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    

1890s Western Union Telegraph Bobby Police & Security Hat &badge ObsoleteVintage 1940s Wwii Poster Rare Telegraph Lend A Hand Buddy Do Your Job AmericanLionel Co. J-38 U.s. Army Corp. Morse Code/telegraph Key W/ Sounder Electrophysics Autronic Morse Code Paddle Keyer Telegraph Ham Radio, VintageVintage 1940s Wwii Poster Rare Telegraph Lines Of Battle Don't Let Them DownLionel J-38 Morse Code Telegraph Key J38 Us Army Signal Telegraphy Cw Ham RadioVibroplex "bug" Telegraph Code Key.White Telegraph Swing Arm Bracket & Bunnell Resonator & Wu Relay Vintage J,h Bunnell Cpr Telegraph Key Morse Code Railroad Signal ToolsMwt B339 12ax7 Nos Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co Ltd British Vintage Boxed Tube Vintage Wwii Army Signal Corps J 38 Telegraph Morse Code Sending Key Old MorrisVibroplex Deluxe Bug Telegraph Key Morse Code Sounder # 13690 (5)Ww Ii Navy Flame Proof Telegraph Key Cmi-26003a Exc To New Condition W/16" CordHam Radio Shortwave Cw Morse Code Telegraph Key Keys/super MiniAntique Railroad Telegraph Sounder With Resonator Box And Folding Arm 1917Antique 1884 3 Bar Magneto Box Telephone Telegraph Voltamp Key Western Electric?San Francisco Badge. Pacific Telephone & Telegraph. Police Communications?Nice Telegraph Key!Vintage Morse Code Telegraph Hand Key Unit Transmitter In Excellent Shape 1876 Stereoview Photo Image View Of San Francisco From Telegraph HillNo. 71 Telegraph Post Set Peacock And Dark Red 10-1094 By Mth Nib!!Antique J.h. Bunnell Code Sounder & Postal Telegraph Call BoxNew South Wales 1871 Telegraph Mint Mounted 1d Sgt1 Cat £150Gamewell Fire Alarm Call Box Door Telephone Phone Telegraph Emergency Police Large Brass Telegraph Key - Weighs 2 Pounds- Buehl Or Other ReproSignal Electric Co. Telegraph Key Morse Code Bug Sounder Vintage Antique (1)Navy Knob: A Knob With A "skirt" For Morse Telegraph And Radio Keys Switzerland 1920s/40s M&u Tete Beche Aviation Telegraph (~60 Items)[g4124]Antique Gamewell Telegraph Ticker Tape MachineTg-5b Field Telegraph SetPorcelain Sign / Adt Alarm Call Box / Porcelain Western Union TelegraphJ.h. Bunnell & Co. Telegraph Key Morse Code Bug Sounder Vintage Antique (4)Rare Vintage Ww Ii Army Signal Corps J-38 Telegraph Morse Code Sending Key PadMiniature Bunnell Telegraph Key And Sounder Australia / Wa - 1879 1d Bistre Telegraph Stamp Perf. 14:14 In A Horizontal Pair[60747] Belgium 1889 Telegraph Good Stamp Very Fine Used Value $60Telegraph KeyCarolina Telephone & Telegraph Co. Directory Wilson, Nc 1937Jimmy Buffett Vintage Caribbean Soul T Shirt Coconut Telegraph NewG.b. Postal Stat "specimens" (5) Incl. 1/- Telegraph Etc. Vintage 1919 Leach Telegraph / Morse Code Key = In Original BoxVibroplex "bug" Semi-automatic Telegraph Key#4 Vintage Telegraph Key Morse Code 34 Mint Telegraph Stamps,penny LotBnip Airfix - H0/00 Plastic Construction Kit. 18 Telegraph Poles & 2 Cable Drums[60751] Belgium 1876 Nice Postcard With Telegraph Stamp. See Photo[60748] Belgium 1897 Telegraph Good Stamp Very Fine Used Value $80[60912] Belgium Telegraph 1879 Good Mnh Very Fine StampNystamps W Mint Old Us Telegraph Stamp & Booklet Pane CollectionPaddle Only, For Semi-automatic Morse Telegraph KeysUs Stamps Sc #14t2, 14t4 Unused Cv $300.00 TelegraphRare Ornate Tillotson Private Line Kob Telegraph Set - Key & Sounder On Ci Base Vtg Telegraph / Morse Relay Brass & Painted Iron J.h. Bunnell ? For Key, SounderWwii Canvas & Leather Case Cs-49-a ~ Signal Corps Tg-5-b Telegraph Bag Carolina Telephone & Telegraph Co. Directory Wilson, Nc 1947Jh Bunnell Telegraph Key & Sounder, Morse Code Key, RadioSamuel Morse Stereoview Painter Inventor Morse Code Electric Magnetic TelegraphWestern Union Polechanger Telegraph Key 1-b Made By Spies Electric Works ChicagoNon Brass Fire Alarm Police Call Box Number Plate Telegraph Vintage Gamewell Telegraph Key J47