The Telegraph Office

Electrical Construction Co., San Francisco

An 1870's Vintage Key Made in California

by Neal McEwen, K5RW

Copyright © 1997, Neal McEwen

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This key is very representative of keys made in the early to mid 1870s for landline use. There are several differences, however. This key is more rugged; overall it is about 30% larger and heavier than keys of the same period. Also notice that the lever, rather than being perfectly straight, steps down to the operator. One collector said it looks kind of like an "upside down camelback."

Larry Monroe, a noted telegraph historian in California, states that the key dates from 1870 to 1877. His CALIFORNIA ELECTRICAL WORKS (successors to E.C.Co.) catalogue, 1880, shows the same key as "No. 1 Key, patent circuit closer........$5.50" The tab that the circuit closing lever slides under is hinged and is under constant pressure from a spring on the opposite end of the tab. This perhaps, was an improvement in keeping the circuit closed during receive periods.

This key has several markings. On the top of the lever, as seen in the bottom photo is "Electrical Construction Co., San Francisco." On the side of the lever is the number "2123," no doubt, a serial number. Can we derive from that the number of these keys made? Probably not.

Note that this key was originally not on the wooden base as shown. It had threaded long rod legs. These legs where used to mount the key to a table in the telegraph office. Wing nuts secured the key and secured the required electrical connections to the key. At some time in the key's history, the legs were sawed off and it was mounted to the wood base shown in the photos. The binding posts were also added at that time. This is not unusual; many keys have lost there legs as they were modified for use elsewhere or made to lie flat on a bookshelf or display case.

On the bottom of the base is a date of 1898. This date is much too late for the date of manufacture for this key. Perhaps it was the date that the key was placed on the base. Yet the laminated wood looks much newer than that. I suspect it is the date that the second or third owner, who also put it on the base, guessed to be the date of manufacture.

My friend Dave found this and another nice key at an estate sale. After several months of negotiation, we both came away happy. Needless to say, I am quite pleased to have this very nice piece in my collection.

Thanks to Larry Monroe and Roger Reinke for helping with information on Electrical Construction Co. and California Electrical Works and information on this particular key. 

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Neal McEwen,