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    

Brand New U.s. Army Lionel J-38 Telegraph Key Rare (morse Code Ham Radio Trains)Early Porcelain American Telephone & Telegraph Co. Booth Flange SignNew Early 90's Never Used Vibroplex Iambic Deluxe Telegraph Key And Case (morse)~mfj-422b Cw Keyer With Bencher By-1 Iambic Telegraph Key~w0rking Tech Special~J-38 Morse Code Telegraph Key J38 Us Army Signal Corps Telegraphy Cw Ham EstateAntique 1958 "vibroplex" Chrome Deluxe Morse Telegraph KeyRare Unique "kitano Key" New Iambic Keyer Paddle Telegraph Morse Code Qrp Ham CwVintage T.r.mcelroy Super Stream-speed Telegraph Key Model S-600-sc !..1925 Vibroplex Blue Racer Telegraph Bug Key With Very Early D3 NameplateVintage Vibroplex Co. Morse Key Morse Code Equipment ~ Telegraph Code Key Keyer Rare 1850's 60' Telegraph Sounder Made In Ottawa Ill.Antique Menominee Morse Code Transmitter Telegraph Key With Wood Base * BrassWwii Military Radio Signal Corps Telegraph Morse Key J45 Willys Jeep Mb GpwRare Antique 1904 American Express Tin Sign Money Paid By Cable And TelegraphSpeed-x Morse Code Telegraph Key Buzzer Vintage Vintage Bencher Chrome Usa Lambic Paddle Morse Code Telegraph Ham Key Keyer~small Ww2 Japanese Military Telegraph Key~slides Out Of Base~hard To Find~nice~New Unused 1990s Iambic Keyer Paddle And Hand Key Set Qrp Telegraph Morse CodeNye Viking Master Squeeze Key Ssk-1-cp Rare Iambic Keyer Paddle Telegraph Key1947 Vibroplex Lightning Bug Telegraph Key - Nice Condition, Unusual Finish Vintage Signal Electric Mfg Co Telegraph Key MichiganVintage Porcelain Bell System American Telephone Telegraph Sign Antique Western Electric Land Line Telegraph Box Relay Key & Phone-look !Southern Bell Telephone Aluminum Building Sign Plaque. Telegraph Art DecoLionel Postwar No. 150 Telegraph Pole Set In Original BoxVintage Brass Morse Code Telegraph Key Wood BaseVibroplex Iambic Deluxe Chrome Keyer Red Paddles Telegraph Key Morse No. 48523Vintage Flanged Western Union Telegraph And Cable Sign PorcelainWorld War Ll U.s. Army Signal Corps Lionel J-38 Morse Code Telegraph Hand KeyTelegraph Sounder And KeyWestern Union Telegraph Call Box PorcelainQv £5 Lilac & Green Army Telegraph, Mounted Mint, RareVintage Silvertown Ww1 1917 Wood & Brass Telegraph Relay For Morse Code RareVery Nice J-38 Telegraph KeyRare Vintage Antique Telegraph Morse Code Key Brass MarbleO Scale On3 On30 Telegraph Pole Kit (9 Poles) Keil Line 48-134 O.b.Lindquist Hand Telegraph Key Us Navy Clt-26012-b June 22, 1944 6/22/1944Vintage Western Electric Main Line Telegraph SounderRare Vintage Postal Telegraph Bichronous Large Wall Clock Hammond IndustrialJ-38 Morse Code Telegraph Key J38 Army Military Telegraphy Cw Ham Amateur RadioVintage Telegraph Key ((uknown Brand)) +antique Pat.date 1896 Jh Bunnell Telegraph Key Sounder Brass BaseTelegraph Key - Morse Code - Ham Radio - Amateur Radio Cw KeyTelegraph Sender And RecorderVintage Military Ww-ii J-48-a Telegraph Morse Code KeyVintage Signal Electric Mfg Co Learner Morse Code Send Receive Telegraph MachineRare Type J-38 Morse Code Telegraph Key J38 Army Military Telegraphy Cw RadioAntique W.u.t.co. Western Union Telegraph Key Western Electric Pat'd Dec 5, 1893U.s. Navy Telegraph Key Panel With Nice Flameproof Key For Ham Radio TransmitterPottery Barn New York Radio & Telegraph Wood ClockEx Condition Antique Signal Electric Morse Code Sounder Telegraph Key Brass Vintage Western Electric 21a 100 Ohms Morse Code Telegraph Sounder Antique Porcelain Public Telephone Sign Mountain States Telegraph Double SidedAntique 1895 Telegraph Key Bunnell Tel. & Electric Company New York Sounder RareFrance Telegraph Stamps Unperforate Very Fine No Repair No Defekt 2 ScansBelgium Nice Group Of Telegraph Stamps 1870s + Good Lot .99 Cent Start $$$Rare Old Vintage Small Telegraph Key ~ Silver /enamel Pin Brooch Jewelry UniqueFrance Telegraph Stamps Very Fine No Repair No Defekt 2 Scans~1860s Civil War Era Western Union Telegraph Photographer Ch Ryder Cdv Of 6 MenAntique American Telephone & Telegraph Wall Telephone Parts