Collectors Corner

by Jim Woods


Samuel F. B. Morse has been generally accepted as the inventor of the telegraph. Actually he borrowed ideas from others and came up with the first successful, commercially viable package.

The entire package included keys, printers, batteries, the Morse code and insulators. The first telegraph was demonstrated in Geneva, Switzerland in 1774 by George Louis Lesage. He built a device composed of 24 wires separated from each other by insulators. At the end of the wire was a pith ball which was repelled when a current was initiated on that particular wire. Each wire stood for a different letter of the alphabet. When a particular pith ball moved, it represented a letter.

The first aerial telegraph line was established between Paris and Lille, France in 1793. This was again a multiple line with each wire representing a separate letter. The first commercial telegraph was a line in 1838 built between London and Birmingham, England. The first commercial line in France was between Paris and Rouen in 1844. The first line in the U.S. was built by Morse in 1844 between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore.

Early systems included a register (printer) which marked the dots and dashes on a paper tape. It was soon discovered that telegraph operators could read the letters from the clacking sound made by the register. Soon, a sounder was developed that produced a loud clacking sound and messages were written down by ear. Early on, telegraph lines were built across the countryside but it was soon discovered that lines were hard to reach for repair in adverse weather. This led to the adoption of the telegraph for railroad business and eventually to it being used to send switching orders. The first switching order is attributed to an experiment made by the New York and Erie Railroad in 1851. After that time all their switching orders were conducted by telegraph with other railroads soon following suit.

The end of commercial telegraph in the U.S. came in the early 1970s. It is still required aboard ships. The government no longer requires Morse Code for all ham radio licenses so it, too, is rapidly becoming a lost art.

Telegraph instruments and related materials are very collectible and early examples are very rare. There is an international organization composed primarily of retired railroad and telegraph company operators, ham radio operators and telegraph historians called the Morse Telegraph Club. There is a local chapter in Galesburg which meets twice a year. Information on the club can be gotten from John M. Barrows, 415 South Rife, Dillon, MT 59725 or e-mail to:

Next month I will get into collectible telegraph instruments and related materials. For questions and comments, please write Jim Woods at the Zephyr, PO Box One or e-mail

Web page created: October 10, 1996
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