THE ERA OF MORSE TELEGRAPHY
BY ARTHUR W. GRUMBINE
With lightning speed dots and dashes blazed through temporary telegraph wires while President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was delivering his address on October 29, 1936 from the steps of the state capitol at Harrisburg, Pa. The wires were connected with important newspapers across the nation. This writer sent highlights of that address by Morse code directly from the President's platform to "MO" the New York Times' own telegraph department.
Telegraphy was still being used at that fairly late date for newspaper coverage. Television had not yet been introduced. Relatively few people today realize that such an era ever existed, yet it played a most important role in the development of our nation and the world as a whole.
Although Samuel F. B. Morse had proved that his invention was practical by transmission of those famous words "WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT !" on May 24, 1844, it had taken the best part of a decade to put it into use commercially on even a small scale. It had been the first time in all history that communications across country were significantly faster than by foot or horseback. The stagecoach was still used some years later as the only means of communication from outlying places. It often took weeks to learn of disasters, deaths, and other important events.
It may be difficult to visualize, but if it had not been for the era of telegraphy we might still be looking over the horizon today for arrival of the Pony Express to bring us the latest news, and be watching for the cow to jump over the moon instead of already having placed our flag upon it. Telegraphy was the basic forerunner of all modem communications.
The telegrapher sent Morse code by tapping on a small springloaded brass lever, or key, which opened and closed an electrical circuit. In time, a more advanced instrument was developed which made any desired number of dots with one stroke at a higher speed than the conventional key, but each dash had to still be made separately as before. The telegrapher had to purchase his own high speed key which became known as a "BUG." He always carried it with him. A typewriter to him was a "MILL."
Another accessory that became quite popular was the Prince Albert or similar type tobacco can which he frequently attached, or placed in back of the sounder, to give it a more clear-cut "MUSIC TO HIS EARS" sound. It also made it possible to read a particular instrument at a distance when a number of other instruments were operating in a group at the same time. He could then "focus" on it and ignore the others.
The telegrapher was as much a part of the railroad as the ties that supported its rails. Without his services trains could not have moved safely any faster than horse-drawn coaches. All railroads, the vast Western Union and Postal Telegraph Companies, news- papers, brokerage firms, telephone and pipe line companies, and some large manufacturers employed many telegraph operators. It was a major career with higher than average pay, and numbered into many thousands of telegraphers. Telegraphy became the SYMBOL OF PROGRESS.
During 1907 ads appeared asking for thousands of students to learn telegraphy.
"20,000 Telegraphers wanted just to fill the extra positions when the new 8-hour law goes into effect March 1, 1908."
The great demand for the telegrapher everywhere often encouraged him to seek greener pastures in other towns, or in other fields of telegraphy, or perhaps just to enjoy worldwide travel, thus creating the largest shifting, highly skilled, work force ever.
The roving type telegrapher, whether by wanderlust or by request, was known as a "BOOMER." He was most always able to find a job BEGGING for him at the next town in any one of the various fields of telegraphy. There is no need to carry that "BUG" now; and those few telegraphers who are still roaming the earth today are not looking for a job-- for there is none waiting out there for him. Introduction of the automatic teletype machines during the late 1920s was the first hand-writing on the wall that the telegrapher would no longer be indispensible.
Telegraphy was possibly one of the most exotic careers of all time. It really was no different from opening everybody's mail and reading every word of it; then sending the contents across country by a peculiar code system invented by Samuel F. B. Morse. Morse telegraph operators were exceptionally fortunate in having a sort of grandstand seat to watch the whole world perform. The performers ranged from the finest people to the very lowest criminal; from the richest to the poorest; race was no barrier. The acts varied greatly from, birth to death, from comedy to tragedy, and from war to peace. They included industry, transportation, finance, politics, entertainment and society. There was no facet in life that did not show up in some form of telegraphic communication.
Except for press, which was for general public consumption anyway, most of the communications were of a private nature, many extremely secretive. The operator was under bond and had no right to disclose any information or report any wrong doing observed in the contents of a telegram. Even the police had no right to demand reading a telegram except by court order. It is doubtful whether the mails would have contained as much information if opened, yet the telegrapher was up front witnessing all of this take place.
In a sense he was considered to be a sort of mechanism, like the instruments he operated and the insulators that held the wires on the poles, and even just as unrevealing. But how could he unconsciously avoid absorbing some of these experiences and observations; not for divulgence, but for his own guidance in character building, alertness and intelligence? It was much like viewing a cross section of what made the world tick.
Morse code, commonly known as DOTS and DASHES, consists of different combinations of clicks of the brass instruments for each letter of the alphabet, numerals, and punctuation marks. To the untrained ear these slight variations are not apparent and sound much like hail hitting a tin roof, but to the telegrapher it was another language. Operation of the instruments also ex- ercised his brain as communications filtered through it. The operator had to translate telegrams into dots and dashes with precise timing and spacing as he transmitted them electronically to a distant office where the receiving operator re-translated the dots and dashes back into words as he typed them at high speed.
Not all telegrams were written in English. Many were in foreign languages or unpronouncable code. Some firms formulated codes of their own usually composed of five or ten letter words, for example; BQZLM KXGJFXS- MHO. A single dot, or the slightest difference in spacing within the combination of even a single letter, could have changed the meaning with possible result of a serious complaint or even a lawsuit. The operator always had to use his utmost skill and concentration.
It was possible for an operator to identify another by the way he sent code, or analyze his personality even if he had never met him in person. His sensitive touch of the key was not unlike that of a pianist and it dictated the difference between mediocrity and professional artistry. The operator's ears became trained to detect the very slightest differences.