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”)

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

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    

Antique Early 20thc Gamewell Police Ambulance Fire Telephone Telegraph Call Box"hi-mound Morse Telegraph KeyBrazil , Telegraph , 9 X Stamps Mint No GumFancy Vintage Telegraph Morse Code KeyFdny Fire Call Alarm Telegraph Box With A Key Nyc Box # 2307 Working W InsidesVintage Solid Brass Signal Electric Co Straight Bar Telegraph Key Bug See More !Pennsylvania Rr Altoona Shops Morse Telegraph Set Key And SounderVintage Les Logan Speed X Model 515 San Francisco Telegraph Key Bug See More !Vintage Rare Bell Telphone & Telegraph Company Porcelain Sign Advertisement 8"Antique 1858 Tiffany Co. Atlantic Telegraph Cable With Certificate, No ReserveVintage Bunnell Mini Radio-morse Code Telegraph Key No.qrp J-38 With Box Beauty!Antique J.h Bunnell & Co Brass Camelback Telegraph Key / Sounder With Wood BaseVintage Wwii Us Army Signal Corp J-38 Telegraph Key ~ Morse CodeRare J.h Bunnell & Co 10000 Ohms Telegraph Sounder New YorkVintage 1930s Western Union Telegraph Double Sided Porcelain 17" Flange SignJ-47 Morse Code Telegraph KeyAntique Western Union 1-a 4 Ohm Telegraph Relay Sounder W. U. Tel Co J H BunnellBrazil Stamps Telegraph 1869 1.000 RÉis T-3 Used Cv$ 850,Hand Crafted Twin Paddle Iambic Cw Telegraph Key Ham RadioOld Telegraph Key, Original Granite BaseBrazil Stamps Telegraph 1869 200 RÉis T-8 Used Cv$ 700,Wwii Us Military Morse Code Telegraph Key J-36 Signal Corps Army Lionel TrainsThe Game Well Co. Oval Fire Alarm Telegraph Station, Newton Mass. No GutsAntique - 1945 Mcelroy (hole In The Wall) Telegraph Apparatus Co. Cp510 KeyLionel J-38 Telegraph Key - NiceBrazil Stamps Telegraph 1899 200 RÉis T-13 Cv$ 1.000, MngMcelroy Teardrop Telegraph Key Morse Code TransmitterTelegraph Sounder On Wood BaseVintage Morse Code Telegraph Key J-38 Signal Corps Us Army In Original BoxVintage L.s. Brach Signal Corps Flame Proof Telegraph Hand Key N/rVintage Southern Bell Telephone & Telegraph Company Inc Porcelain Flange SignVibroplex J-36 Telegraph Speed Key Signal Corps U.s. Army Nye Viking Ham Amateur Radio Telegraph Code Key 312-003Telegraph Sounder Signal ElectricAntique Unknown Telegraph Repeater Relay Caribbean Islands Spain Spanish Colonies Nineteen Telegraph Stamp Mh/mngFull Size Figural Telegraph Key Butane Table Lighter- Wood Base- Morse Code KeyTelegraph KeyTelegraph Key1930s Original Pictorial Pure Oil Company Map Operations Telegraph Locations 1865 1881 L.g.tillotson & Co. Railway Telegraph Telephone Supplies Billheads X4Vintage Morse Railroad Telegraph Key. BrassRare 1858 Tiffany & Co Atlantic Telegraph Cable SectionBay Bridge Tower - Waterfront - From Telegraph Hill San Francisco 1934 NegativeSignal Electric Telegraph Key Very Nice* Vintage Collectible Cjb26003a Marked Black Telegraph Key....Antique Morse Code J.h. Bunnell And Co.telegraph Key And Sounder Antique Vintage Lh Bunnell & Co 2 Coil Telegraph Sounder Patent Date 1895Lionel #85 Telegraph PoleVintage J4-820 Morse Code/military Telegraph Key CalectroHuge Lot Usa Made Speed-x Morse Code Radio Railroad Telegraph Straight KeySignal Telegraph Key & Sounder, Menominee, Mich. - Clean -Western Australia Wa Postal Stamps Group Swans Longswans Over Prints TelegraphVintage Dual Weight Speed-x Bug Telegraph Key N/rVintage Western Electric Telegraph Sounder 3b 20 Ohms - Rare!!!Signal Electric Telegraph KeyChina Taiwan Formosa Telegraph Receipt October 9, 1945! 16-760Antique Am District American Telegraph Co Uniform Button Scovill Mfg WaterburyHemingray #42 Glass Telegraph Insulators Blue / Green Made In Usa Lot Of 13Telegraph Key And Sounder Radio-made In Japan By Waco