The Telegraph Office

by Neal McEwen, K5RW

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A Telegraphist's View of Late 19th Century British Telegraph Systems


from Chamber's Journal, April 1, 1893, pages 199-201

  Several years' practice as a telegraphist in Her Majesty's Post-office so fixes the telegraphic code in the mind that the manipulating of the various instruments becomes almost mechanical, and their signals, to the stranger so mysterious, are as intelligible to the operator as the words of an ordinary conversation. I well remember, however, that for a considerable time after I entered the 'service' the 'spirit-rappings' of the bells and sounders were so much jargon to my understanding, and certainly irritating and confusing to my ears. It takes some time to become acquainted with the different kinds of instruments, and long uninterrupted practice before they can be operated with ease and rapidity. When you enter the service as a telegraph
learner, you are kindly presented with a card which contains a faithful representation of the English alphabet as you were taught it at school, with the addition of a number of mysterious dots and dashes, which you are given to understand are the telegraphic signs for the letters; but if these are supposed to be shorter than the letters themselves, you are inclined to think that it is on the principle of the old woman's ideas of brevity, who had a son named John, but 'they called him Johnny for short.' The alphabet
card of signs is like the following:
A . - N - . 1 . - - - -
B - . . . O - - - 2 . . - - -
C - . - . P . - - . 3 .. . - - 
D - . . Q - - . - 4 . . . . -
E . R . - . 5 . . . . .
F . . - . S . . . 6 - . . . . 
G - - . T - 7 - - . . .
H . . . . U . . - 8 - - - . .
I . . V . . . - 9 - - - - .
J . - - - W . - - 0 - - - - -
K - . - X - . . - -  . . .   . .   . .
L . - . . Y - . - .
M - - Z - - . .

  You are to commence to fix these signs on your memory, and for this purpose are allowed to practice them on a 'dummy' instrument, with two keys like two escaped piano keys, that have widened themselves, and flattened themselves, and blackened themselves in the process of escaping from their legitimate sphere.

    You quickly learn that all the dot signals are to be struck with the left key, and all the dash signals with the right. Therefore, the letter E is represented by one stroke of the left key; the letter T by one stroke of the right; while A is a combination of the two. Three taps on the left mean S, while three on the right mean O, and so on. Learning this alphabet is a slow business at first, and the learner generally makes it about ten times more laborious than is necessary by pressing down the keys as though he were playing on them with his feet, or by working them in jerks as though his arms were afflicted with spasms.

    The alphabet is gone over again and again and again until facility is acquired. When I was learning, the dots and dashes haunted me all day long, and through the night they disturbed my sleep. Whenever my hands were at liberty, they were tapping away for very life. Was I at the dinner-table waiting to be served? my knife and fork became the two 'keys.' Was I seated in the arm-chair? the left arm became a 'dot,' the right one a 'dash,' and I gradually made the polish fade by the interminable messages I signalled on that old arm-chair. The keys of the piano afforded a splendid method of practice of an evening, and though a tune on two notes is liable to become somewhat monotonous when repeated for the thousandth time, yet it could be varied, you know, by selecting two different keys about every half-hour. Needless to say the family became highly educated in classical music, and were supremely delighted with my performance: at the same time it is but honest to add that they wished it were a harmonium instead of a piano, as then I could have pursued my studies in silence, unless, indeed, I were so stupid as to 'signal' on the pedals with my feet as well as on the keys with my fingers.

    When you have learned to tickle the keys in this way, you have by no means finished. You may then be able to send a message fairly well, but unless you can receive the signals also, you are no good in a telegraph room. Now, receiving a message is an altogether different matter. You may have to take it from a Needle, or from a Bell, or from a Sounder, or from a Morse, and hence you have to learn four different methods of speaking, or hearing, the same language.

