY a KW amplifier, and in return Mel pointed him to the parts bins and told him to assemble a couple of keys for himself.
One of the two keys that Ed put together may allow us to date Melehan Valiants.  This key has the "standard" black-crackle base, and the serial number on the nameplate is "ST-6114".
There are two types of Melehan nameplates.  Most Valiants have the earlier, or Huntington Beach type of nameplate.  Serial numbers on the earlier nameplates generally start with either "ST" or "DL", then the digit "5" or "6", and then a two or three digit number.  Most have two dashes, e.g., ST-5-22 or DL-6-181, but some have only one, e.g., ST-6114.
The author believes that most Melehans were made during late 1945 and 1946.  Even though Mel Hanson was building and selling keys before the war, the ham market disappeared for the duration of the war.  W6MFY apparently didn't try to sell his key to the military or to landline operators, and his shop was probably very busy with military parts orders during the war.  In 1945 the war began to wind down and military production began to decline, and Mel Hanson probably realized that the ham market would soon be full of returning servicemen with money to spend, eager to get back on the bands.  According to Ed, one or two orders came in every day while he was there in early 1946.
As a result, it seems reasonable to assume that the first digit on the nameplate represents the year of manufacture, "5" for 1945 or "6" for 1946.  Melehans with a black base have a serial number beginning with "ST", and keys with the deluxe chrome-plated base have a serial number beginning with "DL".  The chrome-plated Melehan pictured in "Keys, Keys, Keys" has an "ST" plate, but is known to have started life as a standard model.
Ed's Melehan, Serial ST-6114, made in March 1946, would then have the 114th Melehan made in 1946, indicating a brisk production rate at the time.
Ads for the Melehan Valiant first appeared in Radio News for February, April and June 1946.  The Deluxe chrome-base model was $27.50, from Melehan Radio, 821 Main Street, Huntington Beach.
A few Melehans have the later Anaheim nameplate.  This nameplate raises a number of intriguing questions.  The only other known ads for the Melehan ran in the June and August 1948 issues of QST.  The price was the same, but the name in the ad is now Melehan Radio Products Co., 7061 E. Monroe St., Rt. No. 1, Anaheim -- one of the company names on the new nameplate.
The other name on the plate is the "Schultz Tool & Machine Mfg. Co., Anaheim, Calif. USA."  Did Hanson contract with Schultz to build the keys for him?  Did he sell the design and manufacturing rights to Schultz?  Nobody knows. None of his friends recall Hanson ever living or working in Anaheim.
Those ads carried an enigmatic note that said "Deliveries of this superior instrument have been interrupted because the manufacturer would not substitute inferior materials or in any change the perfected design."
Incidentally, W6MFY's machine shop was located on the north side of Walnut Street in Huntington Beach, on the alley between Main and Third, just a block up from Ocean Avenue and the beach.  However, the Walnut Street address has never been seen on any documents connected with Mel Hanson or his keys.  The building is long gone, replaced with a municipal parking garage for beach-goers.
Serial numbers on the later nameplates all start with "A" followed by a dash and then four digits, e.g., "A-1014", "A-1023" or "A-1037".  Those are the actual serial numbers on the only three known Melehans of this type.  The "A" probably stands for Anaheim.
The call W6MFY disappeared from the Spring 1948 Callbook, and was reissued as WN6MFY to someone else in 1952.  At the time calls were reissued after five years, so apparently Hanson let his license expire in 1947.
Mel Hanson's friends lost contact with him in the early Fifties.  Ed Hahn last visited Mel Hanson sometime not long after 1951, at his machine shop in Long Beach.  Melvin Hanson committed suicide in December, 1962, at his mother's house in Huntington Beach.
Melehan Variations
Of the approximately 300 Melehan Valiants made, the author has located only twenty that remain.  Of that twenty, four are in museums.  The AWA Museum has two, including one from Lou Moreau's collection.  The ARRL has one in storage, and the Ford Museum and Greenfield Village has one on display.  The other sixteen are in private collections.
Only five of the twenty known Melehans have the black crackle base, which wasn't widely advertised, even though the "ST" on the nameplate of black-base keys probably means "Standard" and the "DL" means "Deluxe".
Hanson made one major change during production.  Early Melehans have two sets of pivot bearings for the central lever.  Moving the central lever changes the distance from the pivot to the friction pins that move the dot and dash levers.  Figure 2-11 on Page 23 of "Keys, Keys, Keys" shows one Melehan with the extra pivot position and one without.  This change seems to have been made in 1945.
One Melehan with a Schultz nameplate reputedly has a different damper assembly, made in the form of a "T" with damper wheels on both ends of the cross arm.  The serial number on the key is A-1037, which is the highest known serial number, making it the newest known Melehan.
There are three notably unusual Melehans.  Smiley White, WB4EDB, has a semi-automatic key with distinctive machining like that of a Valiant, but no nameplate.  Perhaps it was made on special order, or was an experiment.
There is at least one left-handed Melehan Valiant in existence.  Since the Valiant is symmetrical, the dot and dash levers can easily be swapped.  The only real differences are placement of the setscrews on the dot and dash spring collar and possibly placement of the nameplate.
