Review - Two Little Books about Telegraphy

by Jim Haynes

  1. Collectors' Reprint of Bunnell Student's Manual of 1884.
    Privately printed by L. A. Bailey
  2. Railroad Telegrapher's Handbook, by Tom French. Artifax Books (out of print)
I found these books advertised in "Dots and Dashes", the quarterly newspaper of the Morse Telegraph Club, Inc.

The "Student's Manual" is a beautiful reproduction of the 1884 original, including the gray cover. J(esse) H. Bunnell & Co. was a leading manufacturer of telegraph instruments in the 19th century and remained in business, doing a lot of contract manufacturing for Western Union, until, I guess, the 1960s or later. In contrast to the reality reported by Edwin Gabler this booklet suggested excellent employment prospects existed for telegraph operators. The first topic covered is the technical explanation of the telegraph, consisting of battery, line wire, transmitting key, and sounder. The battery described in the wet gravity cell, containing copper sulphate and a zinc "crowfoot" electrode. Line wires are usually made of iron, for cheapness and strength; while copper insulated with silk or gutta-percha is used inside buildings. The earth is used as one conductor, so that a single wire may be used per circuit. They key and sounder are described next. Earlier practice was to use a register to record signals on paper tape. After several years of practical telegraphy operators discovered they could read the characters by the sound of the instrument as easily as by looking at the marks on the tape; so registers fell into disuse.

Next the student is instructed in detail how to set up and care for the battery and connect and adjust the instruments. Then he or she is to practice alone sending, practice sending and receiving with a companion, and practice sending and receiving with the companion in another room, or in another house. Several pages are devoted to details of learning the code. This is followed by examples of messages and discussion of common abbreviations and telegraph office practices. The popular amateur radio signal '73', now usually rendered as "best regards", was in use in that day as "accept my compliments." Then there is a discussion of how to construct private lines, and the need for a lightning arrestor. It is noted that the total resistance of the sounders should nearly equal the total resistance of the line wire, showing that the maximum power transfer theorem was known (whether by theory or by trial-and-error) in that day. The book concludes with a catalog of instruments available from J. H. Bunnell, and page of testimonials to the excellence of Bunnell's keys. Keys, sounders, batteries, etc. are all illustrated. The back cover shows the appearance of Bunnell's store and factory at 112 Liberty Street, New York.

The Railroad Telegrapher's Handbook is a newly-written (1991) book that tells all about how Morse telegraphy was used on railroads until nearly the present time. (An article in Dots and Dashes reproduces a train order that was received by Morse in 1982, on the Burlington-Northern, and may have been the last train order so transmitted.) Lists of operating rules are given, presumably taken from the rule books of actual railroads, along with sample train order messages. Railroad telegraphy is a lot more complicated than the ordinary Western Union office. Railroad messages are critical to safety; some messages are not complete until they have been repeated back to the sender, delivered to the addressees, read and signed by the addressees, and the signatures transmitted back to the sender. Most require multiple copies. A railroad operator would write with a stylus on thin, translucent paper, using double-sided carbon paper. Semaphore signals and the hooks for delivering messages to the crews of moving trains are described.

Wiring diagrams are given for an operating table connected to several circuits, and for a Morse repeater. There is a map of the New Mexico Division of AT&SF, showing how various offices are connected to several line circuits. A selector system is described, which allows calling up a particular telegraph office without requiring operators to listen constantly for their office call letters. (Most circuits were "way" operated, meaning that several offices were connected by the same circuit and sounders at all responded to all the traffic on the line.)

The book is made all the more enjoyable with reproductions of advertisements that appeared in trade magazines: typewriters, telegraph instruments, Vibroplex keys, swivel chairs, shorthand instruction, and an attachment to enable a bicycle to be ridden on the railroad rail. The Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad was advertising for operators "able to copy Morse at 25 words per minute, and should be in good physical condition." as recently as 1954. Of considerable interest in this day when we hear so much about repetitive motion injuries and carpal tunnel syndrome, there is an advertisement for Telegrapher Liniment, which never fails where directions are followed implicitly. "Operator's Paralysis or Writer's Cramp comes like a thief in the night, and almost before you are aware of it you find it impossible to send any kind of readable Morse." Another advertisement is for the "Operator's Friend" a massage or exercise device which "prevents and cures telegrapher's paralysis and writer's cramp." The front cover reproduces an artist's illustration from the front cover of a 1904 telegrapher's magazine, showing a young man clad in white shirt, high collar, and vest working at his key while a uniformed trainman waits at his elbow for orders. There are two pages of railroad slang and two pages of bibliography.

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