The Telegraph Office

T. A. Edison of Newark, N.J.

An early 1870's vintage key made in Thomas Edison's shops

by Neal McEwen, K5RW

Copyright © 1996, Neal McEwen

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Thomas Edison is most famous for inventing the light bulb, phonograph and moving pictures. He was granted 1,093 patents for his inventions. A little known fact is that 150 of these patents pertain Edison Keyto telegraph technology. Edison started his career as a telegrapher. At age 15, in 1862, he started work in a small town Western Union office. As his skill grew he moved to higher profile jobs. By 1869 he had positioned himself in the telegraph service and manufacturing business.

The Edison key shown in the photos is representative of keys made in the early 1870s for landline use. Besides being very ornate, there are several interesting electro-mechanical features of this key. Notice that the circuit closing lever does not slide under a leaf spring as we are used to seeing. There is a point on the circuit closing lever and a point under the "anvil" contact. The two points mate and are held in place be a locking mechanism at the pivot point of the circuit closing lever.

Also note the lack of a compression adjustment screw on the conical lever return spring. This indicates an early design. Latter keys had a screw for adjusting the compression of the lever return spring and hence the force that the operator was required to use to depress the lever. The lever on this key is perfectly straight. Earlier keys had a "camelback" or humped design and latter keys had a gently curved lever made of steel such as in the Bunnell Triumph key.

Note the legs on the key. This key was mounted by drilling holes in the table, then tightening the wing nuts to hold the key in place. The required electrical connections are also made via these legs and wing nuts. It is unusual for the legs to remain on a key of this type. Often the legs are sawed off so the key can be used without modifying a table or sawed off such that the key can be displayed flat on a shelf. Edison Key closeup

This key has several markings. On the top of the lever, as seen in the bottom photo is "T. A. Edison, Newark, N.J." Beside it on the lever is "62." This is probably a serial number. However it could also be the mark of the machinist that put it together; this is not uncommon. Let's hope it is a serial number and there are at least 61 more of these keys remain to be discovered.

It is well documented that Edison had a manufacturing plant in Newark, New Jersey where he made stock tickers. This plant commenced operation in 1869. The design of this key and "Newark, N.J." markings suggest that this key was made in the early 1870s. Edison employed 50 men at his "Newark Telegraph Works" during this time period.

Noted telegraph historian, Roger Reinke, has documented that Edison was partners in "Pope, Edison & Co.", 78-80 Broadway, New York, c. 1869, "Edison & Murray" at 10 Ward St., Newark, N.J., from 1869 to 73, manufacturing registers and keys and "Edison & Unger" c. 1873.

It is interesting to note that Edison and Franklin Pope advertised themselves as "electrical engineers" in October, 1869 of "Telegrapher" magazine. This is believed to have been the first use of the term. Pope later become editor of the "Electrical Engineer."

It is also interesting to note that Edison crossed paths with other principals of telegraph history including George Prescott, Charles Williams, Walter Phillips and George Milliken. Edison shared the quadruplex patents with Prescott, Phillips tested the quadruplex technology early on, Milliken gave Edison a telegrapher's job in Boston and Williams leased space in his telegraph instrument shops to Edison early in the inventor's career.

John Heck found this key, a Phelps Am. Tel. register and a very, very old relay. They had been locked away in an abandoned telegraph office in Tipp City, Ohio for 100 years. The local historical society found John and later John and I made a trade. I am quite pleased to have this key in my collection and would consider it one of my top 10 items. 

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Neal McEwen,