    The Needle instrument possesses a dial the size of a mantel-clock face, in the centre of which is suspended a piece of metal, tapering at each end, and technically called a 'needle.' As the message is signalled to you by some fellow playing on the keys at the distant station in the way that has been named, the needle swings from side to side between two ivory pegs--perhaps they are bone--and you have got to transpose these swinging motions into an intelligible message, it may be either describing a dog-fight or a wedding; it may be ordering oysters for supper or sending somebody to Timbuktu. When the needle swings to the left, you are to understand it means a 'dot;' when it swings to the right, a 'dash' is indicated; so that your alphabet is then read by sight instead of by touch, and when a quick operator is working the instrument, the 'waggles' of the needle are decidedly hysterical, and, to a stranger, utterly incomprehensible.

    The learner generally takes the needle instrument first; and I have not yet forgotten--though then but a mere boy--the pride with which I succeeded in reading my first message without assistance, and if I did ask a man to 'send the corn in his own socks,' I detected it in time to save myself from getting the sack. To make myself complete master of this instrument, I remember I procured a Hudson's dry soap-box, chiselled out a circular piece near the top, and filled up the cavity with a cardboard disc, in the centre of which I pivoted a needle made of tin. I ran a sort of axle from the needle to the back of the box, and on this fixed a crosspiece, attaching to each end of it a bit of elastic; and these in turn to two wooden keys, which I had persuaded--by some contrivance I now forget, but which at the time I thought highly ingenious--to spring up and down at a touch; and although their motions were something akin to those of time celebrated Spring-heeled Jack, yet it served my purpose, and enabled me to 'telegraph' to my heart's content, at the fireside at home, all kinds of imaginary messages to the four corners of the earth. Had I had to pay for them at a shilling apiece, which was the rate at that time, the fortune of the Inland Revenue would have been made, and the necessity of taxation abolished for all time.

    The Bell instrument is to be read by the ear. Two little hammers--one on the left, and the other on the right--tap a small metal plate as the distant keys are played, and the message is conveyed by not altogether unmusical sounds; one stroke of the bell on the left meaning E, while one stroke of the bell on the right indicates T. The incessant tapping of these bells in a busy office is another thing to which the embryo telegraphist has to become accustomed; while, when a score of such instruments are clicking at once, one can easily understand that the noise resembles that made in a small factory. Sometimes it is so great that the clerk is glad to stick his head between the bells, so that the hammers are close to his left and right ear respectively, while his writing pad is almost under his nose, and he is straining every nerve to keep up with the terrific operator at the other end, for an expert telegraphist can wire a message at a very high speed on a Bell instrument. In rough and windy weather, several wires running in the same direction will clash together, and then, oh, the utter jargon, the vexatious, irritating sounds that these bells give forth!  They are instantly put out of tune and temper, as may easily be imagined, when several messages, instead of minding their own business, and running respectably along their own wires, are chumming together on one line, and dancing a jig or singing Auld Lang Syne with crossed hands.

    The next instrument to be acquired may be the Sounder, and here the learner has almost to begin over again, for, instead of having two keys on which to play his little tunes, he is provided with only one. He is told that to signal a dot he must touch the key very lightly, and to denote a dash a little more heavily. Hence, the same code of signals is available, for a light tap indicates E, while a more decided one signifies T. Three light strokes mean S, while three heavy ones cry O! Of course, facility in the use of this key is only attained after a considerable amount of practice, but, once secured, the operator rattles a way without a thought, and makes his light and heavy signals with as much ease as an expert phonographer does the light and heavy strokes of shorthand. To receive a message on the Sounder, the ear requires to be trained to the same thing--that is to say, it must at once detect between light and heavy sounds, for the rapid strokes made by the vertical motion of a small brass rod are the only signals he receives. A light sound says E; a heavy one means T; and when a 'demon' sender is at the other end of the line, your reporter, in trying to keep up with a rapid speaker, is 'not in it,' for, in telegraphy, every word has to be written out at full length in longhand, and the operator has to listen to his oracle and the click and chatter of a score of other vociferous jabbering machines.

