The Telegraph Office

 George M. Phelps.

Troy, Williamsburg and New York City

An early significant telegraph instrument maker, 1855 - 1871

by Neal McEwen, K5RW

Copyright © 1997, Neal McEwen

Telegraph Office Main Page

George M. PhelpsGeorge M. PhelpsGeorge M. Phelps is noted by historians as a major contributor to the development of printing telegraphs and as the long time technical director of Western Union Telegraph Co. Phelps also manufactured telegraph keys and associated instruments. Key collectors who have seen keys and other instruments produced by Phelps, will certainly agree with James D. Reid's (premier 19th century telegraph historian) observation of 1879, " The apparatus manufactured under his [Phelps] supervision is noted for elegance of design and the superiority of its performance. In beauty and excellence of finish, the products of his establishment are unexcelled by any of the world's celebrated workshops." These statements certainly describe Phelps keys, relays and registers. The statements also extend to his other telegraphic contributions, namely printing telegraph systems of the 1850s, 60s and 70s. (Double click on either of the sounder pictures to the right for a full sized image.)

George M. Phelps was born in Watervliet, New York in 1820. As a youth he went to work for his uncle who made Gerge M. Phelps, c. 1870smathematical instruments. By 1852, he had shown much original thought in solving problems with telegraph instruments. Though best known for his numerous contributions to telegraphy, Phelps also contributed to paper making machinery, bank locks, time regulators and electric motors. There is implied evidence that Phelps may have been a business associate of Cyrus Field of Atlantic Cable fame and his brother Matthew Field in a paper mill in the mid to late 1830s.

During the 1850s, the Morse system of telegraphy was in competition with the Bain chemical system and the House printing system. Phelps' first business endeavor appears to be as Phelps and Dickerman in Troy, New York, building the House printing telegraph instruments. In 1855, David Hughes, a music professor, designed a new printing telegraph system. The Hughes system was purchased by newly formed American Telegraph Company, a Western Union competitor, and given to Phelps for refinement. Experts of the times believe that without the improvements of Phelps, the Hughes system would never have been commercially viable. George Prescott states wholesale revisions were made by Phelps.

In 1856, recently organized American Telegraph Company purchased the Phelps and Dickerman shops and made Phelps plant superintendent of its most significant manufacturing operation. Some early relays and registers made by Phelps bear his name as well as "Am. Tel. Co." Western Union purchased American Telegraph Company following the Civil War in 1866 and positioned Phelps as superintendent of the mechanical department, first in Troy, later in Williamsburg and finally in New York City. It seems logical that instruments bearing the mark "Am. Tel. Co." would predate the merger. Post merger instruments bear the Phelps name as well as "W. U. Tel. Co., New York" or simply "W. U. Tel. Co." as shown in the detail of the sounder image above. Registers of later design also bear a serial number.

Phelps continued to work on printing telegraph systems for many years with full support from Western Union management who sought any competitive advantage. (Western Union also employed inventors Thomas Edison, Elisha Gray, Joseph Stearns and David House for competitive advantage.) Phelps was paid $20,000 by Western Union for the patent on an improved printing telegraph. He also developed stock quotation printers or 'tickers' as they are more commonly called. In the mid 1870s, Western Union's president William Orton assigned Phelps to experiment with the harmonic telegraph in hopes of extended it to a working telephone.

Phelps is most highly praised by this contemporaries. Reid features only three inventors in his book, Phelps, Edison and Gray. William Orton described Phelps and Edison as the leading "electro-mechanicians" in the telegraph industry. Henry Fischer and William Preece referred to Phelps as "one of the most eminent electrical mechancians of the day." George Prescott described him as an "ingenious mechanic and able electrician."

The big and beautiful Phelps camelback keys date from the early to mid 1860s. In Prescotts's landmark book History, Theory and Practice of the Electric Telegraph, of 1866, there is an engraving of a Phelps key. Prescott states that the key "represents the latest and most approved form of the Morse key, manufactured by G. M. Phelps, of Williamsburg, New York, for the American Telegraph Company." There is little doubt that Prescott is making reference, in part, to Phelp's innovation of an adjustable lever return spring.

Early keys had a simple leaf spring to return the lever to the resting position. The exaggerated hump of early camelback keys placed the center of gravity behind the fulcrum and helped return the lever. In 1850, Morse's assistant Thomas Avery introduced the coil spring to return the lever to the resting position. However, the compression on the spring was not adjustable. With the innovation of the coil spring, it was no longer necessary to have the exaggerated hump.

In 1860, Phelps took the lever return spring innovation on step further; he added a tension adjustment screw to the spring. The spring was a 'safety pin' type spring rather than the coil spring. This afforded more precise control over the lever return force. Concurrently, he changed the shape of the lever to achieve better balance.

Many Phelps telegraph instruments have survived the years. Needless to say, they are held in high regard by collectors, for the Phelps keys a truly works of art. There are few who would disagree with James Reid's description above.

Special thanks to Greg Raven and Tom Perera for permission to link to photos on their web sites. You may visit their telegraph related sites from the Telegraph Office home page.


Carter III, Samuel. Cyrus Field: Man of Two Worlds

Israel, Paul. From Machine Shop to Industrial Laboratory: Telegraphy and the Changing Context of American Invention, 1830 - 1920. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Josephson, Matthew. Edison: A Biography. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959.

Moreau, Louise R. The Story of the Key. Morsum Magnificat. 1987, 1988, 1989.

Prescott, George B. History, Theory and Practice of the Electric Telegraph. Fourth Edition, Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1866.

Prescott, George B. Electricity and the Electric Telegraph. New York: Appleton, 1877.

Reid, James D. The Telegraph in America. New York: Derby Brother, 1879.

Reinke, Roger. American Telegraph Instrument Makers, 1837 - 1900. 1986.

For more information, visit the Telegraph Office home page

Neal McEwen,