Copyright © 1997, Neal McEwen
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Collecting and studying the history of old telegraph keys and related item is an interesting adjunct to collecting old radios. The first commercial use of the Telegraph predates commercial use of wireless and radio by 60 years. Telegraphy, although gone for thirty years in North America, is still used in other parts of the world. Hence there is an interesting 150 year legacy to be examined and a bountiful trail of artifacts to be discovered.
The Electromagnetic Telegraph was the first practical and commercial use of ElectroPhysics technology and launched two new professions, electrical engineering and telegraph operator. In some cases, there was a crossover. Thomas Edison, the teenage telegrapher, became one of the most recognized scientific figures of the 19th and 20th centuries. Edison and others left a rich legacy of technical innovation and entrepanuership, not to mention, telegraph artifacts.
Many artifacts from even the earliest days of telegraphy remain. Instruments predating the civil war, though not common, can be found. Many, many instruments from the 1870s forward remain and seem to be plentiful. Telegraph instruments of the 20th century are readily available. These remaining artifacts represent the birth and growth of electronic communications.
Telegraph keys were the tools of a trade. Telegraph operators made their living with telegraph keys. They touched their keys and other instruments every day. They toiled long and hard. They sent news, messages of commerce, the outcome of battles, and announced the birth of child or someone's death.
Wouldn't it be fascinating if old keys could talk. What could they tell us about the craftsman that assembled a key, the operator that used it, where it resided, where it has been for the last fifty or more years and what was the most interesting message that it has sent.
Early Telegraph technology and business are well documented. Author's such as Prescott and Reid were documenting the evolution of the Telegraph industry, both the technology and the players, long before the turn of the century. What is not so well documented are the actual keys themselves. Very few records exist of what manufacturers made what model and how many. However, with a little digging into old advertisements, catalogues and patent records, keys can be identified and dated. A trip to a patent library is very entertaining as well as educational.
Telegraph changed the face of a nation and the world. Morse code and the Electromagnetic Telegraph represent the first binary encoding of information that traveled over a network. Morse with partners Vail and Gale demonstrated its commercial viability in 1844. Before the Civil War, a circuit was completed between the East Coast and the West Coast. All Americans knew of the end of the Civil War two hours after the South's surrender. By contrast, a few years earlier, Andrew Jackson fought the battle of New Orleans twenty days after the peace treaty was signed. At about the same time North America and Europe were connected by an undersea telegraph cable. In a few short years, the world became small. Today we have the Information Super Highway.
Every town, however small, had a railroad depot and/or a telegraph office. Before radio, this was a town's connection to the outside world. People would often congregate at the telegraph office for news of an election or to hear a prize fight or ball game called. After radio broadcasting became popular, journeymen telegraph operators relayed news to the broadcast stations.
As with radio, improvement in telegraph technology was made over time. The earliest keys, made of brass and hardwood, though beautiful, were very basic. A refinement here and a refinement there lead to a fairly stable design for manual keys by the 1880s. Yet, as with radio, entrepreneurs tried to invent the better mousetrap. So there are thousands of different keys to collect. I would guess that there are as many different keys to collect as there are different types of battery radios to collect.
Names familiar to early radio collectors also made wireless telegraph keys, commonly referred to as spark keys. Wireless Specialty Apparatus, Clapp-Eastham, Marconi, Independent Wireless, among others come to mind. This type of key is clearly identifiable by the large contacts needed to handle the high current of spark transmitters.
Another name, not associated with radio, though known by every boy of the "baby boom" generation and the preceding generation, is Lionel. During W.W.II, Lionel stopped the manufacture of toy trains to make telegraph keys for the Army. Many, many J-38 keys, marked on the underside with the famous Lionel "L", remain today.
The next time you go to a swap meet and see an old telegraph key, pause for minute. Give yourself a chance to muse, "I wonder how old this thing is? Was it used in a ship's wireless room or in a telegraph office? What does this strange little adjustment do? I wonder who J. H. Bunnell was?........"