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    

1922 Federal Dx-type 58 Radio Federal Telephone & Telegraph CoVibroplex Telegraph Key Near Mint Condition Circa 1962Antique Telegraph Key~in Original Case~1800's~partrick & Carter~lineman's Set?Antique J H Bunnell & Co Telegraph Key & Sounder On Original Wooden Base Telegraph Key With Straight Bar1942 Bunnell Wwii J-36 Army Signal Corps Telegraph Bug Key With Nice S.c. StampsVery Rare Silvertown Telegraph Works Galvanometer Circa. 1870 With ProvenanceVintage Western Union Telegraph & Cable Office Porcelain Flange SignVintage Vibroplex Telegraph Key Old Standard 227684Gamewell Fire Alarm Cast Iron Call Box Telegraph Police Telephone Phone Old Vintage Artec J-38 Telegraph Morse Code Ham Radio Key Bakelite Base Us, Telegraph Revenue Stamps, Excellent Assortment In StockpagesVintage Vibroplex Lightning Bug Model Near Mint Telegraph Morse Key Original BoxVintage Original Postal Telegraph Porcelain Flange Sign No Reserve!!Telegraph Key And SounderTelegraph Works Silvertown London Vintage Meter InstrumentAntique Telegraph Key Rare Antique Lionel Telegraph Vintage Military Morse Code Key J-38 Ham Radio Vintage Telegraph Key India 1882 Eight Annas Brown Telegraph Stamp Strip Of 5 From Sheet Top MnhVantage Vibroplex Original Standard Key Keyer Ham Radio Telegraph Code Bug 1945Antique Telegraph Key & SounderGamewell Fire Alarm Police Call Box Telegraph Mechanism Telephone Phone Old Vintage Western Union Sided.Very Unusual Antique Old Telegraph Key W/sounder We (western Electric?) Pat 1886Telegraph Key And Sounder "menovine"Delton Locomotive Works G Scale Trains Western Union Telegraph Tool Car Exc LgbTelegraph Key J-38 Winslow ElectronicsLionel 150 Telegraph Pole Set In Box Check It Out!Telegraph Transmitter Morse Code Key WorksFour Vintage Brass Railroad Telegraph Wire Terminals For Sounder Key RelayLot Of 2 Vintage Telegraph Keys Western ElectricJh Bunnell Gnry Great Northern Railway Co Morse Code Telegraph Key Railroad CwMint In Sealed Box 1949 Canadain Military Telegraph Key Pad Westclox No ReserveVibroplex Morse Code Telegraph Key Bug Revenues #74 - Puerto Rico Telegraph1947 Vibroplex Lightning Bug Telegraph Key Sn 152663Collection Of Telegraph StampsVintage Original 1930's Western Union Telegrams Telegraph Cable Porcelain SignRare 1899- Western Australia Stamps "boyanup Post & Telegraph Office Cancel"Antique N.y.r.s. Western Union Telegraph Sounder Key 15-b 30 OhmsNew Orleans La Southern Bell Telephone & Telegraph Co Employee Slug LouisianaAntique/vintage J.h. Bunnell & Co. Radio Key Telegraph Key New York U.s.a.Vintage Morse Code Telegraph Key Heavy Unmarked Metal"marconi"c1904 Crystal Wireless Radio/telegraph Part Coil Tesla Tube Era AntiqueHammond Industrial Large 12" Dial Postal Telegraph Synchronous Wall Clock Antique/vintage Western Electric Co. Radio Key Telegraph Key UnusualBrazil 1871 1000r Blue Imperf Telegraph Stamp Unused MarginalTelegraph KeyFabulous Vintage Polished Brass Model Ships Telegraph For Swan HunterVibroplex Champion 1972 Telegraph Key, Serial 268288, Fair ConditionVintage 3c 140 Ohm Telegraph Sounder Western ElectricAntique/vintage Mesco Radio Key Telegraph Key Manahtten Electrical Supply Co.Vintage J38 Telegraph Key Circa 1947Antique Telegraph Sounder Vintage 1938 Western Electric At&t Telephone Telegraph Tube Amp Electricity BookWu 4 Way Telegraph Switch - Telegraph Key Chicago Supply Labratory And ScaleTelegraph Sounder Circa 19604x5 Glass Negative Ca 1905 Transport, Telegraph Unions People Central Square NyJ-38 Morse Code Telegraph Key J38 Army Military Telegraphy Cw Ham Amateur Radio