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 scribb...

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    

Oller Swedish Morse Telegraph Key Ericsson SwedenAmerican Powder Mills Telegraph Sporting Gun Powder Tin Can Dog Dead Shot DupontAntique Cast Iron Gamewell Police Telegraph Call BoxVibroplex Lightning Bug Ham Radio Telegraph Code Key Keyer Bell Systems American Telephone Telegraph Porcelain Enamel Rare Adv Sign. Nice!Lionel J-38 Telegraph Key -beautiful Rare Nickel Plated- No Brass Morse Key Ww2Antique Telegraph Morse Code Key & Sounder Lot Navy, Western Union, More1945 Vibroplex Deluxe Original Morse Telegraph Key Sn146746Vintage J-38 Morse Code Telegraph KeyVintage J-38 Telegraph Key, Made By Lionel - N.r.Vintage Wu Tel Railroad Telegraph Sounder Wooden Dovetail Box 120 Ohm Antique Vibroplex Original Telegraph Key Ham Radio Amateur RadioLg53807 France 1868 Imperf Coat Of Arms Telegraph Classic Used Cv 225 EurBritish & Irish Magnetic Telegraph 6dIndia Surcharge 1953 - Fdc Air Mail Cover To Switzerland - TelegraphNorway 2005 Geological & Telegraph Sets In Mnh Pairs . Sg 1580-1583Ecuador Telegraph Stamps 1920, 1922, 1926: Ra Carter CollectionEcuador Telegraph Stamps 1892, 1893, 1894, Hiscocks 1-16: Ra Carter Collection, Gb. 3d London District Telegraph Company. Spacefiller.Ecuador Telegraph Stamps 1897, 1900, 1926, Ins Hiscocks 28-38, Ra Carter Colltn Vintage Caph Military Morse Code Telegraph Key 26012b RareAntique J.h Bunnell Telegraph KeyLm Ericsson Galvanometer Antique Morse Telegraph SwedishPostal Telegraph ClockAntique J.h. Bunnell & Co. Morse Code Telegraph Key & Sounder 4 OhmsPorcelain Sign Ohio Bell Telephone Co American Telephone & Telegraph SystemRailroad Cast Iron Telegraph Swing Arm & Resonator HoodJ-38 Telegraph Key - NiceWestern Electric No 21 A 100 Ohms Telegraph RelayVintage J. H. Bunnell 20 Ohm Telegraph Sounder & Key 20 Ohm Name Plate. Vgc NrVibroplex Original Cw Bug Morse Code Telegraph Key 68523 ( 1919 )Czech Military Telegraph KeyTelegraph Manual 1859 Operator Pole Line Maintenance Instruments History Usa Uk3 Telegraphy Telegraph Story History Operator Agent California Ca San FranciscoTelegraph Telegraphy History Lore Stories Instrument Operator Lightning FlashesAntique Thompson & Levering Telegraph Key Sounder, Us Civil War Train Depot PartAntique J.h. Bunnell & Co. Telegraph Key, Morse CodeJ-47 Telegraph KeyVintage E.f. Johnson 4 Ohms Telegraph Sounder Mint Condition Original BoxGregg Allman Dies/dead Newspaper Macon Telegraph Allman BrothersTelegraph Key Pad M229: Ecuador 1893. 5 Centavos On Telegraph Stamp. Double Overprint. Mh1917 Wwi World War Signal Corps Telegraph Telephone Submarine Signed Photo Book2 Telegraph Telegraphy Railroad Operator Ccc&stl Big 4 Nycs Telephone Pole LineWwii J38 Telegraph Key Very Cool Antique Telegraph Key, Mounted On Heavy Steel Plate (1/8" Thick)2 Morse Code Key Pads Japan D Cell Battery Cradle Phone Telegraph C1900 Loyal Protective Ass'n Medical Id Tag Or Badge - Contact By Telegraph!!Antique Telegraph Apparatus Co. Semiautomatic Key Transmitting Key Plus AnotherStates W.a. 1d Telegraph 1886 Vfu (perf 14) L%$k Ss 198States W.a. 1d Telegraph 1886 Vfu (perf 14) L%$k Ss 200States W.a. 1d Telegraph 1886 Vfu (perf 12.5) L%$k Ss 204States W.a. 1d Telegraph 1886 Vfu (perf 12.5) L%$k Ss 202San Francisco - Telegraph Hill & Washington Square From Russian Hill By SouleEd. Muybridge Stereoview San Francisco Grading Telegraph Hill Bradley Rulofson Vintage Bell System Public Telephone Telegraph Porcelain Enamel Sign 8" DamagedPorcelain Sign Ohio Bell Telephone Co American Telephone & Telegraph SystemSan Francisco - Telegraph Hill By Kilburn Brothers IiSan Francisco - Telegraph Hill By Kilburn BrothersSan Francisco - Golden Gate From Telegraph Hill By Bierstadt