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.

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.

Williams also made hardware for Alexander Graham Bell, who worked for a period of time out of the same building as Williams. Before Thomas Watson became Bell’s most famous assistant, Watson worked for Williams. After Bell invented the telephone in 1875, Williams’s shop of more than two dozen men made all of Bell’s telephones and related equipment. Williams supplied Bell until 1879, when demand outstripped his small facility’s capacity.

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’s Triumph key was released.

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

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...

Naturally the key and recorder were also combined into a single device known as the key on board, or KOB, which was made by Western Electric, Williams, and even the New Haven Clock Company. 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.

Beyond sending and receiving equipment, other objects of interest to telegraph collectors include porcelain signs, stamps, and insulators, which were used on the telegraph poles that supported telegraph lines.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Telegraph-History.org

Telegraph-History.org

This in-depth reference site contains about a dozen articles on key individuals and companies involved in the devel… [read review or visit site]

Sparkmuseum.com

Sparkmuseum.com

John Jenkins' collection of vintage scientific and radio apparatus. Great photos and incredibly detailed informatio… [read review or visit site]

Early Office Museum

Early Office Museum

This site showcases pre-1920 office antiques, including paperweights, writing ink, paper fasteners, seal pressers, … [read review or visit site]



Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Wwii Signal Corps J-36 Telegraph Key Ham Radio Morse Code LionelRaaf Marconi Wireless Telegraph Ad94 Mf/hf Radio Communications Receiver+manualAntique Vibroplex Telegraph Key Horace G Martin Serial Number 11450U.s. Navy Wwii Morse Code Telegraph Key Cte-26003a Spark/flame Proof Ham Radio Speed-x Telegraph Key - H-15.681 - Morse Code Cw Ham RadioAntique Ships Telegraph By Chadburns LiverpoolConestoga Telephone & Telegraph SignWw2 Us Army Signal Corps 1943 Telegraph Key J-38 Lionel Corp. In Original BoxLionel 071 Telegraph Poles, Excellent, Ob, No ReserveLionel J-38 Morse Code Telegraph Key J38 Trains Cw Telegraphy Amateur Ham RadioAntique Key Telegraph Morse Code J-38 Telegraph Key Us Army Signal Corps Morse Code Ham Radio ClickerWwii Signal Corps J-36 Telegraph Key Ham Radio Morse Code Lionel VintageVintage 1920's Western Union Telegraph Telegram 2 Sided 24" Porcelain Metal SignVintage Typewriter-telegraphKent Paddle Telegraph Code Keyer Tarleton Preston Pr4 6yb. UkNice Vintage Nye Speed X Telegraph Morse Code Key For Ham Radio No Reserve ! Nr New South Wales Electric Telegraph Very Rare 4/- Mint Full Gum Revenue DutyHi-mound Telegraph Key Hk-7071900's Home Messenger Co. Telegraph Switchboard Era.Western Union Railroad Hat Cap Badge #26 * Enamel Brass* Telegram TelegraphJ-38 Morse Code Telegraph Key J38 Us Army Signal Corps Telegraphy Cw Ham Radio *** Vintage Vibroplex Telegraph Key Bug Rare With CordVintage Automatic Key No. 100 Made In Australia Buzz Products Telegraph W/boxBeautiful Lionel J-38 Telegraph KeyVibroplex Morse Code Telegraph Key Bug Keyer Weight Speed-x Mcelroy Cedar RapidsVintage Telegraph Telegram Key Leeds & Northrup Co Philadelphia Lot C11Early Rare Sunset Telephone And Telegraph Employee/repairman/ Inspectors BadgeBoxed Pair 1937 George Vi Daily Telegraph Lady Golfers Silver Ashtrays 74gJandek - Telegraph Melts - Corwood # 0750 - SealedSpanish Philippines Filipinas Aguinaldo Stamps Telegraph Receipt Mint Lot Mcelroy Radio Telegraph Transmitting Key6 Lionel Prewar Telegraph Poles, Some Missing PartsVintage E F Johnson Co Telegraph Sounder Pony Relay Morse Code (a) NrCivil War Telegraph 1861 Major Cochran St. Johnsbury Vermont Antique 1 Paper VtgKut Tanganyika Gea Unusual Army Signals Punched Telegraph? Usage High ValsWestern Electric Morse Code Telegraph Key Sounder Railroad TelegraphyRare Vintage Telegraph Apparatus Company Morse Code Key2 Prewar Lionel # 60 Std Gauge Telegraph Poles Early Color Variation......m7Vintage E F Johnson Co Telegraph Sounder Pony Relay Morse Code NrAntique/collectible Telegraph/morse Code Key Antique Morris Code Key, Telegraph Key, Shortwave Radio Key[67408] Belgium Telegraph Good Lot Of Used F/vf Old Stamps. Good CvPractice Telegraph Code Keyer Mfj-557Hi-mound Model Hk-100 Coffin Bug Morse Code Telegraph Key Keyer Cw Ham RadioVintage Western Union Wood Base Telegraph SounderJ-38 Type Telegraph Key (not A J-38)Cw/telegraph Key And Heathkit Tone GeneratorAustria , 1873 , 7 X Telegraph Stamps Fine Used , 1960 -1970s Vintage G.i. Joe Green Beret Radio Telegraph Set Superb & Complete!!1938, Egypt, Telegraph Congress, Compl. Set On Registered Fdc Hotel CoverRare/early The Delaware & Atlantic Telegraph & Telephone Employee Badge1918 Book Wireless Telegraph & Telephone - Massie Fessenden Amateur Spark RadioMorse Code Telegraph Key Part Knob Kob J-38 J-37 Bunnell Lionel Vibroplex CwTelegraph Key / Marked Japan 1909 Western Union Telegraph Pass For Missouri Kansas And Texas Ry.Antique Santa Fe Train Depot R R J.h. Bunnell Telegraph Relay And Key RailroadAntique Telegraph Key Early Vibroplex ? Speed Key Un Marked Heavy Base India 1922 Used In Kuwait Telegraph Usage Rare Double Sided Piece Sg187Manhattan Electric Supply Company Relay For Telegraph And Morse Code