The Morse Telegraph Club
By James Wades, WB8SIW
Few today realize that the telegraph was still used in commercial service in North America well into the mid 1980s. While many of the last users were railroads, the telegraph was also used in a wide variety of business applications by organizations such as stock brokerages, commodities exchanges, pipeline companies, news wire services (Associated Press, United Press, etc.) and the like. For example, the Chicago Board of Trade utilized telegraphy until 1972 and some stock brokerages were still using telegraphy as late as the early 1980s! Even the Telephone Company maintained an extensive telegraph infrastructure for decades because telegraph circuits could be composited (superimposed) on long – distance voice circuits allowing the latter to remain in revenue service while
internal company business and leased private wire services operated in the background using telegraphy!
Before the advent of Microwave Carrier Systems and new telephone technologies in the 1960s, many sporting events were recreated at the local broadcast station. The play – by – play was transmitted by telegraph and then translated into live action by a radio announcer at home. For example, “S1C” became “Strike One Called ” or “NBF” became “now batting for.” Few today realize that one can often telegraph baseball play – by – play faster than one can “speak it!” Contrary to popular belief, and in contrast to many poorly written historical accounts, telegraphy
was not replaced by the telephone. Rather, the modern – day Internet is largely a natural evolution from telegraph technology. For the first one hundred years of telephony, telegraphy offered many advantages over the telephone. One important advantage was more efficient use of infrastructure. Over time, the telegraph evolved from one circuit on a single wire (simplex) to two circuits on a single wire (duplex), then four circuits on a wire (quadruplex)
. With the emergence of stable vacuum tube oscillators during the 1920s, carrier systems were developed, which allowed multiple telegraph circuits to be conveyed on a single pair . This led to concentrator systems (“varioplex”), automatic switching centers and then….packet switching. In reality, no one person “invented ” the Internet.
Rather, the Internet was an important, but nonetheless incremental improvement in the field of telegraphy. For much of this period of evolution a small army of men and women employed by companies such as AT&T, Postal Telegraph, Western Union, Canadian National Telegraphs, Canadian Pacific Telegraphs and the like kept this complex , world-wide network functioning smoothly , and for a significant number of these men and women, knowledge of the American Morse Code was a requirement for their job.
Many of the men and women who worked in the telegraph industry or related fields are now members of the Morse Telegraph Club (MTC). The MTC is an association of retired railroad and commercial telegraph operators, former telegraph industry employees, historians, maritime radio operators, radio amateurs and others who share an interest in the history of telegraphy and the telegraph industry. In addition to “members at large,” MTC has numerous Chapters throughout the United States and Canada. MTC publishes a Quarterly Journal entitled “Dots and Dashes,
containing club news and various historical articles. Members present talks on the history of telegraphy and
telecommunications for clubs, historical associations, engineering societies and the like. Our Chapters actively demonstrate telegraphy at steam train excursions, Civil War re-enactments, and similar historical events. MTC also designs and builds historically correct telegraph exhibits for public museums throughout North America. Many of the instruments for these museum projects are provided by MTC. One need not be a former telegrapher to join MTC. All that is required to join
is a sincere interest in the history of the telegraph and the telegraph industry. It is also important to know that MTC is
not just another ham radio “CW” organization. There are many fine groups that already promote CW and it makes no sense to add another. Rather, MTC concentrates on the Telegraph and the American Morse Code. The American Morse Code is the original code developed by Morse and Vail. It contains a number of spaced characters, such as “C,” “O,” “R,” “Y,” and “Z.” The letters “T,” “L,” and the numeral zero are each a single dash, but of differing length! Furthermore, some of the letters have alternate dot – dash combinations, such as “F” and “J.” When the first undersea cables were deployed, telegraph engineers quickly learned that signal distortions made it impractical to use on-off keying. A new method for undersea telegraphy was required, which used a shift in polarity to differentiate between “dots” and “dashes.” As a result, it became necessary to replace the spaced characters and three different “dash” lengths in the original American Morse Code. Therefore, a Committee met in Europe, which adopted a new code called the “Continental Code.” Today, this code is commonly referred to as “International Morse.” It is this code
which is used by radio amateurs.
The Continental Code was quickly adopted as the world – wide standard for telegraphy. However, in the United States and Canada, the older American Morse Code was already well established. It was not practical to retrain the tens of thousands of operators already employed in the telegraph industry. Furthermore, the American Morse Code is approximately 20 to 30 – percent faster than the Continental Code, thereby offering some economic advantages. The result was an interesting dichotomy in the field of telegraphy. In North America, commercial and railroad telegraphy continued to use the American Morse Code. However, when Wireless Telegraphy became standardized, the International Code was adopted
Of course, the history of “Morse Code” is quite nuanced. At different times, there have been up to four different “Morse Codes” used in North America including the “Bain Code” and the short – lived “Navy Code” used briefly during the early wireless era. Adding confusion to the historical record is the fact that Great Lakes shipping used the American Morse Code for a bit over a decade before International standards were adopted in 1912. The result was, of course, cross – pollination between commercial telegraphy and wireless telegraphy. Consider these examples:
The prosign “AR” (“di-dah-di-dah-dit”) is really the abbreviation “FN” (“finished”) in the American Morse Code.The
prosign “SK” (“di-di-di-dah-di-dah”) is really “30” in the American Morse Code, “30” meaning “close of work” in
Western Union and Press Telegraph Shorthand. and still used in a number of textual publications including Solid Copy! (Note: Solid Copy is the monthly publication of the CWOPS club of which this blogger is a life member.The “ES” (“dit di – di – dit”) heard on the ham bands is the “&” (ampersand) in American Morse Code….and so forth.