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    

Lm Ericsson Antique Morse Telegraph Coder Key SwedishUs Military J-38 Telegraph Key Keyer Cw Mores Code Estate Find UsedVintage Early 1900s Old Marconi Era Telegraph Antique Spark Gap Wireless RadioLm Ericsson Antique Morse Telegraph Coder Key SwedishVintage - J.h. Bunnell & Co. Ny Box Relay & Telegraph Key Vintage **telegraph Key & Sounder** UntestedAntique J.h Bunnell Telegraph Sounder Repeater Relay.nice! Slate Cast Iron.nice!Telegraph Morse Code Key - "vibtoplex Blue Racer"Vintage J.h. Bunnell "combination Telegraph Key And Mechanical Sounder"Lm Ericsson Galvanometer Antique Morse Telegraph SwedishVintage**rare** 1904 Western Electric 25a Telegraph Sounder Repeater Relay.nice!Rare Marconi High Frequency Transformer Wireless Telegraph RadioVintage -telegraph Key & Sounder, E.s. Greeley & Co.Morse Code J37 J47 Telegraph Hand Key Straight KeyExcellent Collection Qv-kgv Fiscal/revenue Stamps Inc Army Telegraph - Rf141~minty~1967 Vibroplex Champion Bug Standard Telegraph Key~ready To Use~Vintage Western Union Telegraph & Cable Office 14" X 7" Porcelain Sign! Nr! BellChadburns Liverpool & Londons Solid Brass Lamp Ships TelegraphG3yuh Telegraph KeyCd-143 Blue Montreal Telegraph Co { All Embossing On The Front }Vintage Shaw Electrical Co.telegraph Key & SounderRare St N.t.s´s Fabrik Kjobenhavn Relay Brass Telegraph CopenhagenVtg Signal Electric Telegraph Key And Western Electric Morse CodeAntique 1895 Pair Of Western Union J.h. Bunnell Telegraph Sounder 120 OhmsMorse Code Telegraph Key Ham Radio On Wooden BaseEarly 20thc Telegraph Galvanometer Detector J Mills & Sons Newcastle Upon TyneEarly Radio Wavemeter/tuner/variometer Western Union Telegraph/weston 264 Vibroplex Lightning Bug Telegraph Key, Heavy Black Crackle BaseVintage -telegraph Key & Sounder Manhattan Electric. Supply Co.Telegraph Apparatus Co. Morse Code Key - Semi Automatic "cp-810"Antique Lot Of Telegraph Key Sounder Repeater Parts For Repair RestorationTelegraph Morse Code - Signal Corps Key J-36Bakelite On Black Walnut Weston Meter/deforest Radio/telegraph Co. Tube Test Set Vibroplex Telegraph Bug KeyVtg Signal Electric Telegraph Key & Sounder 4 Ohms. Nice OriginalAntique Morse Code Telegraph Key Patented Feb. 15, 1881 Nice NrGamewell Fire Alarm Brass Mechanism Call Box Telegraph Telephone Police StationVintage Fire Alarm Call Gamewell Box Telegraph Firefighting Key Test Tag Works Brass Telegraph Key With Black Crackle LeverVintage Ham Radio Telegraph Key Japan - Morse CodeRare Early 20thc Telephone Telegraph Line Testing Listening Device Tap Espionage1920-30s Adt Western Union Porcelain Telegraph And Cable Call Box 4.a WorksNystamps G Old Us Bob Revenue Telegraph Stamp Collection Scott Album Pg Seldom SVintage World War Ii U.s. Army Signal Corps J-38 Telegraph KeyNice Nye Viking Speed-x Telegraph KeyWwii Army Signal Corps - Lionel J-38 Morse Code Telegraph KeyVintage Brass Telegraph Key & Wireless Spark Gap Outfit W/ford Coil-nicely Made!Antique Telegraph 1881 J.h. Bunnell Bug Key & Unknown Sounder No ReserveOld Brass Morse Code Key Ham Radio Tube Transmitter Railroad Landline TelegraphAntique Gamewell Cast Iron Fire Alarm Telegraph Station Box W KeyNystamps S Old Us Bob Revenue Documentary Wines Telegraph Stamp CollectionAustralia Nice Telegraph Office Townsville Cancel On 5/- Kangaroo 1933Vintage Military Wwii Lionel J38 Telegraph Morse Code Ham Radio Key Railroad CwCivil War Yankee Telegraph Telegram American Telegraph Co. Providence R.i. 1862Vintage Telegraph Switchboard PegAntique J.h Bunnell Telegraph Sounder Repeater Relay.nice! Cast Iron & SlateUsa - American District Telegraph Co. - Parcel Delivery - 10¢Spain Nice Lot Early Telegraph Stamps Seldom Seen!Antique Glass Telegraph Battery Jar W. R. Ostrander & Co Brooklyn Ny Rare OldTwo! Tough To Find Cd-102 Pony Telegraph Insulators...sterling & Hawley Pa