Category Archives: Telegraph history

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.

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.


1926 Telegraph Practice Set


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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1916 Boys’ Life Telegraph

1916BLtelegraph2A hundred years ago this month, the June 1916 issue of Boys’ Life showed Scouts how to make this telegraph set. The plans are pretty self-explanatory. Closing the key energizes the electromagnet and makes the sounder sound. The article notes that it works just like a regular set used by the railroad and telegraph companies. It concedes that the set “isn’t much to look at, but it is a better one than Edison made when he was a beginner.”


It went on to show the hookup for two sets (simply using three wires) to communicate with a friend “across the street, down the block, or over the way.”

Collins in 1910. Wikipedia photo.

The author of the article was A. Frederick Collins, a prolific early radio author of books such as the 1915 The Book of Wireless.  He was also the principal author of the 1922 Radio Amateur’s Handbook.

The 1915 Book of Wireless, as well as his contributions to Boys’ Life, came on the heels of the low point in his life, a 1913 conviction for mail fraud, arising out of exaggerated claims over a wireless telephone stock promotion. In 1917, the year after this upbeat Boys’ Life article, his wife filed for separation, stating that he “had come back to freedom… with his disposition ruined”, “soured against the world, soured against even his benefactors, and soured against her,” and engaging in “long harangues and tirades of invectives against the world in general and the United States government in particular.”  Collins died in 1952 at the age of 82.

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1926 Code Practice Set


Ninety years ago, the January 1926 issue of Popular Mechanics showed this simple but ingenious device for practicing code. It allowed the aspiring radio operator a way to generate perfect code with a buzzer.

The board (preferably oak or ash) had a series of grooves.  At the beginning and end of each dot and dash a hole was drilled.  Copper wire was threaded up through the holes, forming a conductive path for each letter.  The other contact was slid over the letter at any desired speed, forming perfect code.

The article noted that a similar device had been used in the early days of the telegraph, presumably allowing unskilled operators to send (but not receive) messages.

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Mahlon Loomis: Inventor of Radio?


It’s generally accepted in the history of science and technology that radio couldn’t have been invented until James Clerk Maxwell came up with Maxwell’s Equations in 1865.  That theoretically underpinning of radio were verified experimentally by Heinrich Hertz in 1887.  (Hertz, it turned out, was using electromagnetic waves of about two meters in wavelength, it turns, meaning that the first intentionally generated radio waves were probably in or near the two meter amateur band.)

The prevailing wisdom, which is more or less true, is that someone like Guglielmo Marconi in the 1890’s couldn’t have come along and turned radio into a practical device without the prior work of Maxwell and Hertz.

While that statement is generally true, it ignores Dr. Mahlon Loomis, a dentist and inventor who was born in 1826 and died in 1886, the year before Hertz’s experiments.  And it appears that in 1866, he successfully communicated wirelessly between two mountains fourteen miles apart.  Unfortunately, he produced no independent witnesses to verify the claim.  And his understanding was that some layer of the sky was completing a direct-current circuit, using the atmosphere as a conductor to send the direct current.

Even though his explanation is impossible, it’s likely that he was sending and receiving radio signals.  FIrst of all, his sending mechanism appears to have included a spark gap between the aerial and ground.  And more critically, Loomis found that the system would work only if the two aerials were extended to the same length.  He surmised that they were both coming into contact with the same level of the atmosphere, through which the DC current was conducted.  But the more likely explanation is that the two antennas were both resonant to the same frequency of radio wave.

In 1872, he was issued U.S. Patent 129971 for his wireless telegraph.  And in 1873, the U.S. Congress even chartered the Loomis Wireless Telegraph Company.  Loomis was, however, never able to raise sufficient capital to make the venture a practical reality.

It’s probably true that radio pioneers such as Marconi couldn’t have succeeded without Maxwell and Hertz telling them that it was theoretically possible to send electromagnetic waves through space.  But it’s not a foregone conclusion.  Loomis shows that history could have played out the other way around:  Someone could have accidentally discovered radio (as it appears that Loomis did), and only then the physicists could be called upon to explain how it works.

Fifty years ago this month, there was an interesting article about Loomis in Popular Electronics, October 1965, written by Thomas Appleby, W3AX.  The illustration above is taken from that article.  Appleby was also the author of Mahlon Loomis, Inventor of Radio, published in 1967.

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