The Telegraph Office

"An Unusual Artifact from the


by Neal McEwen, K5RW

Copyright © 1997, 2001, 2004 Neal McEwen

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Although the item shown below isn't a piece of wireless hardware, it is nonetheless part of the legacy of wireless telegraphy and  a different kind of wireless collectable.   Without seeing and feeling the image below, you would never know that it is an ink blotter.

Before the age of ball point pens, there were fountain pens.  After writing on paper, it took a time for the ink to dry.  If you needed the ink to dry quickly or you wanted to prevent an ink run, you carefully laid an ink blotter over the text or signature.  Blotters were made of thin absorbent cardboard and were a convenient and inexpensive way to advertise.  Advertising blotters were commonly used by banks, department stores, and other businesses.  The Tidewater Wireless Telegraph Co. surely found this a convenient way to advertise also.

Very little is written about the Tidewater Wireless Telegraph Co.  However, by examining the information printed on the blotter, a little insight can be gained into how Tidewater and other wireless service companies conducted their business.

What is the vintage of this blotter?   The blotter was given to me by a former sparks who was on Navy and merchant ships from 1917 to 1941.

The 1914 "Amateur Wireless Handbook" list of ship and shore call signs shows "WNW" assigned to the 'S.S. San Ramon.'  Marconi's 1918 Yearbook shows "WNW" assigned to 'S.S. San Ramon, operated by the San Ramon Steam Ship Company.  Only two coastal stations in Philadelphia are shown in the Marconi Yearbook, the Navy's "NAI" and Marconi's WHE.  A 1922 Bureau of Navigation call sign list likewise shows "WNW" assigned to the 'San Ramon.'  The 1943 ITU call sign listing shows "WNW" as Philadelphia Radio.  This likely denotes a name change for Tidewater and not a reassignment of the call sign.

Therefore, the date of this blotter can reasonably be established to be after the call sign "WNW" was reassigned and before Tidewater changed its name from Tidewater Wireless Telegraph to Philadelphia Radio -- anywhere from 1923 to the early 1940's.

The Tidewater Wireless Telegraph Co. seems to have operated only the one station in Philadelphia.  A 1944 map of coastal radio stations open to public messages in the 600 meter to 750 meter band shows 28 stations.  Tidewater has only "WNW" and is a loner among stations operated by giants RCA, MacKay Radio, Tropical Radio and Globe Wireless.Atlantic coastal stations, 1944

Not much else is known about the Tidewater Wireless Telegraph Co.  However, in 1933, A. L. Frankenfield, ex 3AK, in a letter to the Franklin Institute's Communications Section mentions "WNW."   He details building a high power synchronous rotary spark gap transmitter for his amateur station.  Frankenfield states that it was one of the best transmitters in the area and was known by others as the "The Stone Crusher."  When  spark transmission was banned for amateur use, Frankenfield sold the transmitter to Tidewater Wireless Telegraph Co.  It was used at "WNW" located at Delaware and Oregon Avenues in Philadelphia 24 hours a day for over a year.  When "WNW" obtained a tube transmitter, Tidewater's owner, Donald Haig gave the spark transmitter back to Frankenfield with high praises for its service.

Notice the use of French in the advertisement -- "Communiqué Rapide."  French was an international language of wireless operators as it was for diplomats and academics of the same time period.  Voice distress signals "MAYDAY," "PAN," and "SECURITY" are all derived from the the French words,  "m'aider," "panne," and "sécurité," meaning "help me," "accident," and "safety."

Also note the use of the French word "Centimes".  "Centime" is 1/100th of a Franc or a 'cent'.  The international monetary exchange unit for ships and wireless stations was "Gold Francs".  There were never any "Gold Francs" coined; this was merely a means for quoting or billing message rates.  For many years the conversion was approximately three "GF's" per U.S. Dollar.  The Marconi Yearbook of 1918 shows the per word rate for all land and shore stations in Francs.

The charge for a radiotelegram was calculated by the number of words in the message or a minimum charge.  The total charge was summed from several parts: 1.) the "coast charge," which accrued to the coast station, 2.) the "ship charge," which accrued to the ship's station, 3.) the charge for transmission over telegraph land lines or submarine cables to the final destination, and 4.) the charge, if any, for relay by a ship or coastal station.