    Then there is the Morse instrument which is perhaps the prettiest of all, for, while you send your message with one key precisely in the same way as in the case of the Sounder, in receiving a message you have it actually written out for you in black and wh--no, not black and white, but black and blue (perhaps it is black and blue through being struck so much). A narrow ribbon of blue paper unwinds itself from the instrument, and by an ingenious yet simple arrangement the signals from the small brass rod, instead of having to be read by sound, are made to mark themselves by printers' ink on to the ribbon; and the
telegraphist, seated at the desk, holds one end of the ribbon in his left hand and by practice draws it gradually along before his eyes, at the same time rapidly reading the dots and dashes, and translating them into 'good old English,' for the benefit of the individual to whom the familiar pink form is to be directed. Thus the dots and dashes of the learner's card are here reproduced by the faithful Morse, and simply require translating into longhand.

    It is easy to understand that the addition or omission of a single dot or dash could very soon alter the whole tenor of a message and the clerk not only requires to read his message correctly as from the signals, but also with intelligence, so as to avoid sense being converted into nonsense. Nevertheless, mistakes do occasionally escape detection; yet, when a word may be so easily altered it is remarkable that so few blunders do occur, for ( - . . .    . -    - . .) , which means 'bad,' could be easily turned into 'dead,' thus: ( - . .    .    . -    - . .) , and consequently the message, 'Your Uncle John is bad,' being received as 'Your Uncle John is dead,' is not at all surprising. 'We got the twins this morning' ( -    . - -    . .    - .    . . . ), would not have been so alarming if the telegraphist had signified that they had received 'twigs' ( -    . - -    . .    - - .    . . . ). The man who ordered his 'cap' ( - . - .   . -   . - - . ) to meet him at the station, was enraged when he found his trap ( -   . - .   . -   . - - . ) was not in waiting. While the other man who sent for his 'pig' ( . - - .   . .   - - . ) was fortunately understood to mean his 'gig' ( - - .   . .   - - . ).
  When the telegraph learner has mastered the Morse instrument, he is surprised to find that a message can be sent and received on it at one and the same time on the same wire--that is to say, a telegram may be travelling from London to Brighton, and another, of a totally different nature, from Brighton to London, on the self-same wire, yet with no clashing or intermingling.  When thus is done it is termed duplex working; but quadruplex is still more amazing, for four messages can be flashing along the same wire at the same instant without interfering with each other in the least.

  Then there is the Wheatstone instrument to become acquainted with. Here, again, something new has to be learned, for three keys confront the operator, and they are manipulated not by pressure, but by striking them with a small rubber-tipped mallet or punch. The three keys are like typewriter keys, but with rather larger surfaces, and these are struck merely to prepare the message for transmission. The left key signifies a dot, and the right one a dash, but the middle key must be invariably struck after each letter, just as a typist strikes the space bar after each word. A white paper ribbon passes through this instrument behind the keys, and as they are manipulated, they perforate small holes in the ribbon, until, when the message is finished, the white spotless paper is found to be crowded with hundreds of thousands of tiny holes. But the message has not yet left the office. To send it to its destination the white ribbon thus prepared must be placed in an instrument called a Wheatstone Transmitter. Here it rushes between two small brass rollers at a speed which can be regulated from fifty to four hundred words per minute (where are ye, brave stenographers?), and, strange to say, at the distant station a paper ribbon comes out of their instrument at an equally high rate of speed, but within all the signals converted into the familiar dots and dashes again, as in the Morse instrument just named. The Wheatstone instruments, which are capable of working at such a high speed, are generally used for press messages, long speeches of several columns in length being flashed all over the country, in many cases to half-a-dozen widely separated towns at once, at a rate very much faster than that at which they were uttered; so that it is possible, by the reporter sending the transcript of his notes of the first part of a speech immediately to the telegraph office, to have it pouring into the editor's room at a newspaper office hundreds of miles away before the speaker has finished his address, and the first portion of his speech may be actually set up in type before he has concluded his remarks. The speech, perforated on the ribbons in the way named, may be rapidly dispatched to half-a-dozen towns by means of one Wheatstone instrument; and then the same ribbon, without further preparation, may be placed in another Wheatstone, connected with a different group of towns, and signalled to them with equal facility. Thus the Queen's Speech or any other item of public importance is flashed to all parts of the kingdom within a few minutes of being made known.

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Neal McEwen,