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    

1875 Partrick & Carter Telegraph Key & Sounder * Antique Bug * Original & NiceBrown Bros. Model Btl Electronic Telegraph Key Keyer Paddle BugVintage Vibroplex Deluxe Lambic Model Morese Code Telegraph KeyVibroplex Standard Telegraph Key Vibro Keyer1906 Horace Martin Vibroplex Telegraph Key - Railroad / Western Union OperatorC. Williams Miniature Morse Code Telegraph KeyLot #2: 11 Original Lionel Telegraph Poles, 9 Track Clips. No Reserve.Antique Ham Amateur Tube Radio Telegraph Key Morse Code Russian?Lot #1: 6 Original Lionel Telegraph Poles, With Track Clips. No Reserve.Antique Bunnell 150 Ohms Telegraph Key & Ghegan M L B&o Rr Sounder Good & OldJ-38 Wwii Era Morse Code Telegraph KeyVintage Morse Code Telegraph Ham Key Made In JapanKent Preston England Model Pr46by Telegraph Key Keyer Paddle Bug6 Original Lionel 'o' Gauge Telegraph Poles, With Track Clips. Nice! No Reserve.Vintage Wwii Us Army J-37 Telegraph Key Mounted On J-44 BaseAntique Vintage "lightning Bug" 1929 Vibroplex Telegraph Key Morse Code HamTelegraph Morse Code Key Estate FineVintage Ameco K4 Morse Code Telegraph Key Good To Excellent Condition Clean Nice 1916 Vibroplex Telegraph Key, S/n 56926 1926 Vibroplex Telegraph Key, S/n 100826Lot Of 3 - Antique Morse Telegraph Keys - Parts Or RepairVintage Hi-mound Hk-708 Black Morse Code Key Ham Amateur Telegraph In Box, GreatVintage Military Comm. Device Vibroplex The Original Deluxe Bug Telegraph KeyRare Vintage Wwii Us Army Signal Corps Telegraph Set Tg-5-b 1914 Manhattan Mesco Manual & Catalog Spark Radio Wireless Telegraph Detector ++Electric Mfg Co Troy Ny Telegraph Key Double Button Brass Bakelite Old AntiqueVintage Vibroplex Lightning Bug Morse Code Telegraph KeyWestern Electric / Bunnell Type 6b Miniature Telegraph Key Solid Brass Exc CondVintage Vibroplex Key Case Morse Code Bug Ham Amateur Radio TelegraphNew England Telephone & Telegraph Co Bell Telephone Celluloid Stamp Holder EarlyLegless Telegraph Morse Code Key, Model 108 / Manhattan Elec Supply CoRare 1858 Tiffany & Co Atlantic Telegraph Cable SectionWw2 Era U.s Army Signal Corps Cs-49-a Canvas Carrier For The Telegraph Set Tg-5bVtg 1935 Railroad Railway Communication Telephone Signal Telegraph Catalog #4070Late 1800's / Early 1900's Telegraph / Morse Code Component.Vintage At&t Telegraph Morse Code Key Ham Radio Brass1846 Antique Stampless Cover Letter Phelps N.y. & B. Telegraph, Hartford, Conn.Original Wwii German Code Sending Key -telegraph - Radio -communications DeviceVintage Telegraph Morse Code Key Ham Radio Keyer Sounder TrainsVintage/antique Gamewell Peerless Telegraph Fire Alarm Box Vintage B&o Railroad Antique Telegraph Morse Code Relay SounderAntique Telegraph Sounder Antique "foote Pierson" Legless 2-a Western Union Tel. Co. Morse Telegraph KeyTelegraph Key By L.s.brachBelgium 1895, 10c & 25c Telegraph Stamps On Express Cover From WelkenraedtBrazil.brasil.1899. Telegraph 200r. Mnh. Rhm#t-12.Bunnell-martin Flash Key Type 5-48 Telegraph Ham Radio Morse Code W/carry CaseTelegraph Relay - Weston Electric - Model 30Antique Large "j.h. Bunnell & Co. New York" Morse Telegraph SounderWestern Union Telegraph Call Box 4bCool Vibroplex Telegraph Key Bells & WhistlesTelegraph Practice Book, By John LeeLionel Famous Inventors Series Morse TelegraphAntique Mesco Telegraph Key India Modern 1954 Sg346-347 Centenary Telegraph Set 2 Corner Um CvRca Morse Code Telegraph Key PinGamewell Fire Alarm Signal Bell Call Box Telegraph Telephone Police Old Part Rare! Vintage Chrome Collar Dog Id Tag Boston Mass Telegraph Number! Not RabiesRare 1857 Pre- Civil War Telegram Western Union House Morse TelegraphLionel No. 60 Telegraph Poles