Category Archives: Telegraph history

Patrick Vincent Coleman, 1872 – 1917

Vince Coleman. Wikipedia photo.

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, December 6, 1917.  We remember it as a great act of heroism by a telegrapher, train dispatcher Vince Coleman.

Tall cloud of smoke rising over the water

Only known photograph of the blast, probably taken about 15 seconds after detonation from about one mile away. Wikipedia photo.

The 1916 explosion in Halifax harbor killed approximately 2000 people and injured 9000 more. It represented the largest man-made explosion prior to the development of nuclear weapons, and released the equivalent of 2.9 kilotons of TNT.

It was the result of a collision between the SS Mont-Blanc, a French freighter carrying high explosives, with the Norwegian vessel SS IMO. The Imo was en route to New York to take on relief supplies for Belgium. The ship was given clearance to leave the harbor on December 5, but had been delayed due to fueling. By the time the ship had taken on fuel, the submarine nets were up for the night, and the ship had to wait.

The Mont-Blanc had arrived from New York the night of December 5 and was heavily loaded with explosives. The ship intended to join a convoy, but was also arrived too late to enter the harbor due to the submarine nets.

When the nets were lowered the next morning, the ships passed in a strait called the Narrows. At 8:45 AM, the two ships collided. While damage was not severe, barrels of Benzol broke open and flooded the hold. Sparks ignited the vapors, and a fire started at the water line. As the crew of the Mont-Blanc frantically boarded their lifeboats, they shouted warnings that the ship was about to explode.

At 9:04, the ship exploded, with a cloud of smoke rising over 11,000 feet. The shock wave was felt over 129 miles away, and an area of over 400 acres was completely destroyed. A 50-foot tsunami hit Halifax.

Panoramic view over traintracks to destroyed cityscape

Halifax ruins. Wikipedia photo.

Vince Coleman, 45, was a dispatcher for the Canadian Government Railways. He, along with Chief Clerk William Lovett, was working at the Richmond station, only a few hundred feet from the pier. He was responsible for controlling trains along the main line into Halifax.

Minutes after the fire started, a sailor had been rushed ashore to warn people of the ship’s cargo. The men in the station began to rush out of the building, but Coleman hurried back to send a warning message to the other stations down the line. In particular, Coleman was aware that a passenger train was due, and that its path would take it right to the explosion. He sent the following message to all of the other stations down the line:


The message was heeded. The passenger train, with 300 aboard, was halted at Rockingham station, about 4 miles from the downtown terminal. It is almost certain the Coleman’s message saved the lives of those 300 passengers. In addition, the message, which was received by numerous other stations, along with the line then going silent, gave news of what had happened, allowing relief supplies to be immediately sent to Halifax.

This was critical, since a winter storm soon delayed further relief supplies. The passengers and crew of the first arriving trains began rendering assistance, but the first dedicated relief train was udnerway by 10:00 AM, and arrived by noon.

The next day, Halifax was blanketed by 16 inches of snow, delaying other relief trains from Canada and the United States. Coleman’s heroic message ensured that relief was on the way while there was still time to save hundreds of lives.

This short video dramatizes Coleman’s heroism:

It also features in the 2007 miniseries “Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion”:




1942 Army Signal Corps Recruiting

1942NovPMThis recruiting ad for the U.S. Army Signal Corps appeared in Popular Mechanics 75 years ago this month, November 1942. It noted that this was a radio war, and that the nerve center of the army needed skilled hands.  It suggested a number of opportunities to serve.

Physically fit men ages 18 to 45 were eligible for direct enlistment in the Signal Corps Enlisted Reserve.  Those with experience as a licensed radio operator, a trained repairman, or active telephone or telegraph worker would qualify for active duty at once with pay of up to $138 per month, plus board, shelter, and uniforms.

Those without direct experience but “skilled with tools” would qualify for training and ordered to active duty after completing the course.

Degreed electrical engineers, as well as junior and seniors in EE programs, would be eligible for commission.

Young men over 16 having an ability with tools would be eligible for immediate training, with pay of not less than $1020 per year.  Even those with a minor physical handicap could find a place to serve.

Buzzer Converted to Telegraph Sounder

1917SeptPMThis illustration appeared in Popular Mechanics a hundred years ago this month, September 1917, and illustrates a clever solution to a problem that no longer exists.  It shows a simple way to convert a buzzer into a telegraph sounder.

At first blush, it seems rather obvious how to use a buzzer as a telegraph:  Simply hook it up, as shown, in series with the key and the battery.  If that’s how it were hooked up, that’s how I, or just about anyone who knows Morse Code these days, would be able to listen with ease.

It took me a few minutes to realize what was going on.  This was a simple way to create a sounder that would sound like a landline telegraph.  That kind of telegraph didn’t produce a continuous tone, as Morse Code does when sent by radio.  Instead, it produces clicks and clacks as the arm of the sounder hits the coil.  The landline telegrapher is listening for those clicks and clacks, the same way that I would be listening to the buzz of the buzzer.  But the buzzing would be just as incomprehensible to the landline telegrapher, just as the clicks and clacks would be incomprehensible to me.  The code being used is very similar (but not quite identical, since American telegraphers used American Morse, while radio operators use International Morse Code).  But the medium being used is very different.

The secret of the diagram above is the wire run from point C to point F.  Normally, a buzzer makes noise because the coil energizes and pulls the arm down.  But in the process, it breaks the electrical contact between the arm and point C.  This causes the coil to de-energize, and the arm swings back.  When it gets back in position, the coil is powered up again, and the cycle repeats.  This happens fast enough that a buzzing sound is produced.

In this diagram, the vibrator contact is shorted out.  So when the arm is pulled toward the coil, it stays there until the key is released, just as would happen in a landline telegraph sounder.  So instead of buzzing, the buzzer now clicks and clacks, and the aspiring landline telegrapher can use the modified buzzer to practice the trade.

According to the magazine, the idea was sent in by one Clarence F. Kramer of Lebanon, Indiana.  Interestingly, Mr. Kramer apparently knew both versions of the code, since he was also a radio amateur. He is listed in the 1921-23 call books as being licensed as 9AOB, with an address of 414 E. Pearl St., Lebanon, Indiana.  The April 1923 issue of Wireless Age shows that he pulled in, on a crystal set, 27 different broadcast stations, his best DX being 825 miles, WBAP in Ft. Worth, Texas.  Another one of the stations he pulled in was WLAG in Minneapolis, the forerunner of WCCO.  In the December 30, 1925 issue of the Indianapolis Star, he describes himself as an “ardent radio bug.”

He also appears to have been a Boy Scout, since one Clarence Kramer of Indiana, with various interests including wireless and telegraphy had a penpal request in the January 1915 issue of Boys’ Life magazine.  While it could be another person with the same name, one Clarence F. Kramer was an engineer with Ford, holding a number of patents.  If he went to work for Ford, then he is probably the Clarence Frank Kramer who died in Michigan in 1994 at the age of 92.

1917 Wireless Telegraph


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


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


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


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.


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


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


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:


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:


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 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.