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    

Gamewell Fire Alarm Telegraph New York Plaque PlateA Fine Large Vintage Morse Telegraph Key Vibroplex Morse Code Telegraph Bug Key Sr Number 121181 1940,s Model W/ CaseBrazil Classic Telegraph (129)Brazil Classic Telegraph (123)Brazil Classic Telegraph (125)Early Maritime Morse Telegraph KeyBrazil Classic Telegraph (127)Vintage Vibroplex Amateur Ham Radio Telegraph Key Keyer Bug Serial Morse CodeCanada, Excellent Telegraph Stamps Hinged On PagesGreat Britain 1876 Telegraph £1 Brown. Faults Spacefiller 'specimen' (jy258)Vibroplex Grey Based Blue Racer Deluxe Semi-automatic Telegraph Key Bugs SpeedOld Vibroplex Telegraph Morse Code Key Original Standard Model, Ham Radio Lot #1Needle Telegraph Key By Baird & TatlockRestored J-38 Telegraph Key- Oak Wood Base- Vintage- Ham Radio- Cw- Morse CodeOld Vibroplex Telegraph Morse Code Key Champion Model, #264788, Ham Radio Lot #2Brown Bros Brothers Btl Iambic Keyer Paddle Key + Pigtail Telegraph Cw Ham RadioLot Of 2 Lionel Ww Ll J-38 Morse Code Telegraph Keys U.s. Army Signal Corps Vibroplex Morse/telegraph Key/bug? #61627. Used. Vintage Ham Radio.Western Electric Rare Morse Code Telegraph Sounder Repeater For Key KeyerSarawak Classic Mnh Telegraph A10048Ww 2 1940 Us Army Signal Corps Morse Code Telegraph Key Bug J-36 Vibroplex WwiiVintage Prewar Lionel Telegraph Line Set See More This Week!Western Union Railroad (not Telegraph) 1876 PassAlfred Vail Morsecode Telegraph Key, 1807 - 1859, S/n 60Rare Vintage Original Mcelroy Telegraph Morse Code Ham Tube Radio Hand Key ArmyGreat Britain 1876 Telegraph 6d Grey 'specimen' Hinged Mint (jy264)Rare!! American District Telegraph Company (illinois) Employee Badge. Must See!Ironmind Titan's Telegraph Key Iron MindGreat Britain 1876 Telegraph 4d Sage Green 'specimen' Block (4) L.h.m (jy263)Great Britain 1876 Telegraph 1s Green Plate 8 'specimen' Hinged Mint (jy262)Panama Colombia Classic Cover Telegraph Barranguilla A10172Vintage Enamel American Telephone & Telegraph Co South CaliforniaClassic Telegraph Western Australia A10043Radio Telegraph Terminal Aor Ar-501 (ham Rtty Cw Teletype)Morse Code Telegraph Sounder J.h. BunnellOld Brass Telegraph Morse Code Key, Model #0590,ham Radio Lot #5Classic Telegraph Great Britain A10050Wwii Us Army Signal Corps J-38 Telegraph Key Kit Chest Tool Box Sc 480 AVintage Western Electric Telegraph KeyOld J-38 Telegraph Morse Code Key, Composite Base, Ham Radio Lot #4Lionel Prewar 060 Telegraph Pole LotClassic Telegraph Philippines A10152Great Britain 1876 Telegraph 3s Specimen (sg T11s) L.h.m. (jy398)Vintage Pittsburgh Sun-telegraph Paper Tube1907 Hanford Kings California Sprr Depot Telegraph Office Photo Post Card RppcClassic Telegraph Austria A10108Ives 6 Telegraph Poles And 3 Street Lights For RestorationExcellent Condition! Rare! Radio Telephone Telegraph Apparatus Catalog Ca 1919Vintage Wwii Lionel? J-38 Ham Radio Telegraph Key...attic Fresh L@@kVintage/antique J-38 Ham Radio Telegraph KeyJ-36 Signal Corps Us Army Morse Code Telegraph Key, S/n 41Spain Telegraph Stamps Mint And Used (#17610)Great Britain 1876 Telegraph Issue 5s Rose 'specimen' L.h.m. (jy259)J-38 Morse Code Telegraph Key Amateur Ham Radio KeyerClassic Telegraph France A10118Netherlands 1877 Telegraph Stamps (1306)Classic Telegraph Jamaica A10137American Telephone & Telegraph Co. 323 Candlestick Phone W/ Western Elec Dial 1964 Brown Bros Brothers Model St Straight Key Nos Telegraph Cw Ham Radio Exc !!