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    

1920's Federal Telegraph & Telephone Co Type 110 Battery Set Tube Radio ReceiverFdny O'brien Fire Call Alarm Telegraph Box F.d.n.y. New York City With KeyNice Wwii Vintage J-38 Telegraph Hand Key - Cw Morse Code Ham Radio Telegraph U.s. Navy “doorknob Style” Morse Code Key 26003aGerman Junker Military Telegraph KeyVibroplex Blue Racer Standard Telegraph Bug Key Morse Code No. 213626Us Signal Corps J-38 Morse Code Telegraph Key J-38 Telegraphy Amateur Ham Radio3 Morse Code Keys Ham Amateur Radio Telegraph Spped-x ++Vintage Western Union Telegraph Double Sided Porcelain Flange SignPre-war, Standard Gauge, Ives?, American Flyer?, Telegraph Poles, SignalsAntique 1940 Vibroplex Telegraph Morse Code Key Bakelite Knobs Serial 115094Vintage J-38 Telegraph Key Morse Code WwiiDow Telegraph Key/bug, "bent-frame" Model, S/n 1002Vintage J-38 Telegraph Key Bug Morse Code Operator Transmitter Key WwiiVintage J-38 Morse Code Telegraph Key2x Antique Victorian Underwater Transatlantic Telegraph Cable Sample/souvenirThe Vibroplex Company 128351 Bug Telegraph MachineAntique Telegraph Key J-38 Morse Code Heavy BakeliteAntique Bunnell Morse Code - Telegraph Key Fully Functional VintageJh Bunnell Telegraph Pen Register Ks3106 Fire Alarm Register Ticker Tape PunchBrazil Stamp Old Used 200 R Telegraph 1873Antique Electro Mfg Calif Usa Radio Telegraph Morse Code Speed Key Original Box Vintage Homebrew Electronic Keyer Morse Code Telegraph Key Ham Radio HomemadeCollectible Old Jj 38 Morse Code Telegraph KeyHam Radio Telegraph Key2 Antique Telegraph Switches ~ Vintage Electrical Edison Tesla Primitive 1575Unusual Antique Telegraph Sounder Stamped BunnellVintage Railroad Morse Code Key With Main Line Relay Sounder For Telegraph BrassVintage Bencher Telegraph Morse Code Ham Tube Radio Cw Key Paddle Keyer W/ PlugVintage Wm. M. Morse Code Cw Telegraph Key H15 681 Ham RadioNoblespirit No Reserve Atlantic Telegraph Successfully Laid August 5, 1858 Token[op2766] Telegraph Lot Of Stamps On 12 Pages - See Photos And DescriptionVintage Ef Johnson Telegraph Radio Key Brass #590 Exc Cond NrVintage Clipsal Plus Other Morse Code Telegraph KeysMorris Code Telegraph MachineNew South Wales 1871 Telegraph Mint Mounted 1d Black & Red Sgt1 Cat £180Unusual Un-marked Early Antique Vintage Telegraph Key SounderVintage J-38 Telegraph Key On Original Bakelite Base Great ConditionVintage J-38 Morse Code Telegraph Key, (ham Radio). Very Nice. Austria 1874/6 Franz Joseph 1 Telegraph Stamps 10 Different UsedAustria 1873 Franz Joseph 1 Telegraph Stamps 40 Kr Green Two Different PerfsVintage Antique Telegraph Sounder Signal ElectricIndia Telegraph Stamps Etc. 1860 To Kg V Mh / Used. Good CvTwo (2) Bell System Telephone & Telegraph Co. Belt Buckle German Morse Telegraph Key, Ca 1890. An Excellent Antique Key.Germany Nazi Era Telegraph Stamp Seal Heeres-nachrichtendienst MnhAmerican Deforest Wireless Telegraph Co. 1905 Stock Cert. Signed Abraham WhiteConsolidated Wireless Telegraph & Telephone Stock Cert. 1902 Arizona Rare!!Brazil (1871) 500r, Telegraph Stamp, MhngAntique Telegraph Sounder France 1868 - Telegraph-stamps/'timbre-telegraphe'Heathkit Hd-1416 Code Oscillator / Ameco K-4 Telegraph KeyTelegraph Line Tyson & Co. - New York City - Ny 630 Lc - OmnibusTelegraph Key Made In JapanNew Guinea 1915 'roo' 5s Grey & Yellow Nauru Telegraph Pmk Used Cat £110. Sg 92.E F Johnson Steampunk Telegraph Key/sounderLionel 6-19992 Western Union Telegraph Company Tool CarMarx Ho - 3 Unused Boxes Of 12 Telegraph Poles In Original Boxes Vintage- Lot 2Wwii L.s. Brach Flame Proof Key Type J-7-a Radio Telegraph KeyTelegraph - Telephone - Mix 1 - Japan - Revenues - Cinderella