The Telegraph Office

by Neal McEwen, K5RW

k5rw@telegraph-office.com

J. H. Bunnell & Co. Past, Present, Future

Presented at the 1994 Antique Wireless Association Conference

by Dr. Joseph Jacobs

To Telegraph Office Main Page



Jesse Bunnell, founder of the company to manufacture telegraph apparatus and other electrical supplies, was a kind of folk hero, a man about whom songs and stories should be written. Being born one year before Morse's invention, provided Jesse with a fertile field to become a champion telegrapher, wartime operator and establish the company, bearing his name by the age of 35. Becoming a messenger boy at 11, subjected to cannon fire, long hours, hunger, and privations, he nevertheless found time to stand up for better pay, witnessed a wired observation balloon ascension, play practical jokes and earn the respect of the generals and colleagues with whom he worked. Jesse deserves a trip down memory lane. Let's begin at the beginning.

Jesse was born in Massillion Ohio in 1843. (Remember 1844?) By age 11 he was delivering telegraph messages and at 13 he was a full fledged operator serving at offices in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia from 1859-61. He set a record at age 17 of 32 words per minute as an average, when for a steady two hours he forwarded President Buchanan's last message to Congress (including the fancy words politicians of that day loved to use). After the attack on Fort Sumter, April 1861, Jesse, not yet 18, joined the Union Military Telegraph Service (UMTS), which had been recently organized by Andrew Carnegie, who was himself an operator at age 15. At the war's start, operators were the Army's Cinderellas. They were (and remained) civilians. Their value was not appreciated and they were given very little support and $60 per month, less than that of a quartermaster clerk. They were often under fire as their main duty was to relay troop movement observations and orders, in part replacing military couriers. Jesse, in December of 1862, was one of 50 operators who signed a petition to the USMT headquarters for an increase in pay and support. As their importance was recognized, they got merit raises, more regular transport and supplies. Later, however, a group of operators in one area threatened to resign unless pay was raised to $100 per month. The first telegraph strike aborted when they were threatened with charges if they resigned en masse instead of individually as was their right as a civilian Army employee.

Moving with the Army the operator would cut his wire keeping a few yards with his instrument to reattach to the line at the next stop. During battle lulls, operators were kept busy receiving and relaying casualty information for the Army and concerned relatives. Working long hours, operators would often fall asleep at their instrument, yet always awaken when the sounder clicked their call sign.

Being young operators, they were not averse to using their skill and wires for practical jokes. Early in the war, Jesse, "a great wit and very young," was fired when he pulled a hoax on Wheeling, West Virginia, newspapers about a great Union naval loss off the "Rip Raps." Of course he had to be fired, but then, because of his great skill, Jesse was rehired elsewhere at higher wages.

Jesse observed one of the few ascensions of a wired balloon operated by a balloonist and a telegraph operator to relay troop movements and dispositions. At first, Jesse, was assigned to the threatened Washington D.C. area in May of 1861 as telegraph service was needed to connect the surrounding encampments and forts with the War Department and the President. At the end of June, he was sent to Annapolis as part of a relay with the capitol, but during that time, operators were "moved from place to place as the occasion required." Jesse Bunnell's tenure on the relay might have allowed him to serve Lincoln, as his company maintains. Lincoln used the War Department's telegraph office as a refuge for relative peace and quite. At a desk unofficially reserved for him, Lincoln wrote part of his Emancipation Proclamation and his second inaugural address ("--- with malice towards none ---") Lincoln sent his last telegram, two days before his assassination to Richmond opposing reconvening the Virginia Legislature.

From about June of 1862 to August of 1864, Bunnell served with the Army of the Potomac as General McClellan's personal telegrapher, with the sign MC, and with Sherman's Army of the Cumberland through the bloody battles in Tennessee and on to Atlanta. Exposure and starvation in the winter of 1864 weakened Jesse severely, forcing him to resign the 16th of August in 1864 and the UMTS lost one of its "ablest and bravest operators." Jesse's return to non-army work from 1864 to 1872 led him to Philadelphia and a partnership with James Patrick, a successor to Chester, Patrick and Co. Later, from 1875 to 1878, he worked for L. G. Tillotson and Co.

