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]

TelegraphKeys.com

TelegraphKeys.com

Whether you are into straight keys from the middle of the 19th century, electronic keys from the middle of the 20th… [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    

1905 Morse Inker For Marconi Wireless Radio * Recording Telegraph * Still Works1884 Western Electric Telegraph Key Good Working Condition Re-plated 6 Years AgoMp Pederson Amplidan 50713 Telegraph KeyVibroplex Original Deluxe Telegraph Bug Serial Number 105020 Mint ConditionVery Rare Side Swiper Spark / Telegraph Key Working Condition Marked DynaVintage Amplidan Telegraph KeyTelegraph Master KeyWw 2 Navy Military Type Telegraph Key Flame Proof Type Good Working ConditionVery Old Side Swipper Spark / Telegraph Key Working Condition May Be A PrototypeLindholm & Wikstrom Telegraph Key In Good Working Condition # 10 Under BaseVintage Theodore Mcelroy Radio Telegraph Transmitting Key Deluxe Mod S-no. 1999Vintage Vibroplex Bug Telegraph Key S-no. 86105 , 825 Broadway + Jack 833 BroadVintage England Telegraph KeyT.r. Mcelroy Stream Key Spark / Telegraph Good Working Condition Large ContactsExcellent William B Duck Spark Gap Wireless Telegraph Ham Radio Coil TransmitterGemstone Montreal Telegraph Cd143Vintage Telegraph Register Key A. Gaiffe 40 Rue St.andr'e Des Arts Paris FranceWestern Electric Vintage Telegraph Ham Amateur Radio Code KeyEarly Caton Telegraph Lineman's Test Set Pocket Relay Sounder Key Rare Morse WarWwii Era Us Navy Flame Proof Telegraph KeyHi Moung Telegraph KeyJ-38 Vintage Telegraph Key Good Condition!Vintage Cw Speed-x Telegraph Key Steel Base And Bakelite ButtonVintage Lionel J-38 Morse Code Telegraph Key Real Nice ConditionVintage Western Union Telegraph Co 2a Legless Key-j H Bunnell & Co-morse CodeW.u.telegraph Main Line Sounder 15b 30 Ohm Pat. March 1917 Foote Pierson For KeyRare 1860s G. M. Phelps Maker Wu Telco Sn 4019 Morse Telegraph Sounder14- Antique Glass Porcelain Railroad Signal Telegraph Telephone Insulators Lot Manhattan Electric Western Union Telegraph Sounder & KeyT.r.mcelroy Straight Key Spark / Telegraph Good Working Condition Large ContactsWester Electric Telegraph KeyOld J. H. Bunnell Spark / Telegraph Key Great Working Condition Large ContactsOld Porcelain Flange Sign - Michigan Bell System -american Telephone & TelegraphVintage New England Telephone Telegraph Co. Public Telephone Porcelain Sign J-38 Telegraph Key- Oak Wood Base- Vintage- Ham Radio- Cw- Morse Code-military-P.r.r. Telegraph Kob J. H. Bunnell New York Sounder 150 Ohm Pat. Applied ForVintage Telegraph Key Ham Radio Morse Code*super Quality* Antique Brass Telegraph Signed U.s. Telegraph Co. Fire & PoliceSet Of 2 - Vintage Ef Johnson Telegraph Sounder & Morse Code Key Railroad Trains2 Vintage Speed-x Morse Code Telegraph Keys Very Good ConditionJ-37 Telegraph Key On Original Base1966 Vibroplex Blue Racer Telegraph Bug KeyVintage Vibroplex Telegraph Key 84,356 Blue RacerAt&t Western Electric Brass Morse Code Telegraph Key Railroad Telegraphy CwAntique Western Electric Telegraph Sounder RelayAntique Military Telegraph KeyVintage Speed-x Bug Telegraph Key Nice Working Condition Made By E.f. Johnson ?Autronic Single-lever Paddle Telegraph KeyBelgium Stamps 1866 Collection Of 20 Telegraph Stamps High Value!Vintage Ham Radio Telegraph Key Japan - Morse CodeVintage Morse Code Telegraph Key, Sounder, And Book For Beginners. J-38 Ww2 Morse Telegraph Key With Base, Excellent Condition, All Original PartsTelegraph Straight KeyWestern Union Telegraph Memorabilia2001 Canada Britain Guglielmo Marconi Two Coin Set Telegraph Case & CoaVintage 14k Solid Gold Western Telegraph I Love You Charm 1 GramsVintage Bell System Public Telephone Telegraph Porcelain Sign 7" SalvagedVintage Western Electric Telegraph Sounder 3c, 140 OhmsVintage Obsolete C. G. Braxmar A.d.t. American District Telegraph Security Badge10/- Military Telegraph Stamp. Mint Handstamped Specimen Type 9