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    

Edison Dynamo, Edison Style Generator, Model Edison Generator, Telegraph KeyVintage Vibroplex Morse Code Telegraph KeySignal Corps 1917 Wartime Service Buzzer * Palm-sized Telephone & TelegraphFire Department Fire Alarm Fireman Telegraph Station Selling As FoundA Nice Chromed Leather Hanging Wall Clock With Genuine Ships Telegraph Dial1930s Postal Telegraph Electric Industrial Style Wall Clock Works GoodBritish Insulated & Helsby Cable Sample Deco Paperweight Telegraph Electric LampVintage Vibroplex "original Standard" Telegraph Key S/n 196535 With WearVintage Morse Code Key Telegraph J.h. Bunnell Co New York UsaVintage Morse Code Telegraph Sounder - Western Electric Model 7-a 12 Telegraph Keys With Springs --- Free ShippingVintage Morse Code Telegraph Key And Sounder - "signal Electric" Kob -learner Vintage J H Bunnell Telegraph Sounder W/ Western Union Candlestick ResonatorWwi - Wwii British Fullerphone Mk V Telegraph + 2 Extra KeysVintage World War Ii J-38 Morse Code Telegraph Key Good ConditionVintage Bell System Public Telephone Telegraph Porcelain Enamel Sign 8" DamagedSpanish Philippines - 34 Revenue/telegraph Stamps - Value ?1906 Telegraph Relay "j.h.bunnell", "150 Ohms" --- Free Shipping1906 Western Union Telegraph Booklet W/scott# 16t37Compact Telegraph Relay, 150 Ohms --- Free ShippingNice Telegraph Relay "j.h.bunnell", "150 Ohms" --- Free ShippingNice Telegraph Relay "j.h.bunnell", "150 Ohms" --- Free ShippingTeleplex --- Telegraph Machine With Case --- Free ShippingThin Telegraph Relay "j.h.bunnell", "150 Ohms" --- Free ShippingTelegraph Relay "j.h.bunnell", "150 Ohms" --- Free ShippingSmall Telegraph Relay "j.h.bunnell" --- Free ShippingEcuador 1910 Telegraph Cover Quito To Cariamanga Sealed Paper Green Seal 1848 Stampless Letter, New Orleans Sugar Market, Letter Copying, TelegraphNice Telegraph Relay "j.h.bunnell", "150 Ohms" --- Free ShippingGreat Britain 1877 Telegraph 1/- , Kinross CdsEcuador 1895 Telegraph Cover Ambato To Quito Ignacio Heredia Sealed PaperOld Telegraph Relay "j.h.bunnell", "150 Ohms" --- Free ShippingEarlier Bunnell Box Relay & Telegraph KeyAmerican Telegraph & Western Union Messenger Call Box Porcelain Advertising SignVintage Vibroplex Bug Telegraph Key #198761 Ham Radio With Wedge CordMarconi Coherer Receiver Telegraph Part C.1900 Free ShippingCivil War U.s. Military TelegraphVintage Wwii J.h. Bunnell "flame Proof" Us Navy Cjb 2600 3a Morse Telegraph KeyWestern Union Porcelain Metal Telegraph Antique Call Box 4b(?) White & Cobolt Western Union Telegraph Company Learner Set 1a Key & SounderVintage American Telephone & Telegraph Bell Systems Long Lines Department Sign2 Telegraph Relays And Sounder "j.h.bunnell", Parts Set --- Free ShippingNice Chicago Bencher Paddle Telegraph Morse Code KeyJ H Bunnell & Co New York Usa Sounder Telegraph Key Morse Code InstrumentTelegraph Station Lightning Arrester With Testing KeyVtg 1937 Dodge's Telegraph & Radio Institute Brochure Valparaiso IndianaLionel # 150 Telegraph Pole Set W/ Original Box 1947 - 1950 LnLot Of Used Lionel O Gauge No. 150 Telegraph PolesOriginal Us Mint Medal Cyrus West Atlantic Telegraph Us Congress 1867 3"diameterVintage Telegraph Paddle Key Lionel J-38 Wwii Signal Corps Code Ham RadioJimmy Buffett Autographed Coconut Telegraph 1980 Fins Up Record ParrotheadsBritish India Telegraph Stamp 1869 2 AnnasNice Telegraph Relay "j.h.bunnell", "150 Ohms" --- Free ShippingLot Of 4 Nos Federal Telephone & Telegraph Breadboard Radio Knobs15t45 Us Postal Telegraph Co Revenue Bob Stamp - Mint Og Nh (l162)Antique Menominee Electric Co Telegraph Key & SounderVintage Telegraph Sender Unit1866 - The Atlantic Telegraph - One Of The Great Communications Achievements 1901 Telegraph Sounder --- "ghegan" --- Free ShippingEcuador 1896 Telegraph Cover La Union To Quito Ignacio Heredia Value 30 Cents