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Argyle Chair
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The Tap, Tap, Tap of the Telegraph
by Bob Brooke


“What hath God wrought?" The message raced across the telegraph wires in the form of dots and dashes. With those first words transmitted in 1844, the telegraph became an important feature of daily communication. Long before the Internet, telegraphy became a global information network. It was the first binary encoding of data that traveled over a worldwide web. It was the first time in history that people did not have to rely on news carried by foot or horseback.

Every large city, and most small towns, had a railroad depot complete with telegraph. Even towns without a railroad station often had a telegraph office. Before radio, it was a common sight to see. Folk gathered at the telegraph office to find out the latest election results or the out-come of a championship boxing match. Every aspect of life came across the wires - birth, death, war, and peace.

The Morse Telegraph
From 1844 almost until World War II, the telegraph was the principal means of quickly communicating important information across great distances. Patented in the U.S. in 1837 by Samuel F.B. Morse, who also devised the famous dots-and-dashes code for tapping out messages using a telegraph key, the electrical telegraph began as a small network of telegraph lines owned by Morse’s Magnetic Telegraph Company, connecting Boston, New York City, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C.

The Morse instruments were simple, consisting of an electromagnet working an armature and a circuit opening and closing device called a "key." The first telegraph key was, simply put, a strip of spring steel that could be pressed against a metal contact to complete an electrical circuit. Telegraph operators sent these electrical impulses, made by opening and, closing a circuit, over wires. These instruments, together with a single line wire between stations and a battery or other source of direct current power, plus a skilled operator, were all that was necessary for basic communication. Later on, wireless telegraph sent the pulses from telegraph keys by radio.

The telegraph was originally intended as a visual rewarding device to record the dots and dashes on paper tape. An operator then had to transcribe the message on the tape to a written message. Since the recording mechanism generated a clicking sound in operation the operators gradually learned to read the sound and record the message directly. This discovery of sound reading, around 1850, overnight transformed the Morse system into a simple, enormously capable system that served as the prime means of electrical communication for over 10 years.

The telegraph was even used to keep an exact standard time in every city and across the country. Every day, for a few minutes before noon, regular telegraph service was halted on specific wires. The word 'Time' was transmitted and repeated over and over. Then, following a short pause, a single dot was sent, confirming the exact time as noon. The Morse system began to pass out of widespread use in the 1930s although it continued in use on the railroads until the mid 1950s.

A vast increase in telegraph traffic requiring the use of automatic machines and changing economic conditions brought about the disappearance of the simple Morse system. The telegraph industry had prospered for many years on the premise of low-paid operators working long hours without overtime pay. At one time, operators accepted these conditions without question. Then, other types of employment began to offer higher pay and shorter hours, drawing many young people away from telegraph employment.

The introduction of printing telegraph machines into even the smaller local telegraph offices made it possible to employ relatively unskilled people to operate the typewriter style keyboards of the printers.

Telegraph Equipment Basics
Two key pieces of hardware defined the telegraph. The first was the transmitter, also called the key. The operator of this instrument tapped out messages composed of dots and dashes by alternately closing (pressing the key) and breaking (releasing it) an electrical circuit. A quick tap created a dot, while holding the key down for three times as long created a dash.

Early manufacturers of keys included Charles Williams, Jr. of Boston, which was a hotbed of telegraph technology before the Civil War. Williams began making telegraph keys in 1850 under the name Hinds and Williams—the Hinds name was dropped in 1856. In addition to telegraph instruments, including devices whose humpbacked levers gave them the nickname “camelback keys,” Williams manufactured hardware for Thomas Edison, who eventually produced his own telegraph keys from a plant in Newark, New Jersey.

J.H. Bunnell
J.H. Bunnell & Co. was another telegraph-equipment pioneer. From the summer of 1862 to the fall of 1864, its founder, Jesse Bunnell, was the personal telegrapher for Union Generals George McClellan and William Tecumseh Sherman. In 1888, Bunnell's company introduced its double speed “sideswiper” key, which was developed to help telegraphers suffering from what was then called "glass arm" but is known today as carpal tunnel syndrome. In 1906, Bunnell released its Triumph key.

A register, also called a recorder, received signals sent by the key. Early versions of this device featured a thin, spring-powered spool of paper that slowly moved through the machine. As the circuit magnetized a lever with a point on its end, it would press against the paper, leaving dots and dashes on its surface, which could be decoded into letters, numerals, and basic punctuation.

