Electronics History: The Digi-Key Corporation and Ham Radio

While stubling around Wikipedia the other day, I came to the entry about the Digi-Key Corporation.  Digi-Key is now the fifth largest electronics distributors in the country.  I have ordered from them many times for both personal and business purchases.  The following bit in the Wikipedia article caught my eye:

Ronald Stordahl founded the company in 1972 and its name is a reference to the “Digi-Keyer Kit”, a digital electronic keyer kit that he developed and marketed to amateur radio enthusiasts. He continues to privately own the company.[2]

To verify this I followed the footnote (link left intact in the quote above).  This took me to the Digi-Key history page on the Digi-Key website.  Sure enough:

It was Dr. Ronald A. Stordahl’s interest in ham radio that provided the springboard for what has become Digi-Key Corporation today.

While in college he assembled and began selling a digital electronic keyer kit for sending radiotelegraph code for ham radio operators. It was called the Digi-Key.

After obtaining his PhD in Electrical Engineering from the University of Minnesota, Stordahl returned to his hometown of Thief River Falls, Minnesota. The keyer kit was discontinued and he began selling electronic components in 1972. The Digi-Key “Keyer” is long gone, but Digi-Key Corporation has become one of the fastest growing electronic component distributors in the world.

Further searching took me to an article about Digi-Key CEO Mark Larson on the Radio-Electronics.com Website:

Can you tell us a little of how Digi-Key started?
The real beginning of Digi-Key was about 1969. Ron Stordahl was a Ham Radio enthusiast and, while a graduate student at the university, developed an electronic keying device for sending Morse code which utilized integrated circuits and other electronic components. He decided to sell this device in the form of a kit to other Ham Radio hobbyists. The kit included the components and an etched circuit board on which one could solder the components. He advertised this kit as the “Digi-Keyer.” Although he sold a reasonable number of kits, he sold far less “Digi-Keyers” than he had planned. He decided to stop selling this kit, but was committed for many components for kits that were never sold. In an effort to recover his cost for these excess parts, he decided that he would try to sell them by advertising in magazines. This marked the beginning of Digi-Key Corporation in 1972 as a distributor of electronic components. With a modest inventory, Stordahl expanded his marketing plan to supplement magazine advertising with Digi-Key’s one-page, typewritten, and mimeographed “catalogue.”


(Published from DFW, Texas)

Newer (than below) Editor’s Note (12/5):
My friend Ron Kritzman pointed me toward an article in the 1968 QST on page 22 titled “An Integrated-Circuit Electronic Keyer” by Richard Halvorson WØZHN and Ronald Stordahl (then-KØUXQ).  Still no picture of the Digi-Keyer.


Editor’s Note:  I tried to find a picture of the original Digi-Keyer Kit.  All I found was a product from MicroHam, of which I am reasonably sure it wasn’t Stordahl’s design since it has USB.  If anybody has one of these original kits, or at least a photograph, let me know, I’d like to add a picture.


  • April 1968 QST, pages 22-25
    ARRL Members can download via QST Archive

    Circuit used 3 integrated circuits.
    MC790P — Dual JK Flip-Flop
    MC789P — Hex Inverter
    MC724P — Quad 2-Input Gate (NOR)
    2N4888 — High Voltage PNP transistor

  • QST ads, at least the initial one, for the Digi-Keyer kit showed a picture of its contents. They would have appeared in the year following the original publication. I’d dig through the Index of Advertisers in that year of QSTs until I found the first occurrence of Digi-Key (or Digi-Keyer) or perhaps Stordahl’s name or call sign, and then view that page of QST. It may be that we can access individual page PDFs only if we have the CD-ROM set(s) from which ARRL’s online QST archives from that era are derived.

    Best regards,

    amateur radio W9BRD
    ARRL HQ 1974-77 and 1985-1996
    ARRLWeb’s first webmaster (1995-1996)

  • I’m about 4 months late to this party, but it looks like a puzzle was included in Adafruit’s AdaBox #007. The puzzle features an image of the original Digi-Keyer from 1968. I’ve seen a number of people posting photos of their completed puzzle on Twitter.

