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    

*new* Rare Schurr Profi 2 Iambic Paddle Telegraph Key (morse Code Ham Radio CwMarconi Wireless Telegraph Key, London Railroad Morse CodeVintage Cast Iron Hershey Chocolate Co Gamewell Fire Alarm Call/telegraph Box 54Original Rare 1930s Postal Telegraph Porcelain Flange Double Sided Sign 30"x16" 4 Vintage Ham Radio Morse Code Telegraph Keys Key - Signal ElectricVtg Gamewell Red Fire Alarm Call Box Empty Number 56 Fireman TelegraphQueen Victoria Telegraph Issue 'specimen' 6 Values Hinged Mint (au961)Jh Bunnell Brass Morse Code Telegraph Key On Steel BaseUnusual Scarce Vibroplex Vibrokeyer Morse Code Telegraph Key PaddleVintage J-38 Morse Code Ham Radio Telegraph Key On Black BaseUnusual Ww Ii Coast Guard R-100 Receiver By Federal Telegraph Vg Cond Lw & SwSg T18 £5 Orange Telegraph. Very Fine Used With Belfast Cds's Nov 28th 1878...Neat Morse Code Telegraph Sideswiper Key Ham RadioSignal Electric Co., Signal Transmitting Telegraph Key Type R-62 In Original BoxVintage Telegraph Paddle Key Ham Radio Morse Code Abbott Import JapanVery Nice Near Mint Speed X Telegraph Key Mounted Morse Code Dot Dot Dot1939 J-36 Us Army Signal Corps Vibroplex Ham Radio Telegraph Code Key Bug S/n 71Vintage Brown Bros Model Ctl-b Telegraph Key St Louis Mo Nice No ReserveWwii Signal Corps Ef Johnson J-44 Switchable Telegraph Key - Nice Condition!Queen Victoria Telegraph 'specimen' Issues Without Gum (4) (au956)Original Lionel Prewar # 71 Telegraph Pole Accessory Display BoxLionel Telegraph Key On Oak Wood Base- J-38- Ham Radio- Cw- Morse Code- VintageVibroplex Key Bug Telegraph Old No.190931 Original StandardBritish Air Force Bathtub Morse Code Telegraph KeyQueen Victoria 5s Rose Telegraph Issue 'specimen' L.h.m. (au960)J-38 Telegraph Morse KeyEarly C1915 Radio Tube -4 Pin French Tm -telegraph Militaire-golf Ball Shaped Vintage J.h.bunnell & Co New York U.s.a. Telegraph Key Sounder Morse Code J.w. Bunnell & Co. New York Usa Antique Brass Telegraph KeyWestern Electric Telegraph Key With Engraved "1a At&t/ Western Electric" On KeyVintage Morse Code Telegraph Keys (2) Bakelite Base. J-38 ( 2) Vintage Keys Ameco Telegraph Key K-4 - UnopenedTiffany & Co 1858 Atlantic Telegraph Cable SouvenirSouth Africa Orange Free State Fiscally Used Telegraph Etc Look!Vibroplex Amateur Ham Radio Triangle Base Style Telegraph Key Bug Serial # 03941Chicago Burlington Quincy Rr - J.h. Bunnell & Co. Brass Telegraph Sounder 1800'sVintage "speed-x" Les Logan Co. Model #510 Morse Code Telegraph KeyOld Wireless Telegraph Morse KeyBeeko-like Learner's Kob Set Telegraph Key And Sounder Set ("kob") Morse Code CwQueen Victoria 1s Telegraph Issue Plate 8 Specimen, Hinged Mint (au957)Queen Victoria Telegraph Issue 4d Specimen Hinged Mint (au955)Marconi Navy/nato Telegraph Admiralty Wireless Ham Radio Cw Morse Key QrpQueen Victoria 1s Plate 10 Telegraph Issue Without Gum Specimen (au958)Queen Victoria 1s Green Telegraph Form 24.3.77 Very Fine (au1144)Vibroplex Junior Original Telegraph Sn 79407 C. 1920s Semi-automatic Keys BugVintage Speed-x Telegraph Morse Code Key - Radio Ham H15.682Western Electric Telegraph Sounder ??Vintage Antique Morse Code Telegraph Key Machine On Plastic Base16x Collection Qv Sgt2 1d Red-brown Plate 2 Telegraph All Cds Copies (16)Sou Dan British Africa Rare Lot Of Telegraph Stamps, See.. #m5250Queen Victoria 10s Telegraph Issue 'specimen' Damaged Spacefiller (au959)Lot Of 5 Vtg Threaded Wooden Post Pegs For Glass Telephone/ Telegraph InsulatorsVintage Cast Iron Fire Alarm Telegraph Station Oval #217 The Gamewell Co. NyOld Vintage Vibroplex Style Amateur Ham Radio Morse Code Telegraph Key Keyer BugWestern Union Telegraph Sounder 400 Ohms Base Marked Nyrr By J H Bunnell & CoUs,small Lot Of Telegraph Stamps, Wu And Ptcc, With Better.Gamewell Police Telegraph Small Brass Label Tag - 1 3/8" X 2"Vintage Original At&t Telegraph Transmitting KeyQueen Victoria Po Telegraph Form 1s Green 27.12.76 Very Fine (au1145)Vintage W.e.r. 1940 British Wt 8amp No. 2 Telegraph Morse Code Key Bug Military