There were two types of telegraph keys— straight and semiautomatic, and among these there are landline keys and the wireless keys. The main difference between landline and wireless types is the size of the contacts. Railroad telegraphers and Western Union operators mainly used landline keys and Western Union operators. Radio operators—both military and commercial—used wireless keys.

The straight key is the most common. It operates with an up-and-down motion, manually creating a series of dots and dashes It came in a variety of styles, sizes, and colors. Many companies produced telegraph keys, including Steiner, Phelps, Greeley, Marconi, Murdock, Logan, Johnson, and McElroy.

In the late 1870s, devices known as sounders began to replace paper recorders. As its name suggests, the sounder allowed a trained operator to hear the dots and dashes and scribble them down; resonators attached to the sounder permitted the operator to change the direction or volume of the sound so messages could be heard clearly. One of the biggest late-19th-century manufacturers of sounders was Western Electric, which went on to become the manufacturing arm of the Bell System. This enable the receiving operator to hear the coded message even in noisy environments such as a railroad station.

Naturally, companies such as Western Electric, Williams, and New Haven Clock Company combined the key and recorder into a single device known as the key on board, or KOB. From the early 1910s to early 1920s, higher voltage spark keys represented the state of the art in telegraph technology, only to be replaced by semi-automatic keys known as “bugs,” which had names like Vibroplex and Electro. During World War II, the military commissioned bugs from model train manufacturer Lionel, among others.

Collecting Old Telegraph Equipment
When the Morse system started to pass out of use. collectors began to realize that these cast-off instruments were of great historical value. There was a great quantity of material available for the beginning collector. Every telegraph office, railroad station and telephone company contributed to the profusion of instruments available. Often they were available for the asking by the lucky individual who happened to be in the right place at the right time. Companies dismantled large city telegraph offices and sold the entire contents to scrap dealers, who were quick to realize the collectible value of what they had purchased. They soon began doing a brisk business selling items to collectors. The dealers usually made a nice profit in these transactions even though the prices were nominal compared to today.

Unfortunately, the great profusion of collectible material that existed 40 or 60 years ago is now gone, yet instruments still turn up at flea markets, auctions and garage sales. Collectors also sell and trade instruments with each other. Nineteenth-century instruments now command high prices. Most of the instruments found today date from around 1910. The basic telegraph collectibles still rather common today are sending keys, priced from $25 to $50, relays, priced from $15 to $50, and sounders, priced from $25 to $50.

Pocket Telegraph Sets
Of all the rare telegraphic material, perhaps the rarest of the rare are the tiny pocket instruments. Incorporating most of the features of full size instruments these little sets are usually less than 6 inches long—truly pocket instruments. They came into prominence during the Civil War when so-called "telegraph scouts" used them to tap enemy telegraph lines. The Caton Instrument Company of Ottawa, Illinois, named for Judge John Dean Caton, a telegraph pioneer whose Illinois and Mississippi Telegraph Company, made most of these pocket sets.

Soldiers in the Civil War made extensive use of the Morse telegraph, both for communication between major military head-quarters and down to the smallest units in the field. These simple instruments would operate over the most rudimentary field lines and constituted a very flexible communications system for armies moving on foot and by horse power.

In the early days of the Civil War, the United States didn’t have a Signal Corps as a separate branch of the army. 'lb meet the rapidly developing need for telegraphic communication a group of civilian telegraph operators was formed. Called the Military Telegraph Corps, the unit functioned throughout the war with great courage and efficiency. Adventures of the individual operators form some of the most thrilling stories of the war.

In 1872, Western Electric purchased the Caton Instrument Company and continued to produce a revised version of these pocket sets, used widely by telegraph companies and railroads. Telegraph lineman also used these pocket sets for testing lines in the field. Some linemen were capable telegraphers and could use the tiny instruments to communicate directly with the wire chief while others, who didn’t know Morse Code, used the sets to test for voltage on the lines.

Almost all of the principal telegraph equipment manufacturers, including Bunnell and Tillotson, manufactured pocket telegraph sets. The Postal Telegraph company made a substantial looking oak cased pocket set solely for the use of postal linemen and didn’t sell them outside of the company. All of these pocket sets are so rare today that they seldom change hands, making it difficult to establish a price level. And even when they do, the price seldom falls below $200 and can be much higher depending on the condition of the set.

Collecting Telegraphic Equipment
With such a long life, telegraphy has left collectors plenty of historical equipment to be. discovered. Although not common, many telegraphy keys and related items from the earliest days remain. Those from the 20th century can be found easily.

Very few records exist today to tell collectors which manufacturers made what models or how many. Many telegraph keys bear no identifying marks. Some have a model number and, with a little research, a collector can determine the manufacturer.

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