In 1878, Jesse created J. H. Bunnell and Co. And in 1879 took Charles McLaughlin as a partner in charge of sales and administration while Jesse concentrated on manufacturing and innovations. Bunnell received a patent the 15th of February 1881 for his steel lever key. Stamped from one piece of steel, with minor machining, this was Bunnell's answer to the loosening of the steel trunion inserted in the brass lever. So successful, the steel lever continues to this day in keys. Early production bore the patent date on the lever. Later, this gave way to a logo containing the letters BUNNELL over a letter S, and with its general acceptance, later levers had no engraving. In 1888, Bunnell introduced his double speed (sideswiper) key to help telegraphers avoid a "glass arm" (today called carpal tunnel syndrome). The original sideswiper, Style G, did not have spring tension adjustment. Most photographs show the style W, with a spring tensioner. Bunnell was heavily into other electricals noted an article on Bunnell Wave motor published in 1898 In "Electrical Engineer." Bunnell, like other companies, had their castings made for them. In 1899 Jesse caught a severe cold which worsened. He died of heart failure on the 9th of February, 1899 at age 56. He was buried in Brooklyn's garden Greenwood Cemetery. McLaughlin took over the company. In the 1920s J. J. Ghegan became president and introduced many electrical innovations. Ghegan was succeeded by J. G. Doughetery, followed by this wife, who sold the business in the early 1960s to Inso Electronic Products, C. J. Meislich president. In 1989, J. H. Bunnell and Co. Was acquired as a division of MNH Industrials, M. B. Jacobs, president.

The company, which started in Manhattan, moved to several locations in that borough. In the 30s it moved it's operations to a number of locations in Brooklyn, then to Long Island where it is now at Kings Park.

Starting with telegraph item production, Bunnell shortly branched into a huge variety of electrical items both as manufacturer, wholesaler and retailer. Theirs and other companies produced fire equipment for NYCFD and other fire departments, burglary, security, medical and the 1930's through 1950's commercial radio and fax transmitters. Bunnell produced for Postal Telegraph and Western Union, both to Bunnell's or the company specs. Bunnell produced telegraph items through 1988 for Mexico and other Latin American countries. Pre W.W.II, Bunnell was one of the largest telegraph key suppliers. Recently, an Amelia Earhart documentary maintained that her tragedy may have been avoided if she had better code skills and hadn't left without a key for CW backup. As one of the country's main telegraphic manufacturers, Bunnell equipment can be found displayed in the Smithsonian's Museum of American History as well as railroad and other communications museums.

With the introduction of the semi-automatic key (bug), Bunnell produced and won the right to use the generic bug. Bunnell also sold Vibroplex keys and later in association with Martin, (inventor and founder of Vibroplex) produced these bugs.

Bunnell produced for the military from the Spanish American War through the present. Bunnell made keys for Great Britain's military. Together with other companies, Bunnell produced the flameproof key, but for three decades to 1988, Bunnell was the only company to supply the flameproof to meet the Table of Equipment need of ships and planes. During W.W.II, Bunnell employed 600 people in a number of plants to produce a variety of electrical items and later supplied the military during the Cold, Korean and Viet Nam wars.

In the 1890's, Bunnell introduced it fully functional miniature versions of their key, sound and KOB, selling them as is or as a tie pin or with a bale for use as a watch fob. The sounder was also included in an earpiece for privacy or for use in especially noisy areas. They were sold to ardent telegraphers and presented as special awards, such as to Jesse's Civil War boss, Andrew Carnegie. They were presented at a 1908 Telegraphic dinner, RCA's Sarnoff (of Titanic fame), other radio luminaries, and in 1954 to President Eisenhower. As a collectible today, they are extremely rare and desirable. In addition to it current sales to industry and the military, Bunnell will issue a special limited edition of their mini key, sounder and KOB as a forerunner to production of other sought after telegraph items. Orders have been coming in and serial numbers are being issued on a first come basis for this limited production. Order forms are available on request to the company, J. H. Bunnell, 80 Locus Drive, Kings Park, NY 11754 or FAX 516-361-2173.


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Neal McEwen, k5rw@telegraph-office.com