The Telegraph Office

Charles Williams, Jr., Boston, Mass.

An early significant telegraph instrument maker, 1850 - 1870s

by Neal McEwen, K5RW

Copyright © 1998, Neal McEwen

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Charels Williams shop, 109 Court St., BostonCharles Williams was the most prolific and influential of all telegraph instrument makers in the mid 19th century. Williams' first venture was as Hinds and Williams from 1850 to 1856 at 318 Washington St. in Boston. From 1856 on, the shop was located at 109 Court Street in Boston. An image of the Court Street building is shown at the right. Williams had an electrical shop that manufactured among other items, telegraph instruments. Types of telegraph instruments known to exist from Williams are keys, sounders, registers and KOBs (key and sounder on wood base). It is likely he also made relays. Some of the first fire alarm telegraph equipment was made in Williams' shops.

In the 1850s, Boston was the major American telegraph manufacturing center as well as a center for telegraph invention. Williams had a lot of company. Other instrument makers in Boston during this time were Thomas Hall, Daniel Davis, M. Wightman, N. B. Chamberlain, Moses Farmer and E. S. Ritchie. Most started out as mathematical, optical and philosophical instrument makers but made telegraph instruments as the demand for telegraph services grew. Williams was the most prominent of all the Boston makers, and the number of instruments made by Williams far exceeds the total of the others combined.

Williams supplied parts and apparatus to Thomas Edison, Joseph Stearns (who perfected duplex telegraphy, et. al.), Alexander Graham Bell and other inventors. The advertisement to the right testifies to the nature of Williams' business as a supplier. Edison, as a young inventor, leased space in a corner of the building from Williams before he had his own laboratory. In the December 1868 issue of The Telegrapher, Edison announced his address as "Care of Charles Williams Jr., Telegraph Instrument Maker, 109 Court Street, Boston." It was here, with the aide of one of Williams' employees that Edison built a working model of his first patented (1869) invention, a vote recorder. Charles Williams, Jr. advertisementMoses Farmer, the most prominent telegraph inventor (repeater, call box, of the mid 19th century, had his instruments built in Williams' shop.

The name Charles Williams Jr. is most often associated with the birth of the telephone. Alexander Graham Bell had his laboratory on the top floor of the five story building occupied by Williams. Thomas Watson, Bell's assistant was employed by Williams as a 'mechanic' who built prototype instruments. The first telephone line was strung between the William's shop and William's own house in Somerville three miles away in 1877.

Thomas Watson went to work in the Williams shop in July of 1872 at the age of 18 as a machinist's apprentice. We are lucky that Watson described the operation; this gives us insight into the state of telegraph instrument manufacturing in the early 1870s. Watson reports that Williams employed about twenty five men. There were twenty hand lathes and two engine lathes in addition to hand tools. Brass, steel, lumber and rough castings lay all about. Williams' workers started with raw wood and metal and amidst the shop, there was one tiny office which handled client meetings and the display of apparatus.

Watson disliked making the same instruments over and over so sought to minimize his efforts. He developed what we today call "jigs" or "fixtures" for turning out identical pieces with less work. He became sort of a "key man" (no pun intended) in the shop and survived the ups and downs of Williams' business.

In 1916, a plaque was placed on the building on Court Street commemorating the birthplace of the telephone in 1875. Unfortunately, the building is no longer standing. However, pieces of the upstairs were salvaged to recreate the Bell laboratory at the the headquarters of New England Telephone in Boston.

Williams manufactured all of the Bell Telephone equipment until the spring of 1879. The demand for telephones exceeded the capacity of the Williams' shop so other makers were licensed. The telephone for subscribers was called a "Williams coffin" because of the narrow box shape and wooden construction. Williams also built the first telephone switchboard of Doolittle design in 1878.Charles Williams, Jr. camelback key

It is not known exactly when Williams ceased making telegraph instruments. There are no designs from Williams representative of the 1880s. As Williams embraced the demand for telephones, it is likely telegraph production was phased out in the mid 1870s. The entire Williams operation, physical plant and licenses were purchase by Western Electric in 1882. The Williams reputation for innovation continued and very much influenced Western Electric.

The Williams key shown in the two photos is representative of keys made in the 1860s for landline use. Keys with this lever shape are referred to as 'camelback' keys. Very early camelback keys had a highly exaggerated hump for the entire length of the lever. Later camelback keys levers had the back half of the lever horizontal as does the key shown. Notice the lever return spring in the bottom photo. It is a cylindrical coiled spring. Other makers of keys from this period used a 'safety pin' style spring. Other Williams keys have a cylindrical spring. Perhaps this is a Williams trademark. 

BibliographyChareles Williams, Jr. camelback key, detail

Bettinger, H.M. The Telephone Book: Bell, Watson, Vail and American Life, 1876-1976. New York: Riverwood Publishers, 1977.

Brooks, John. Telephone -- The First Hundred Years. New York: Harper and Row, 1975.

Bryan, George S. Edison -- The Man and His Work. New York: Garden City Publishing, 1926.

Clark, Ronald W. Edison -- The Man Who Made the Future. New York: Putnam, 1977.

Grosvenor, E.S. & Wesson, M. Alexander Graham Bell -- The Life and Times of the Man Who Invented the Telephone. New York: Abrams, 1997.

Fagen, M. D., Editor. A History of Engineering and Science in the Bell System -- The Early Years (1875 - 1925). Bell Telephone Laboratories, 1975.

Israel, Paul. From Machine Shop to Industrial Laboratory -- Telegraphy and the Changing Context of American Invention, 1830 - 1920. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Josephson, Matthew. Edison -- A Biography. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959.

Reinke, Roger. American Telegraph Instrument Makers, 1837 - 1900. 1986.

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Neal McEwen,