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 RadioTube Tester/ Mallory Meter/ Deforest Radio Telephone & Telegraph Co. Socket Vintage - J.h. Bunnell & Co. Ny Box Relay & Telegraph Key Vibroplex Bug With Case Telegraph Key No 130364Vintage**rare** 1904 Western Electric 25a Telegraph Sounder Repeater Relay.nice!Antique J.h Bunnell Telegraph Sounder Repeater Relay.nice! Slate Cast Iron.nice!Vintage **telegraph Key & Sounder** UntestedVintage J.h. Bunnell "combination Telegraph Key And Mechanical Sounder"Telegraph Morse Code Key - "vibtoplex Blue Racer"Excellent Collection Qv-kgv Fiscal/revenue Stamps Inc Army Telegraph - Rf141Chadburns Liverpool & Londons Solid Brass Lamp Ships TelegraphCd-143 Blue Montreal Telegraph Co { All Embossing On The Front }Morse Code J37 J47 Telegraph Hand Key Straight KeyAntique 1895 Pair Of Western Union J.h. Bunnell Telegraph Sounder 120 OhmsRare St N.t.s´s Fabrik Kjobenhavn Relay Brass Telegraph CopenhagenVtg Signal Electric Telegraph Key And Western Electric Morse CodeAntique Oil Lamp Lantern Bell System Telephone Telegraph Embury Little SupremeRare Marconi High Frequency Transformer Wireless Telegraph RadioG3yuh Telegraph KeyOriginal 1944 Telegraph Set Tg-5-b Us Army Good For Parts~minty~1967 Vibroplex Champion Bug Standard Telegraph Key~ready To Use~Vintage Western Union Telegraph & Cable Office 14" X 7" Porcelain Sign! Nr! BellVintage Telegraph Morse Code Key Cw Practice Oscillator Ham RadioVintage Shaw Electrical Co.telegraph Key & SounderVibroplex Original Semi-auto Telegraph Bug Serial No.165522Merit Made In England Telegraph KeyEarly 20thc Telegraph Galvanometer Detector J Mills & Sons Newcastle Upon TyneVintage Telegraph KeyAntique Lot Of Telegraph Key Sounder Repeater Parts For Repair RestorationVintage Telegraph Key Mounted On Wood Base Old Telegraph/ham Radio ToolMorse Code Telegraph Key Ham Radio On Wooden BaseWartime J-38 U.s. Army Signal Corps Telegraph Key-very Clean-last One Sg 163 1s Plate 14 With Superb Railway Station Telegraph Office Cds 1883Gamewell Fire Alarm Brass Mechanism Call Box Telegraph Telephone Police StationVintage -telegraph Key & Sounder Manhattan Electric. Supply Co.Army Telegraph Boer War ½d Block Of Four Used 1900 South AfricaVibroplex Champion Bug Morse Code Telegraph Key Keyer Cw Amateur Ham RadioIndia 1913 King George V 25r Orange And Blue Telegraph Used Sg191 Cat £60 As PosUsa - American District Telegraph Co. - Parcel Delivery - 10¢Antique J.h Bunnell Telegraph Sounder Repeater Relay.nice! Cast Iron & SlateRare Early 20thc Telephone Telegraph Line Testing Listening Device Tap EspionageAntique Gamewell Cast Iron Fire Alarm Telegraph Station Box W KeyVtg Signal Electric Telegraph Key & Sounder 4 Ohms. Nice OriginalAustralia Nice Telegraph Office Townsville Cancel On 5/- Kangaroo 1933Vibroplex Lightning Bug Telegraph Key, Heavy Black Crackle BaseNew York City Nyc Manhattan Fire Department Alarm Telegraph 1870 Pamphlet W/ AdsCivil War Yankee Telegraph Telegram American Telegraph Co. Providence R.i. 1862Vintage Railroad Telegraph KeyFeb 032 Spain - Espana Alfonso Lovely Selection Of Used Stamps Incl. Telegraph $1920-30s Adt Western Union Porcelain Telegraph And Cable Call Box 4.a WorksNystamps G Old Us Bob Revenue Telegraph Stamp Collection Scott Album Pg Seldom S Vibroplex Telegraph Bug KeyGamewell Mercury Electric Switch Fire Alarm Call Box Police Telegraph TelephoneOld Brass Morse Code Key Ham Radio Tube Transmitter Railroad Landline TelegraphSg 117 1s Green Plate 6 Block Of 8 With Railway Telegraph CancelNice Nye Viking Speed-x Telegraph KeyVintage Ham Radio Telegraph Morse Code Device[32188] Netherlands 1877/1903 Telegraph Good Stamp Very Fine Used