The Melehan on this month's cover has a green marble base and a nameplate with the serial number "SPDL-6-98".  The designation "SPDL" probably stands for "Special Deluxe", and leaves little room for doubt that the key was a special-order factory job.  The base is almost an inch thick, all the hardware on the underside of the base is inset, and the underside is covered by a sheet of neoprene rubber.  It's obvious that this key was well thought out.  The thick base compensates for the fact that marble is considerably less dense than steel, and the use of inset hardware and neoprene pad keep the top of the base at the right height.  This key is from the estate of Ray Furlong, a well-known CW op and Elmer par excellence.
Unsolved Mysteries
Hopefully, this article has resolved some of the mysteries surrounding Mel Hanson and his keys.  Other mysteries still remain, however, including:
Where are the pre-war Melehans?
What did Mel Hanson do during the war?
What was the Schultz Tool & Machine connection?
The author welcomes any information on any of the above, and any other information about Mel Hanson and his keys.
This article couldn't have been written without the information supplied by Ed Hahn and Marion Hensen.  Ray Furlong also provided important dates and addresses before his untimely death.  Thanks also to Joel Kosoff and Larry Nutting.
How Many Were Made?
How to Estimate Production Numbers
Another of the mysteries surrounding the Melehan Valiant is how many might have been made.  Most collectors have accepted the figure of five hundred or so that appears in "Keys, Keys, Keys."  That figure probably came from Lou Moreau, whose August, 1985 "Key and Telegraph" column in the Old Timer's Bulletin said "records show only four or five hundred were sold."
What records was Lou talking about?  In a telephone conversation with the author, Lou said that she met someone who claimed to have a Valiant with a serial number over five hundred, but that she had not seen the key.  Lou's friend may have owned a Valiant made in 1945 with a serial number like DL-5-xx.  There's a valuable lesson here for all of us about making assumptions and checking facts.
So is there a way to estimate the production of Melehan Valiants?  Yes, there is, and it's really pretty simple.  The method will also work for keys and other products with sequential serial numbers.
First, collect as many serial numbers as possible.  Two existing Melehans have no serial number.  One of those has a nameplate with no serial number, the other reputedly has no nameplate -- not even holes for one.  The serial numbers of two more are currently unknown.  That leaves sixteen serial numbers, as follows:
ST-5-20, ?-5-21, ST-5-22, DL-5-29, V1(?)-5-38
DL-6-51, DL-6-63, DL-6-70, SPDL-6-98, ST-6100, ST-6114,
DL-6-173, DL-6-181
A-1014, A-1023, A-1037
Here's the method:  For each group of keys with similar serial numbers, add the serial numbers and divide the sum by the size of the group.  This gives the average, or mean.  If the serial numbers seem to start at a number greater than one, say 100 or 1000, subtract the starting number to get the actual mean.
The estimated production of keys in that group is simply twice the mean.  If there is more than one group of serial numbers, add the estimates together to get a total estimate.
How does this work?  Suppose you made 100 keys of your own design, and gave them serial numbers from 1 to 100.  If you added up all the serial numbers and divided by 100, you'd get a mean close to 50 (actually 50.5).  Further suppose that, like every other key manufacturer on earth, you threw away or lost your production records.  Then years later a crazy key collector decides to gather all the serial numbers he can.  The mean serial number should be about 50, and the more numbers he or she gathers the closer the mean will get to 50, or half the number of keys you made.
For example, take the five Melehan serial numbers with a "5" in the middle.  The sum of 20 + 21 + 22 + 29 + 38 is 130.  Dividing by 5 gives a mean of 26.  Doubling 26 gives an estimated production of 52 keys.
Similarly, the estimated production of keys with a "6" in the middle of the serial number is 212.
It looks like the Anaheim production started with serial number 1000.  Taking that into account, the estimated Anaheim production was 49 keys.
The production estimates are consistent with the highest serial numbers in the groups.  The highest "5" serial number is 38 out of an estimated 52 keys, the highest "6" serial number is 181 out of an estimated 212 keys, and the highest "A" serial number is 37 out of an estimated 49 keys.
Adding the three estimates gives a total of 313 keys.  It's not as many as previously thought, but it means that there are probably at least a few more of Mel Hanson's keys out there, just waiting to be found.
This simple estimation method was suggested to the author by Professor Richard Bucy of the University of Southern California.  Purists note:  This method has been simplified a bit, and any inaccuracies are the fault of the author.
Photos enclosed:
2,14,A,D.  S/N A-1014, Anaheim plate, late production (1948?)
4,12,24,25.  S/N SPDL-6-98, marble base, 1946
5,10,B,C.  S/N ST-6114, "standard" black crackle base, 1946
8,9,20.  S/N DL-6-70, most common type, 1946
16.  Anaheim plate
17.  Double-contact dot contact spring
20.  Huntington Beach plate
21.  Dash contact spring with "movement limiting finger"
23.  Damper assembly
E.  Recent photo -- north side of Walnut St., Huntington Beach, mid-block between Main and 3rd, the location of Mel Hanson's shop.
F.  Mystery double-lever single-contact bug (has nothing whatsoever to do with Mel Hanson or his keys).  All parts are brass.  Base is 2 1/2 " by 5 1/2 " by 3/8".  May have had a nameplate at one time.