Ships were required to carry information regarding coastal station rates, but could ask a coastal station for rates if needed.  If a ship was approaching a foreign port, the wireless operator could inquire what the coast charge or "CC" and landline or "LL" charges would be.  The local coastal station would give the operator the rates in "Gold Francs," which he could convert to the ship's currency.  The Q-signal "QSJ" was used to obtain or give rates.  "QSJ NYC" would mean "The charge to be collected per word to New York City is .... Francs, including my internal telegraph charge"

All ships operators were required to keep an 'abstract.'  This was an accounting sheet for each messages sent and received.  It recorded money collected and money due the originating ship, shore station, other radio service companies (for relayed messages) and any other agencies involved in the message delivery.  Money generated by messages concerning official ship's business was not collected by the radio officer, but billed to the steam ship company.  Only money from personal messages from passengers and crew were collected.  To the right is a pre-W.W.II. abstract from the oil tanker S. S. Cities Service Denver, call sign KDNN.  Double click on the image for a full size view.  Side two of the abstract.

At the end of a voyage, the wireless operator was required to mail the 'abstract' with a money order or check for the money collected to the company controlling the radio service of the ship such as RCA or MacKay.  The accounting department of the radio service company would then pay all entities any money due.  An operator was graded, in part, on the quality of his 'abstracts'. 

Tidewater was charging 52 Centimes per word for the listed destinations served by their arrangements with a local telegraph company, probably Western Union or Postal Telegraph.   There was a surcharge of 15 Centimes for New Jersey and Delaware destinations.  Ships needing to deliver messages to other locations would contact a shore station serving those areas if in radio range.

The "CDE" is an abbreviation for a class of message, meaning coded radiotelegram.  This type of radiotelegram is normally used by the ship's Master in performing shipping company business or is addressed to the Master from the shipping company.  Both the sender and receiver used code books.  A group of letters, that appear to be random, represent a sentence or phrase.  "CDE" prefixed radiotelegrams were delivered at a reduced rate.

There were many other types of message classes including "P", an ordinary radiotelegram, "MSG", a radiotelegram relating to the ship's business, and "OBS", a meteorological radiotelegram originating with the Weather Bureau.  "GOVT" was a official government radiotelegram and had priority over any other types of traffic except "SOS" and other distress messages.  The type of message was part of the message prefix; thus "P" would appear in "prefix" field for an ordinary radiotelegram.  These message types were universal for all wireless service companies.  Double click on the image to the right for a full size view of the radiotelegram.examplbe radtiotelegram

Notice the "1944" after "Keystone, Main".  This is not a date, but part of a telephone number. "Keystone" and "Bell" are no doubt competing phone companies; "Main" and "Fulton" are probably the telephone exchanges.  These telephone numbers were called to originate a message from Tidewater.

The "Normal Calling and Listening Wave 600 Meters" is a wavelength, which translates to 500 kilohertz,  that was reserved for message traffic calling and for distress signals until just a few years ago.  Tidewater, as did other wireless companies, listened for calls on 600 meters, then moved off frequency to pass the traffic. Ships would likewise listen for the coastal stations to see if there was any traffic for them.  Coastal stations routinely broadcast a list of ship's call signs for which they had traffic.

This blotter was used as a bookmark in a book given to me by  Harry R. Lord, ex 8WY.   He and his brother Bruce had a state of the art amateur wireless station in Cambridge Springs, Penn. before and after W.W.I.  I am grateful that Harry choose to give me this unique wireless collectible, and with it, the opportunity to find out more about wireless service companies. (Harry made seventeen trips to Europe during W.W.I. as the radio operator of a troop ship; his wireless stories were spell binding.)

Thanks to John Alcorn, Donna Halper and Mark Dittmar for supplying call sign references for "WNW".  And a special thanks to Jack Lally, former radio officer and operator at coastal station "WSL" and David Ring, former radio officer, for reviewing this article and making suggestions.


Frankenfield, A. L. How I Built a Rotary Gap Spark Transmitter.  Letter to Franklin Institute, reprinted Old Timer's Bulletin, Vol. 26. No. 1, Antique Wireless Association, 1985.

Redwood, Ray. QTC (I have a message for you). Austin, Texas: Sequoia Press, 1989.

Strichartz, M. H. Marine Radio Manual. New York: Cornell Maritime Press, 1944

The Year-Book of Wireless Telegraphy & Telephony 1918. London: The Wireless Press, LTD., 1918.

Warren Reese. Email to Neal McEwen, 26 May 2001.  Discussion of international monetary exchange standard for ship and shore stations and discussion of arrangement of shore stations with landline companies.  (Warren Reese was an operator at the now silent coastal station "KPH.")

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Neal McEwen,