THE ERA OF MORSE TELEGRAPHY
BY ARTHUR W. GRUMBINE
Had it not been for the necessity of controlling operation of trains by telegraphy it would not have been economically practical to serve other than the largest cities with telegraphic communication. The railroad telegrapher provided that link.
In the smaller villages the telegrapher not only was the official station master, yard master, freight agent, express agent, ticket agent and janitor, but sometimes he also resided with his family on the second floor of the station- a complete establishment under one roof. He was highly respected.
At railroad telegraph towers located in strategic places across the Great Plains, sometimes isolated hundreds of miles from civilization, the lonely telegrapher in early days of railroading had encounters with Indians who were opposed to the rails, and train robbers who had other motives in mind. His food and other necessities were dropped off by passing trains. The only songs ever written eulogizing this hero were written by the coyotes, rattlesnakes, and howling winds.
Prior to 1883 everybody had to depend upon the accuracy of their sundial to set their pieces. TOSS THAT AROUND IN YOUR SALAD BOWL FOR A WHILE- That was a mere 100 years ago when Morse telegraphy changed the sundial into an attractive ornament to decorate the lawn.
Through arrangement with the U.S. Naval Observatory, Western Union inaugurated a nationwide correct time service in 1883 by sending time signals over its own and railroad wires, by Morse code, directly from the observatory in Washington, D.C.
Regular telegraph service was interrupted on assigned wires for a few minutes at noon every day while the word TIME was repeated over and over again, followed by a short pause. Then, at precisely twelve noon, a single dot was sent, thus disseminating exact standard time to every city and village across the nation.
Western Union had over 130,000 subscribers in industry, business places, and jewelry shops to its time service by the late 1920s. Large pendulum type Master Clocks placed in central locations were corrected manually by the telegrapher from the daily TIME signal. The Master Clocks automatically corrected the subscriber's clocks every hour mechanically through a wire hook-up.
The pinacle in telegraphy was reached by working in the press, brokerage, or large commercial offices where continuous operation at high speed was essential.
On heavyload wires the operator sent telegrams with one hand while he simultaneously wrote notations on them with his other hand. The receiving operator counted the number of words in his head while typing them at high speed without stopping to do so. It was imperative that he received the correct number of words in each telegram as indicated in the headline. He averaged approximately 60 messages per hour.
It was not too uncommon for an operator to hold a short conversation with someone while either sending or receiving by Morse code.
Press telegraphers made use of a system of hundreds of abbreviations known as the Phillip's Code. For example, if he sent by Morse code "IWR TT T SCOTUS YA CFMD" the receiving operator at the distant office would have typed in full "IT WAS REPORTED THAT THE SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES YESTERDAY CONFIRMED." The Phillip's Code was used only for press stories and not permitted for sending commercial telegrams.
In early years delivery of a telegram to a private residence was always dreaded for it usually announced the death of a loved one. Introduction of singing telegrams and prepared stock greeting suggestings soon overcame that belief, and use of telegrams for all social occasions became extremely popular. During the Christmas and Easter Holidays the lines were swamped with greeting messages requiring extra help and overtime to handle the load.
There never had been before Morse telegraphy, and there never will again, be such an opportunity to witness the inner thoughts and doings of all humanity as it was openly exhibited only to the telegrapher.
Few people today realize that election returns, World Series games, prize fights, etc., were transmitted by Morse code to large public gatherings in front of newspapers, in city squares, auditoriums and clubs, where results were posted on huge blackboards or other devices, making changes as things progressed. There was no other means of communication then, except the newspapers, and even they too had to depend upon telegraphy to get their out of town news. Morse code was used then like television and radio are used today to cover all important events.
The telegrapher was always where the action was in war or peace. He, along with his wire crew were always one of the first on the scene at disasters- floods, tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes, on the battlefield- to establish communication with the outside world and so that organizations like the Red Cross and the Salvation Army could function properly. Also to provide press service for the newspapers.
All of the above was in addition to the tremendous volume of regular telegrams- business, government, and social. It was a fabulous institution of mammoth proportions, but, because of its remarkable influence on progress in all walks of life, it also hastened its own demise. The telephone and other modern sophisticated methods of communication eventually buried it in their dust. As a result, the telegrapher is no longer on the endangered species list. He has already crossed over the Great Divide and only his fading shadow lingers along the far horizon, his work well done.