    All of the tweets appear to be tagged with the #MADEWITHDIGIKEY hashtag: https://twitter.com/hashtag/MAKEWITHDIGIKEY?src=hash

    It might be possible to request the original artwork for this puzzle from Adafruit Industries?


  • This looks like the image you are searching for. Apparently someone at Digi-Key created a jigsaw puzzle with the Digi-Keyer photo. Possibly as a promotional item on a holiday. I would suggest grabbing this jpeg and inserting it directly in your blog, as the link may vanish at some point.

    William Croft, KD6RG


  • Cameron McKay - VK2CKP

    You might be interested in this: https://twitter.com/pdp7/status/728449599627665408/photo/1

    I happen to have just stumble across an original board (I believe) as I’m working through the estate of a recent SK and trying to identify various items.

  • Hi,
    The Digi-Keyer was certainly transformational for me.
    I credit that little 1 to 1.5 inch pc board kit for getting me into M.I.T. and with a full 4 year scholarship!

    I was a ham radio operator since 1965, at that time WB2UPB (now with vanity call KA1MIT, also because my name is Mitch). I had a good friend, an only child, whose father was a ham with lots of stuff, including an exquisite electronic keyer. I of course really wanted one, as it made sending CW (Morse code) over the airwaves much less tiring, easier to go faster, and nicer for the receiver to listen to since it automatically enforced the proper 3:1 ratio of dah to dit time (vocalization for Dash and Dot).

    I and my larger family couldn’t swing such discretional spending, so I, who knew how to solder, was ecstatic when I heard about the Digi-Keyer, which was even sold as a kit to make it more affordable!

    I bought one, put it together, added a tone oscillator, and, with a diode, connected to to my ham radio transmitter. Instead of buying finely machined “paddles”, with jeweled bearings to push left for dots and right for dashes, I used the contacts of an old SPST (Single Pole Single Throw) relay as my “paddles”. Though it was springy and didn’t have anywhere near the feel of real paddles, I got used to it and became proficient with it. I put the whole thing inside a 3x4x5 inch aluminum experimenters box, complete with the oscillator and speaker (for sound).

    About 1 or 2 years later, late 1968, I started applying to college and for scholarships which I would be needing.
    I received 1 of 8 generous scholarships from Grumman Aerospace Corp, which include 4 years tuition to the future school of my choice and 4 years of summer jobs with Grumman. I say generous because these were an additional 8 scholarships reserved for children whose parents did not have jobs with Grumman.

    Now for the keyer connection. The Grumman scholarship committee specified that an entrant should share a special project of some sort they had worked on. I decided to share and bring in my keyer, which looked great on the outside but really looked “jury-rigged” on the inside, duct tape and all.

    It turned out that the Grumman interviewer assigned to me was a Navy war veteran. He had learned, knew about, appreciated, but hardly used Morse code. He really liked “my” keyer, though, which I demonstrated, complete with the springy paddles. Though I really hoped he wouldn’t ask me to open it up, and thus see that the guts was just the Digi-Keyer keyboard kit with an added code practice oscillator and speaker, sure enough, he asked me to open it up. I had thought he might so I left the 4 screws of the experimenters box slightly loose so I could unscrew it if I had to. I did not even bring a screw driver, but I was used to using my nails as wire strippers and in a pinch as a screw driver for not-too-tight screws.

    To my surprise and relief, the Navy vet interviewing me didn’t mind at all seeing the guts and complemented me for making due with the relay contacts for paddles. He must have put in a good word for me since I shortly received one of those generous scholarships.

    Subsequently, I applied early to M.I.T. and I strongly believe knowing about the Grumman scholarship helped them to accept me.

    Until now, though I order parts from the huge and successful Digi-key, and certainly remember that I bought their first product, I had not known the story of who had designed the Digi-Keyer and why.

    I will take this opportunity, therefore, to personally thank Dr. Stordahl. Thank you for sharing!

    In my heart and mind, I know the Digi-keyer was designed specifically for kids like me, 45 years before the term “STEM” was even created. It is not an overstatement at all to say that the Digi-Keyer certainly had a very positive impact on my life and career!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *