Category Archives: Telegraph history

1917 Wireless Telegraph

1917JulyElectExpWirelessTelegraph

We’ve carried plans for other wireless telegraphs and telephones that relied upon ground conductivity, and here’s another one that comes from a hundred years ago this month, in the July 1917 issue of Electrical Experimenter.

This one is a bit mysterious for a couple of reasons.   First of all, the receiver appears to contain a crystal detector wired in series. (At least I think that’s what the component to the left of the capacitor is.) Admittedly, I haven’t tried making one of these, but I can’t really see the purpose of it, since the signal transmitted through the ground is essentially an AF signal that the headphones would be able to pick up.

Second, I can’t see any real advantage in burying one of the ground electrodes so deep (10 feet). Doing so does achieve 9 feet of separation between the two grounds, and this separation is necessary. But it seems to me that this could be accomplished much more easily by placing both grounds near the surface, separated horizontally. This would avoid the necessity of having to dig a 10 foot hole, which seems like a lot of work.

Finally, I can’t think of any good reason for making one electrode copper and the other zinc.

The accompanying text doesn’t answer any of these mysteries. The diagram was submitted by a reader, one O.M. Warren of Detroit, MI, who submitted it along with the question, “would it be possible to use the following scheme to telegraph a distance of a block or two?”

The editors answered merely: “Yes. You will have no trouble in transmitting considerably more than the distance you mention.” But they don’t even hint that Mr. Warren needn’t bother digging the two ten foot holes.

The reader also asked whether a tuning coil or loose coupler should be used, but the editors did say that they should not be used, since “it is impossible to tune any distant signal with this ground telegraph system, speaking generally.”

But since radio transmission or reception were forbidden during the war, Mr. Warren would be able to communicate.  Let’s hope that nobody told him his ten foot holes were unnecessary.



1917 Boys’ Life: Signaling and Beans

1917JuneBLCover

A hundred years ago this month, both the front and back cover of the June 1917 issue of Boys’ Life magazine featured signaling methods. In the cover art shown above (with no attribution to the artist that I could find), a Scout is shown relaying a semaphore message to a distant point.

1917JuneBLBackNot to be outdone, the back cover, an ad for Colgate toothpaste, used International Morse Code to proclaim the messsage, “I BRING GOOD TEETH GOOD HEALTH.”  Since the nation was at war, the ad also reminded Scouts “how soldiers and sailors benefit from good teeth, and that they must have them to pass the physical examination.”

But the wartime service promoted by most of the magazine was the Scout’s duty to feed the nation and the troops.

It proclaimed that “no organization in the United States acted more promptly than the Boy Scouts of America when Congress declared, on April 5th, that a state of war existed between our country and Germany.  ‘Be Prepared’ is the Boy Scout motto, and more than a quarter of a million Scouts proved they WERE prepared.”  One of the first actions suggested was that in every large city, the Scouts should mobilize, march to the City Hall, and offer their services to the Mayor.  According to the magazine, many Scouts immediately did exactly that.

Mobilized Scouts offering their services at an unnamed city hall.

Mobilized Scouts offering their services at an unnamed city hall.

But the biggest task undertaken by Scouts was to help win the war through the gardening movement. As soon as the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that every citizen was needed to increase the food supply, the National Headquarters of the BSA issued an emergency circular urging every scout to start a garden and persuade nine other people to do the same.

The slogan adopted was, “every scout to feed a soldier.” It meant that every Scout was expected to raise enough food to feed himself, thus freeing up enough food to feed the soldier.

Almost immediately, National Headquarters fired off a telegram to London, to none other than Herbert Clark Hoover, who was already “famous for his great efficiency in managing the enormous relief work among stricken peoples of Europe.” The cable read:

Two hundred fifty thousand Boy Scouts of America tender services as your aides as producers and conservers of food as service to our country.

Mr. Hoover immediately cabled back his response, and his response was that Scouts should raise beans:

The prime service of our Country in this War is ships and food, and we can here display the true American ability at great efforts.

In order to provide the food necessary we must from this moment eliminate all waste and stimulate food production at every point. We must send to our Allies more wheat, corn, beans, meat, bacon and lard than we have ever sent before if their men are to fight and their women and children to live; and our people must economize and eat other things.

Among these foodstuffs couldn’t the Scouts take as their own province the stimulation of bean production, for there is not only a great shortage at Europe and at home, but they are the best of foods. Let them help make America able to export ten times as many beans as she ever exported before. To do this, let the Boy Scouts see to it that they are planted everywhere, so that the biggest bean crop ever known shall be the war contribution of the Boy Scouts to America and her Allies.

(Signed) Herbert C. Hoover.

Theodore Roosevelt, upon receiving a copy of Hoover’s telegram, signaled his assent: “I think Mr. Hoover’s suggestion that the Scouts take as their own province the stimulation of bean production is particularly good. Let each Scout start a garden and thereby help feed the soldiers.”

Scouts clearing idle land in preparation for a crop. The caption notes that fire is a useful ally, but the Scouts watch it closely. In a month, this field was to be covered with navy beans.

Scouts clearing idle land in preparation for a crop. The caption notes that fire is a useful ally, but the Scouts watch it closely. In a month, this field was to be covered with navy beans.

The magazine noted that navy or field beans were an easy crop to grow. They would show good yields even on poor soil or thin soils. They could be planted late, after the rush of other planting had subsided, and required only a third of the cultivation required of corn. With a good season and average care, a yield of 10 to 25 bushels per acre was to be expected. Their high food value and ease of storage made them an excellent war crop.

The magazine also noted that many Scout camps would turn into farms. Since there was a scarcity of farm help, the Scouts would help to fill the gap. Even though they would learn to plant and pick, there would still be plenty of fun after the day’s work was over.

Finally, the magazine announced that the BSA would be offering a War Service Emblem for Scouts who were responsible for starting ten gardens or inducing ten people to increase their garden acreage.



1942 QST: Visual Signalling

1942JuneQSTSignalling

75 years ago, American amateur radio operators were off the air for the duration, but QST kept rolling off the presses, and continued to encourage hams to hone their skills for the war effort.  One skill, of course, where hams had a natural edge was their knowledge of the International Morse Code, which was widely used both in the military and by government and civilian radio stations.

In the June 1942 issue, long time QST Editor Clinton DeSoto, W1CBD, wrote this article about methods of visual signalling. He noted that many a young amateur “joined up with the Navy or the Sginal Corps secure in the belief that because he knew radio he knew all there was to know about communications.”

But DeSoto noted that knowledge of CW and radiotelephone, and even a smattering of wire telephone and telegraph, covered only a part of communications methods then in use. In many cases, radio was unavailable, such in cases where a ship had to observe radio silence, and wires were not always an option. Therefore, especially in the Navy, but also in the Army Signal Corps, a knowledge of visual signalling methods was critical.

In the article, he gives a primer on the methods then in use, and encouraged hams to learn these methods. Those methods were (1) aural; (2) blinker; (3) wigwag; (4) semaphore; and (5) the international flag code.

DeSoto noted that aural signalling would require little or no new knowledge for a ham, since copying Morse from a fog horn or siren was no more difficult than copying CW on the air.

Copying code from a light blinker required a bit of practice, since the ham had to use a different sense to transmit the signal to the brain. However, he noted that most hams could acquire a speed of 8-10 words per minute with just a few hours practice. This speed was quite useful, since 12 WPM was about the maximum ever encountered in blinker work.

The third method, wigwag, was rarely used, but since it was also based on International Morse Code, most hams would have an edge when it came to using it. In wigwag, a single signal flag or light is used. It is dipped to the left (from the viewer’s point of view) for a dot, and to the right for a dash. Between dots and dashes, the flag or light is held vertically above the head.

Wigwag is very slow and cumbersome, and had a maximum speed of a couple of words per minute. For that reason, it was rarely used except when nothing else would serve.

The much more efficient system of signalling with flags is semaphore, and DeSoto devoted much of the article to its explanation. As shown in the diagram above, semaphore uses two flags held in the positons shown above. Semaphore had been around since Napoleon’s day, and in addition to flags, shore-to-ship communication, and even inland links, of the past had used stations with tall masts and giant signalling arms.

With practice, a skilled operator could achieve speeds up to 25 words per minute, making semaphore a vitally useful skill.

The article gave the basics of the procedure used. To begin, the sender would wave the flags for the attention signal, until the receiving operator answered with the acknowledgment “C”. As the sender completed each word, he dropped his arms to the “break” signal. At that point, the receiver would acknowledge with another “C”. If no acknowledgement was received, that word would be repeated.

Some of the prosigns and abbreviations used by hams were also used in semaphore. For example, the symbol AR was commonly used to indicate the end of a message.

Finally, DeSoto spent some time discussing the international flag code, which used individual flags for each letter of the alphabet. Each flag also had an independent meaning. Therefore, if a single flag was displayed on the signal mast, it was understood that it was conveying that message.

To minimize the number of flags that had to be carried, four flags were assigned as “repeat” flags. The “First Repeat” flag would be used to indicate that the first letter of the word was being repeated. The “Second Repeat” flag would mean that the second letter of the word was being used again.

The international flags were reproduced in the article, but in black and white. DeSoto warned that it wouldn’t be a good idea to attempt to learn them from those illustrations. He recommended either coloring them on the pages of the magazine with water colors or crayons, or simply making a set of identification cards in the correct colors. He also included the source of flashcards, available for 50 cents postpaid, or the official “International Code of Signals (Vol. 1, Visual and Sound)” available from the Navy Department for $2.25. A more recent edition of that text is available at this link.

This article would be of particular interest to Boy Scouts or their counselors working on the Signs Signals and Codes merit badge.  As I discussed previously at this post and this post, that merit badge includes Morse Code, semaphore, international flag codes, in addition to other topics.  Therefore, DeSoto’s 1942 article includes much of the information necessary to earn the merit badge.

Elsewhere in the same issue of QST (page 53), ARRL Communications Manager F.E. Handy, W1BDI, suggested a use for the signal flags. With amateur radio off the air, there would be no Field Day in 1942. Handy suggested that hams could use the traditional Field Day weekend, the third weekend in June, to make an outing to their usual Field Day location to practice some of these techniques:

Working in pairs, amateurs should call out characters as they are interpreted from the flags, impressing a bystander for ‘recorder’ if necessary. With some experience you will with to try for greater DX. Then we also suggest a planned trek to the usual FD location if you can make it on that third weekend of June. This will make a good outing for those of the group that can be rounded up; it will rouse afresh the memories of the last ARRL Field Day. Don’t forget to give the signal-flag idea a Field Day workout!



Teaching Morse Code To Second Graders: 1917

1917FebPM

A hundred years ago this month, the February 1917 issue of Popular Mechanics  showed how a progressive second grade teacher used modern methods to teach her children spelling:  She taught them by means of Morse Code.

As the article noted, it was a well-known truth that children learned more quickly through play than through dull hours of tedious instruction. The teacher, Miss Florence Biddle of Columbus, Ohio, discovered that she could make the children anxiously look forward to their daily spelling lesson by use of Morse code.

Miss Biddle would send words from a telegraph key at her desk. The children would then write down the dots and dashes and then translate them. Here, we can see that these children have correctly copied her send the word “fed.” The girl to the left has the dots and dashes written down, and the others have completed the process of translating.  A variation in the lesson was having children send the code for words she dictated.

Miss Biddle’s method is explained in more detail in the April 1917 issue of Primary Education magazine.

According to that article, Miss Biddle’s method had spread from her own Spring Street School to other schools in the city. She originally got the idea four years earlier, and used a ruler to tap out the words. After Assistant Superintendent R.G. Kinkead saw the idea, he provided her with the telegraph instrument, and the idea spread.

That article noted that the children like to learn the code, because it “puts them in touch with the railroad and telegraph, two things which fascinate all children.” Here, from that article, we see one of your young students sending a message in response to her dictation.

1917AprilPrimaryEduc

If you look carefully at the dots and dashes written by the student on the left, you see that Miss Biddle was teaching American Morse, since .-. is written down for “F”.  This stands to reason, since she is using a landline telegraph sounder, and American Morse would have been in use by the railroads and telegraph companies.  If any of these students were inspired to get into wireless telegraph, then they would have had to learn International Morse, which varies slightly.  But their minds appear resilient, and I’m sure they would have had little trouble making the transition.



1917 Career Advice for Scouts: Electrical Engineering

1917FebBL

A hundred years ago this month, the February 1917 issue of Boys’ Life gave some career advice to scouts who were busy working on the Electricity merit badge, by letting them know how they could become electrical engineers.

The railroads, for example, relied upon telephone and telegraph systems and power plants. The “untrained man” could start as a conductor or motorman, but would remain in the ranks of the unskilled unlesss he added to his limited daily experience by a course of study in an area such as electrical engineering.

Such study could be done through private study and reading and correspondence and night schools, as well as more formal trade and engineering schools. Even the poor boy was not necessarily barred, since the best schools were often not the most expensive.

The article noted that getting ahead after graduation meant hard, dogged work, since the graduate still had to learn many practical engineering skills to get his bearings. But there was no reason why a competent technical graduate wouldn’t be able to rise to $2000 per year.

It should be noted that the magazine’s proofreader apparently let one slip by. The Morse Code shown in the illustration reads, “BE PREPARED AND DO A GOOD TURN DAMLY.”



Answer to Yesterday’s Quiz

1956DecQuistQuizA

Yesterday, we presented the problem of how to hook up a telephone to talk across a river from Point A to Point B, without running a wire across the river.

Loyal readers knew the answer right away, because we presented a similar system for a 1940 wireless telegraph using four ground rods.  Each side of the circuit was connected to two ground rods.  The January 1957 issue of QST shows a similar arrangement for how the two Boy Scouts could hook up their field telephone:

1957JanQuistQuiz2

Each telephone is hooked up to two ground rods.  The magazine suggests separating them by 20 times the width of the river (2000 feet).  There’s still a high resistance path between the two telephones, but the leakage resistance between A and A’ and between B and B’ is even higher.  The 1940 wireless telegraph, because it used an audio amplifier, could probably get by with less separation between the ground rods on each side of the river.  But with 2000 feet separation, the scouts’ telephones should work just fine, despite not being able to run any wire across the river.



