K3WWP's Ham Radio Activities
When you are through reading this page, close this window to return to the Stories index - or - click here to go to my home page if you came here from elsewhere.

Ed - AL7N

When I was a young feller, somehow I became interested in the Morse telegraph. I don't know rightly why, but something about those strange clicking devices down at the railroad depot caught my attention, and fascinated me from an early age. The men (and women) who operated it and understood the peculiar clattering language of the Morse instruments seemed bound together by some strange bond quite unlike any other group of people.

My curiosity was aroused to the point that I decided I would also learn this strange language, and profession. It didn't come easy or rapidly. I would go to any telegraph office around when I was a kid, and listen to the chatter of the Morse sounders, trying to understand what they were saying. I got thrown out of more than one railroad telegraph office as a pest in those early days. But the fascination remained. I managed to teach myself the old original Morse wire code, and eventually scrounged some real Morse telegraph instruments and other equipment with which to practice and continue learning. I also kept listening to any wire I could overhear. In those days circa 1950-1960, there were still plenty of telegraph offices that had working Morse wires, and it was possible to get this kind of practice. One day, strangely enough, it all began to make sense, and from that day on, I have been able to "read" what was coming over the wire.

To be sure, there were operators whose sending I could not read, and speeds that were beyond my ability sometimes, but gradually, I got so I could read most any normal wire working at speed, and it was and is as plain as print to me. To this day, Morse is just like a "voice" speaking to me. I do not hear the clicking and clacking, I hear what "the wire" is SAYING.

Eventually, this led to employment with a railroad company, and that employment enabled me to complete my education, with an Electrical Engineering Degree, which in turn allowed me to continue my employment in the telecommunications field throughout my life. Some of this employment actually was as a telegraph operator.

As to the profession of "Telegrapher" during the period 1860-1960, one doesn't have to delve very far into any of the history of the period to find out that the Morse telegraph followed the settlement of the western United States to every corner of the land. The continent was spanned by a single telegraph wire in 1861, which put the famous Pony Express out of business overnight.

Actually, the Pony Express was in reality acting as a temporary "bridge" between where the telegraph wires already ran, and existed primarily to carry telegrams between these points, where they could be relayed via wire to their destinations. Also, wherever a railroad went, so went the Telegraph wire alongside it. This was usually mandated in the construction charter of the railroad companies as telegraph service was a requirement in order to acquire the Federal land grants for the right of way.

Mining camps, almost as soon as it was apparent that they would develop any size at all, were quickly linked by telegraph wire to the rest of civilization. The wire was hastily strung to the place, and the operator arrived with his instruments in a box, a tent and a bedroll and was set up for operation immediately. The wire would be available for business just as soon as the instruments were connected, and a ground rod driven. If you stop and think about it a little, it was something vital to the growth of such a place.

Back then, there were no telephones, no television, no radio, nor any other rapid means of corresponding over any distance. If you needed or wanted to correspond with someone in another town or distant part of the country, you could send a letter, which would be carried by horseback, stagecoach or steamboat, and might get where it was going in a week or two. Then you waited a similar amount of time for an answer. Or, you could travel there yourself, again spending perhaps days or weeks enroute. Businesses trying to operate faced huge problems with supply - stores had to order goods; mines had to order supplies and machinery; banks had to handle money, and all this was extremely hard to do when it took days or weeks to get a letter over the road to and from other places.

The telegraph changed all this immediately on its arrival. It brought a means of comparatively instantaneous communication with almost anywhere, and as such, had an immediate and profound effect on the general commerce of any area it reached. It also brought a means of standardizing the time of day. With the telegraph, clocks and watches could be synchronized manually or electrically anywhere the wires reached. This was important to the operation of the railroads especially.

After it's invention and perfection in the late 1840's. the Morse telegraph was THE prime method of rapid communication all across the country until well into the twentieth century. Soon the entire nation was criss-crossed with iron telegraph wires in all settled areas. One reason the Morse telegraph expanded as it did, and stayed in operation as long as it did, was the fact that it was a stone-simple technology that required little in the way of equipment, and it was RELIABLE. That reliability had a lot to do with the people who operated it.

The term "Brasspounder" originated because the telegraph key or sending device was made out of brass, and the people who operated it pounded out the messages in Morse code, letter by letter. Telegraphers were also called "Lightning Slingers", probably because electricity in general was not well understood by common people. Origin of this term could have come from two different ideas: The speed of telegraphic communication was so rapid, compared to other methods, it seemed to be "lightning" fast. Also, Lightning, the real kind that strikes things, makes a bright flash, and lots of noise, was often attracted to telegraph wires strung on the pole lines, and this may have had to do with the term as well. Telegraphers worked with electrical things. Lightning was electrical, so the connection was easy to make by the lay person.

The man or woman who was a telegrapher in any small or large community held a rather unique place in the doings of the place. It was he or she who first became aware of any "news" from outside the immediate area. Word of important events reached the telegrapher's ear first, before anyone else in the community. This put an extremely heavy responsibility on these individuals, as it was imperative that they kept what they knew to themselves as they delivered their messages to the rightful recipients. While there were some instances of telegraphers breaking this "code" of conduct, they were relatively rare. For the most part, telegraphers kept their profession on the highest levels of ethical conduct.

An example of this is shown in the story of two men in a small-town telegraph office, a manager, and the "trick man" or shift operator manning the instruments. A short message came over the wire, coded urgent, that was addressed to the local bank manager. The message read: "Do not open tomorrow. Bank examiners will arrive tomorrows train". The manager overheard the message as the operator copied it down - neither man looked at the other, but both men understood the impact this message would have. Shortly, after a period of silence, the manager simply said "Deliver it." And that was that.

Either man could have spindled the message, put on his coat and hat, and gone to the bank to draw out all their money before they delivered the message. But neither man did. Most telegraphers adhered to an unwritten code of confidentiality in just this way. Until 1934, there was no law requiring it.

Telegraphers were also often the only immediate means of summoning aid during disasters. There are many true stories of heroism by telegraph operators during floods, wildfires, earthquakes, and other such happenings, where aid was summoned by brave operators manning the key in the face of extreme danger, sometimes losing their lives in the process.

As our country was settled and the "Wild West" was gradually tamed, the local telegraph operator remained an important member of the community, serving as a vital link or interface between the vast network of wires and clicking telegraph instruments, and the general public that made use of it. The telegraphers handled people's personal correspondence, the good and the not so good, faithfully for nearly 100 years.

The manual Morse telegraph was the only practical means of rapid communication between distant points until well into the 20th century. It was extensively used by railroads, mining companies, oil and gas pipeline companies, banks, brokerage houses, and the newspaper industry for widespread operational control, information transfer, and news dissemination and reporting. It literally reached almost every part of the nation, with large relay offices and hundreds of wires in big cities, to small "Mom and Pop" cubbyhole offices with a single wire in small town railroad stations, hotels and general stores.

Beginning about 1920, the manual Morse Telegraph was eventually and slowly replaced by more mechanized and faster technology, and finally faded away altogether, almost without notice in the early 1970's. Today, it is all but forgotten in the mainstream of life with the internet, widespread universal telephone service, and radio and television broadcasting.

Those people who knew the Morse system, operated it, and spoke it's unique language, have almost all gone on as well, and are now only fading shadows on the far horizon.

Ed Trump, AL7N
A "Brasspounder"

When you are through reading this page, close this window to return to the Stories index - or - click here to go to my home page if you came here from elsewhere.

Valid HTML 4.01 Transitional

Valid CSS