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    

Antique New England American Telephone & Telegraph Porcelain Flange Sign, NrWwii Australian L.g Cohan Simplex Auto"bug"telegraph Morse Code Key Keyer, RadioCloverleaf Frame Vibroplex Blue Racer Telegraph Speed KeyAmerican History: Gamewell Police Telegraph Call Box Antique !local Pickup Only!1858 Original Segment Transatlantic Telegraph Cable Tiffany & Co. Mark NrAntique C.1880 Wien Morse Telegraph Embosser W. Telegraph KeyVintage Vibroplex Telegraph Morce Code Key Decoder Keyer,radio CommunicationVibroplex Deluxe Red Bug No 237735 Vintage Ham Radio Telegraph KeyAntique Telegraph Key Vibroplex No.98902 Cast Iron Base 8" X 3 1/2" Vintage Telegraph Military Pmg Post Office Etc Morse Code Key Keyer, Wood BaseVibroplex Junior Telegraph Speed Key With Fulton St. LabelVibroplex Original Telegraph Speed Key With Fulton St. LabelVibroplex Original Telegraph Speed Key With WedgeVintage Postal Telegraph Bichronous Clock Art Deco 20" Hammond Air Force Army McVintage Vibropolex Bug Telegraph Ham Radio Morse Code Key Serial 135206Vintage Chrome Speed X Morse Code Telegraph KeyLeft Handed Vibroplex Lightning Bug Telegraph Speed Key With Wwii LabelJ.h. Bunnell “dime Key” Telegraph KeyVintage Bunnell Amateur Radio Telegraph Morse Code Key Vintage Bencher Chicago Morse Code Telegraph Paddle KeyVintage Signal Electric Telegraph Key ~ Brass Morse Code Key ~ Menaminee Mich.Vintage Bell Telephone System Sign. Michigan Telegraph Telephone Sign 18" Vintage American Telephone & Telegraph X2 Porcelain Sign Bell System SalvagedWireless Set No. 48 Signal Corps Telegraph KeyVintage British Military W.t. 8 Amp # Iii Telegraph KeyVintage Telegraph Military Pmg Post Office Etc Morce Code Key Keyer, Wood Base2 Dif 1880's Old Erie Railway Railroad Glass Telegraph Insulators W. BrookfieldSkillman Coffin Key Bug - Semi-automatic Morse Code/ Cw Key Telegraph Key1945 Vibroplex Zephyr Telegraph Key3 Neat 1880's Old Cd 104 "pennycuick" Style Glass Telegraph Line InsulatorsWw 2 Era J-44 Telegraph Key (oc752) France Old Stamps Some Telegraph InterestingWw 2 Era British Telegraph KeyVintage Wwii Lionel Morse Code Key J-47 U.s. Signal Corps Military TelegraphTelegraph Key J-38Antique Vintage Telegraph Tri-state Telephone Sterling Silver Souvenir SpoonNikey Design Telegraph Keyer Paddles.Vintage 1895 Jh Bunnell Telegraph Sounder ~ Marked G.n. Ry. Co.-w.u. Tel Co.Unknown Unusual Telegraph Sounder British? Vintage Brass Landline MorseVintage Telegraph Key Model J-37 Wwii Military Ham Radio Cw Morse Code1863 Civil War Death Telegraph Nh 9th Soldier Lt Samuel H Sprague2 Old Aqua Pennsylvania Railroad & Penn Lines West Telegraph InsulatorsWestern Australia State Stamp - 1/- Swan With Telegraph PunctureEarly Leach Break-in Spark Telegraph RelayTaylor Stitch Telegraph Wool Blazer 42 Large Speckled GrayAntique Western Union Telegraph Co. Key And Sounder - W U TelBunnell - Foote, Pierson - Wut Co Telegraph Key & Sounder On Board Pat 2/10/19012 Old Blue Aqua And Lt Aqua Hawley Pa Usa Glass Telegraph Insulators Harloe Ins.Australia 1954 Telegraph Centenary Elusive Cachet Fdc UnaddressedSg163, 1s Orange-brown Plate 14, Used. Cat £160. Telegraph Postmark Kb2 Neat Jade Jadeite Glass American Telephone & Telegraph Co Insulators Cd 121Antique Telegraph Key Jh Bunnell & Co Telegraph Ny Usa1870 Concord & Northern Railroad Pass To Ac? Telegraph Man New Hampshire. NashuaNice Old Ham Radio Brass Steampunk J H Bunnell Railroad Telegraph Sounder Relay 1950's German Military Junkers D.b.g.m Knee Telegraph Key Vg Cond W/cord & PlugAntique J.h. Bunnell & Co. Telegraph Key Receiver Cast Iron-wooden Base 1897 Gamewell Fire Alarm Telegraph Co Illustrated Postal Cover Fire FightingMauritius Postmark / Cancel "central Telegraph Office" 1926 On 10c SurchargeHarriet Roudebush Signed Etching, Bay Bridge From Telegraph Hill San FranciscoAntique Trade Card Dozier-weyl Crackers St. Louis Parrot Up Telegraph Pole Folks