Boy Scout Field Telephone-Telegraph, 1937

1937JanBLEighty years ago this month, the January 1937 issue of Boys’ Life carried this ad for the official BSA field set, a field telephone and telegraph.  For $9.50, a scout could acquire two such units.  The possibilities for use during hiking and camping, or between two friends’ houses, seem limitless.

More details are given in an ad appearing in the February 1934 issue, which reveals that the set is manufactured by the American Electric Company, of 1033 West Van Buren Street, Chicago, “one of the world’s foremost makers of commercial telephone equipment.”  Contained in a durable khaki colored weatherproof case having a strong carrying strap, the set was ready for use at any time by simply connecting to line wires.  The set was said to have a range to be able to signal and talk clearly over a thousand feet.  The set was switched from telephone to telegraph simply by switching the key into the telegraph position.

The set was patented under US Patent 2072264, which described the set as being “inexpensively and ruggedly built to fill the need for such an assembly by Boy Scout organizations and others having need for inexpensive equipment which may be employed to establish temporary or permanent telephone-telegraph communication between two points.”

The only evidence of a surviving example I was able to find online was this eBay listing, which unfortunately contains only a photo of the unit in the closed position.

A resourceful Boy Scout owning such a telephone probably wouldn’t have had much trouble figuring out the Quist Quiz which appeared in the December 1956 issue of QST:

1956DecQuistQuiz

Two Scouts, one on each side of the river, are equipped with their official BSA field telephone-telegraph sets.  Without crossing the river or running a wire across the river, how can they hook up the phones?

Loyal readers of OneTubeRadio.com already know the answer, since we previously showed a similar system.  If you missed it, you’ll need to wait until tomorrow to see the answer.



Zimmermann Telegram, 1917

Zimmermann Telegram, as sent from Washington to Mexico City. Wikipedia image.

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Zimmermann Telegram, which played a key role in the entry of the United States into the First World War.  The message was originally sent from Germany on January 11, and on January 19, 1917, it made the final leg of its circuitous route to Mexico City.

Interestingly, the telegram was routed through Britain, which allowed the British to intercept and decode it.  Because the Germans had no wire communications with America, President Wilson allowed them to send diplomatic cables courtesy of the American embassy in Copenhagen.  That was routed through Britain, where the British were able to intercept it.

From the German embassy in Washington, the cable was sent to Mexico City by Western Union.  The telegram instructed the German ambassador to Mexico to propose, if hostilities appeared imminent, an alliance between Germany and Mexico.



Hurricane of July 5 1916

 

One hundred years ago today, July 5, 1916, the U.S. Gulf coast was hit by a hurricane.  Mobile and Pennsacola were cut off from the outside world, and New Orleans suffered major effects.  The storm was initially reported on July 3 near Swan Island.  Weather along the coast was ordinary on the 4th of July, but the barometer kept dropping.  Winds at Mobile eventually peaked on the 5th at 106 MPH, and the barometer fell to 28.92 inches.

Warnings were surprisingly effective.  In addition, the fact that the storm made its presence known on a holiday meant that the number of ships in peril were minimal.

The weather bureau at New Orleans reported that the “warning was given an extraordinary distribution. It was send by telephone to the docks with instructions to send it to Grand Isle by motorboat. The boat traveled 18 miles, warning points along the way. The warning was also sent to all telephone exchanges with instructions to disseminate the warning widely. It was also sent to all telegraph stations with similar instructions.

Those warnings were heeded, and most craft remained in port. At New Orleans, a number of vessels stopped in the Mississippi until advised that it was safe to proceed. In addition, all trains crossing Lake Pontchartrain were suspended.  Similar warnings were distributed at Pensacola and other points.

 

Cotton bale debris in Mobile.

Cotton bale debris in Mobile.

References



1926 Telegraph Practice Set

1926JunePMTelegraph

Here’s another more or less self-explanatory homemade telegraph set, from the pages of Popular Mechanics 90 years ago this month, June 1926. Unlike the one we featured a few weeks ago from 1916, this one relies on manufactured doorbell buzzers, and is intended to allow practice for aspiring radio operators, since the buzz of the doorbell more closely simulates the sound of a radio telegraph signal, as opposed to the clacking of the sounder of the landline telegraph shown in the earlier example. The article noted that the sound of the buzzer might be a lower pitch than desired, but explained how to increase the pitch by strategically placing a piece of paper in the buzzer.

This one can be set up either for practice at a single station, or two units can be interconnected as shown here. To receive, the other station needs to short out the key with the shorting bar shown.

The set is powered by two dry cell batteries. The article notes that if the two stations are some distance apart, such as in different houses, then a set of batteries might be necessary at each station.

In case you’re wondering, you can still find old-fashioned door bells, although they are getting harder to find.

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