THE ERA OF MORSE TELEGRAPHY
BY ARTHUR W. GRUMBINE
Reminiscing over the 25 years (1917 through 1942) that this writer had worked in all fields of telegraphy-railroad, press, brokerage and commercial-may refresh memories of some of the older folks who had lived through the era of Morse telegraphy, and may bring some surprises to the younger ones who had missed it by only a few years.
The customer was always very much interested in the workings of telegraphy and often asked questions about it. Frequently he stood in amazement watching the telegrapher's work, and wondering how anyone could make any sense out of all that gibberish noise. The big thrill came, however, when the customer witnessed his own message being tapped out in Morse code to some distant office.
The public didn't always realize the limitations of telegraphy. They likened it to the work of a magician. For example, a husky ruddy-complected fellow opened a package at the counter and pulled out a red hunting coat. "I bought this coat by mail order from a company in California and the damn thing is too small. I'm going on a hunting trip next week. I want to get it exchanged by telegraph for a larger size. Mail won't get back in time." He definitely knew it could be done because a friend of his got flowers by telegraph, and they were larger than his coat.
Upon wiring seven dollars, a well dressed gentleman in all sincerity remarked, "You know, how that money gets through those thin wires has always been the eighth wonder in the world to me."
Back in the days of prohibition it was quite common for bootleggers to enter the office late in the evening and pile three to five thousand dollars, mostly in small bills, on the counter to be telegraphed. This had to be counted in full view from the street. There never was any mistake in the amounts handed to me, nor were there any holdups. HOW THINGS HAVE CHANGED!
|"Can you please telegraph Beauregard to my sister in Wisconsin?"|
|This cartoon by Arthur Grumbine illustrates nicely the difficulty the public often had in understanding how the telegraph worked.|
A little old lady walked up to the counter with a puzzled look on her face. "I want to send $20.68 to a party in Atlanta. Would you please fill out the blank for me?" When the time came to pay the money, she hesitated, then said, "Perhaps I better only telegraph the twenty dollars and send the change by mail or it might get lost in all those wires when you telegraph it."
A curvaceous elderly spinster, bundled in a rabbit-fur coat with frightening tiger stripes, handed me a message enclosed in an envelope. "I want to send this to a gentleman in Chicago. He must get it tonight without fail. " When I attempted to remove the note from the envelope, she shouted, "YOUNG MAN! DON'T YOU DARE READ THAT MESSAGE! IT'S NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS! " She snatched it from my hands in a wild rage. After considerable explanation how a telegram must be transmitted she finally agreed that I may look at it, but also begged that I tell no one about it. It turned out to be a short sweet love note, signed-X X X X YOUR DARLING TOOTSIE.
Those little adventures with the customer at the counter, all of them true, are but a mere sampling of things that took place frequently in telegraph offices across the land. They were the exotic "spices" sprinkled among the huge volume of telegrams regularly handled by the telegrapher, many of which were a top secret nature.
Then too, there were some very sad and tragic moments. A telegram was received, reading, "BY THE TIME YOU GET THIS TELEGRAM I WILL HAVE COMMITTED SUICIDE."
It was amazing how some people didn't hesitate in the least to say or do things by telegraph that could have imprisoned them very quickly, but they felt secure in doing so, for even the police could not demand to read a telegram without a court order.
Telegraph offices were virtual beehives and as commonplace to everyone as the post office. Western Union, through railroad wire connections, reached more than 20,000 communities. The Postal Telegraph Company served over 1,000 cities. Many branch offices were scattered in the larger cities and suburbs.
Telegraphy was the only means of rapid communication until introduction of the telephone. Telephones were relatively rare in private homes until after World War II, and then usually only for business related use. Frequently telegrams were sent notifying non-subscribers of telephone service to "PLEASE GO TO A NEARBY TELEPHONE AND ASK FOR OPERATOR #-- A PARTY WISHES TO SPEAK WITH YOU BY TELEPHONE." Add that to your salad bowl. That was little more than a generation ago.
It was Morse Telegraphy that got the WHEELS OF PROGRESS rolling for the first time in all history by its LIGHTNING SPEED communication. Then later, along came the telephone, followed by television and computers in close succession. We are running out of time between these gigantic changes. More handwriting on the wall suggest that other bigger achievements are on the way. What's next?
Perhaps it's time that we pause a bit and give some serious thought to the significance of those famous words of "WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT !" which were tapped out in Morse code heralding the World's very first high speed method of cross country communication. So much of what we have today is the result of the progress generated by the ERA OF MORSE TELEGRAPHY. All progress would have been infinitely delayed without it.
The tremendous flow of commercial, social, and government telegrams, all wide open to the eyes of the telegrapher, furnished him with a sort of crystal ball in which to witness the internal affairs of the whole world.
It seems strange that a large number of famous people and executives of industry and the railroads, were at one time Morse Telegraphers, some without any formal education. Apparently telegraphy had provided them with a unique type of education not found in schools or textbooks.
Andrew Carnegie, Thomas A. Edison, Richard W. Sears, founder of Sears Roebuck & Co., David Sarnoff, of RCA-NBC, Gene Autry, and Chet Huntley, are among a long list of famous people who at one time were telegraphers.
The great book-THE ERA OF MORSE TELEGRAPHY-is closed, never again to be re-opened. The legendary "TELEGRAPHER" transmitted millions upon millions of its pages. We can all be very proud to have participated in such an important and unique phase of history. It was a wonderful experience.