Telegraph Equipment

by Jim Woods

Telegraph equipment, while collected around the world, is a relatively unknown field primarily because of a lack of definitive guide books. Collectors are pretty much on their own to determine rarity and values, which can be really dangerous ground. Some collectors take a "shotgun" approach and collect anything associated with the telegraph or collect a specific area such as equipment, tools, telegrams and forms, signs, batteries or insulators. Equipment can be further broken down into specific manufacturers, speed keys, resonators, etc.

The basic equipment starts with a power source. In the early years this was provided by stationary batteries. The battery container was usually made of glass or porcelain although some were enameled steel similar to graniteware. Most batteries used were wet cell types that used a liquid electrolyte. The liquid base was generally water, which of course would evaporate. Later an oil was used to coat the top of the water, thus preventing rapid evaporation. Battery oil was produced by a number of companies, including one owned by Thomas Edison that also made batteries.

Next is the sending key. A lot of variations were made, but most have a lot of similarity in design. The speed key or "bug" had a vertical key pad and paddle, which, pressed in one direction, gave a series of dots and, in the other, singular dashes. Bug designs varied widely between manufacturers. They were plugged into the switch of a regular key which replaced the use of this key. Railroads generally did not supply bugs to their operators, while telegraph companies often did. Railroad telegraph operators bought their own bugs.

The next early telegraph device, one which soon fell out of favor, was the printer register. It had a spring loaded roll of paper which went through a stylus which was driven by the electric impulses from the key to deliver a dot or dash impression on the paper tape. The message received then was decoded by studying the tape. It was soon learned that operators could "read" the code by listening to the click of the printer stylus. At that point the use and maintenance of the printer register was a waste of time and money and the sounder was developed.

The sounder was designed to give an amplified click so an operator could "read" the message across a room. To further aid the amplification, resonators were developed. A resonator is a boxlike device in which the sounder sat, helping to enhance the noise. Operators found that they could further amplify the noise by slipping an open tobacco tin between the sounder and the rear of the resonator box. A Prince Albert tobacco tin was generally used for this purpose.

Another important piece of equipment was the relay. When battery power was being used, it was important to drain as little power as possible to increase its life. During dry and calm outside conditions, very little power was required to send an adequate signal long distance. However, during wind, rain and snow storms, grounding conditions would occur on the wire, and more power was needed to send the signal. The relay could be adjusted to help power the line up or down.

The last piece of equipment is the pegboard, which is similar in concept to a telephone switchboard. In most telegraph offices there were many outgoing lines that went to other stations or offices. The pegboard provided the means to select a particular line on which to transmit or receive. In large offices with several operators these boards could be fairly large. The largest board I've seen could handle 28 operators, and I suspect there are larger ones.

There were other devices used in telegraphy such as fuses, lightning arresters, terminal blocks, repeating sounders, pocket relays, combination sets, box relays, call boxes and a host of different practice equipment. The first three are hardware to tie together and protect equipment. A repeating sounder allowed the signal to sound out while letting the signal continue ton to the next station or office. A pocket relay was a miniaturized portable key and relay that could be clipped into a line and used at a remote location. A combination set is a key and sounder mounted on a common board. Some combination sets were designed for learning and practice and others designed for mainline duty.

A box relay was a key and relay mounted on a common board which were used for mainline applications. Call boxes were used for several applications. They had a spring loaded gear works which, when wound up, would give a ring which also sent a signal to a receiving unit that produced an alarm. It was used in a telegraph office to alert messengers in the back room that there was a message to be delivered. A subscriber might have one in his business to alert a receiving office of a fire or robbery.

Other collectibles include national Democrat and Republican Convention telegrapher ribbons and badges, uniforms and caps, uniform buttons, advertising, forms, badges, clocks and books. Telegraph operators were used as late as 1948 to transmit news of the political conventions to the newspapers. Western Union was the first to use typewritten teletype. This left a lot of their equipment abandoned. Many of their offices were shared with railroad operators and it's not unusual to find keys, sounders and relays with both the Western Union and railroad marks.

Equipment and other items produced prior to 1900 is getting hard to find and materials prior to 1880 are very difficult, if not impossible, to find.

If you have any questions or comments please write Jim Woods at the Zephyr, P.O. Box 1, Galesburg, IL 61402 or e-mail

Last Modified: November 21, 1996
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