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    

Vintage~ C1900 - "telegraph Office" - Finger Sign - Enamel SignGamewell Telegraph Fire Alarm Box Telegraph Police Deparmtent Station TickerVibroplex Signal Corp J-36 Bug Type Morse Telegraph Key Ham Radio 1944 W CaseEarly J.h. Bunnell Spark Telegraph Key Wireless1920's Federal Telephone & Telegraph Co. Dx-58 4 Tube Radio Receiver AntiqueMorse/telegraph Key VibroplexVintage T.r. Mcelroy Radio Telegraph Key Deluxe Model Stream-macEarly Bunnell Heavy Brass Spark Telegraph Key WirelessBrand New Us Army Lionel J-38 Telegraph Morse Key Rare All White Metal No BrassNew York City Transportation Token Tyson & Co. Telegraph LineVintage 1944 Vibroplex Original Semi-auto Bug Telegraph Key Serial Number 135908Vibroplex Telegraph KeyVintage Semi-automatic Bug Key - Radio Telegraph Key - Deluxe ModelTwo Telegraph Keys. J.h.bunnell. New York.1 Small + 1 Normal Size.Speed-x Telegraph KeyGamewell Fire Alarm Telegraph Peerless AlarmOriginal Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co. Of America Flameproof Telegraph Key- J.h. Bunnell Co- Ham Radio- Cw- Morse- KobGb: 1852 English & Irish Magnetic Telegraph Co. Examples- On Album Page (ia4532)Cable Sample Brass 11 Core Submarine Telegraph Telephone Electrics PaperweightTelegraph Key Vintage Electric Telegraph Key Jj-38 Morse Code Ham Radio Transmitter HeadphonesWw Ii Us Army Signal Corps J-38 Morse Code Key Telegraph Key Ww2 Signal CorpsAntique Telephone Bells From The New England Telephone & Telegraph Company 1900Wwii Us Army Signal Corps J-36 Bunnell Morse Code Telegraph KeyVery Rare 1871 New South Wales 6 D Black & Indian Red Telegraph Stamp MintNhc Electric Co Brass Morse Code Telegraph Key Sounder Railroad Telegraphy CwMorse/ Telegraph Key Dual Paddle Bencher TypeVintage Telegraph Morse Code KeyTelegraph Key Speedx Model 312-001 Nib Hand KeyVery Rare 1871 New South Wales 2 D Black & Blue Telegraph Stamp MintHi-mound Bk-100 Telegraph Semi-automatic Bug Key Skillman JapaneseGb: 1857 British & Irish Magnetic Telegraph Co. Examples- On Album Page (ia4531)Small Collection Of Us Bob Revenue Telegraph Stamps 1901 The Telegraph Instructor G. M. Dodge Book Manual Morse Code Key Sounder @@Telegraph Pieces 200 Hms Vintage Speed-x Morse Code Telegraph Key Tapper - Ham RadioAntique Vintage W.u. Tel Co 1-b 400 Ohm Klacker Sounder Key - TelegraphGamewell Fire Alarm Mechanism Telephone Telegraph Police Call Box Old Vintage J-38 Morse Code Telegraph KeyRare 1910s Southern Bell Telephone & Telegraph Co Adv. Celluloid Watch Fob / TagVintage Vibroplex "blue Racer" Telegraph Key Bug1857 British & Irish Magnetic Telegraph Co Stamp 3d W/control NumberSwitzerland 1868-81 Telegraph M&u Lot To 20f 22 Stamps High CatRussia 1930 Old Imp.telegraph Station Stamp Nice Unused/mlhPorcelain Enamel Southwestern Bell Telephone Telegraph 2 Sided Metal Sign1859 Cyrus West Field Signed Letter Atlantic Telegraph CompanyWestern Union Wu Tel Co Electric Morse Code Telegraph Key Relay 4-d 100 OhmsTwo Brass Morse Code Telegraph Key1910 Rppc Mclean Ny Lvrr Station - Railroad Depot, Telegraph Sign, Lehigh ValleyUs Telegraph Stamp Collection 1881-1913 Cat $8000Lot Of Vintage Ceramic Telegraph Insulators And FittingsMr Fancy Cancel 65 Civil War Cover Us Military Telegraph Inscription AlexandriaGoodwood Festival Of Speed 2014 - Complete Set Of Telegraph Bags - Low Start!Western Union Telegraph Switchboard With Key And SounderVintage Original Fire Telegraph Alarm Box Un-restored! Cleveland Alarm New YorkMesco Manhattan Telegraph Sounder & Morse Code Key Kob Set Cw Railroad TrainsBulgaria Telegraph Stamps Pcp Overprinted High Value UsedLionel Western Union Telegraph Gondola W Covered Load O Gauge Train 6-81264-gc Vintage Telegraph Keys - One Marked W.u Tel Co., Legless Key 2-a