The Art & Skill of Radio-Telegraphy

-Second Revised Edition-
William G. Pierpont N0HFF

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Chapter 19 - A Brief History of Morse Telegraphy - Part II


Morse telegraphy was introduced into Germany in 1847 by a Mr. William Robinson (without authorization by Morse).  There the Marine Dispatch Service between Hamburg and Cuxhaven, a communication system for shipping, was using an optical system, useless under bad weather conditions.  They became greatly interested in the potential of this electric all-weather system.

One of their officials who was also an engineer, Frederick Clemens Gerke, immediately translated Vail's book on the telegraph into German.  This systematic German engineer saw how easy it was to confuse the receiving operator, so he modified the original code to eliminate the internally spaced characters and the various lengths of dashes.  This left just two lengths: a dot and a dash.  Even though this would make a transmission longer, it meant less skill was required to achieve the same level of proficiency and accuracy of communication.   He retained  A B D E G H I K M N P S T U V just as they were, used I  for both I and J, and then formed new code characters for those deleted, and for the numbers, etc.

Other German and Austrian states soon adopted the Morse system, but each state modified the Morse code independently, making interstate communication difficult.  In 1852 the German and Austrian state telegraphs convened to unify the codes in use (as well as the tariffs).
Their principles were:

They took Gerke's alphabet as the basis, but changed his O P X Y and Z to the present "International" forms, and developed the present systematic number system, etc.  They made this code their official standard on 1 July 1852.  -- The present form of J and other European language symbols were added in 1865 at the Paris International Telegraph Convention, and for a long time this form of code was called the "Continental" code, until wireless made it "International."   Minor punctuation changes were made 1 Sepember 1939.


Morse's original receiving system was a clumsy recorder which made marks on a paper strip pulled along by a clockwork under a magnetically operated pencil, pen, or stylus.  It presented an "on-off" record which was then read by eye.  Vail created a much superior recorder.  There is plenty of evidence that even Morse and Vail had learned to distinguish most letters by ear during the first few months of their primitive sending.

As early as 1845 some other operators could identify most of the code letters by ear as they listened to the clicking of the recorder.  By 1846 many regular operators were doing so, or could.  However, there was great reluctance on the part of local office managers to accept this method of copying, and some strictly forbad it.  The operators who read by ear had to keep the paper tapes as proof of their accuracy, and offered a means of correction.  (In copying, operators often used abbreviations which would be intelligible to the readers).

Morse's original sending device was a sort of type-setter's ruler with dots and spaces.  Vail's first simple key, predecessor of later handkeys, was designed about 1840.  It was a simple flat spring with a knob, which in time developed into the improved and sturdier designs we now know.  Among several examples of receiving by ear only are: --  James F. Leonard in 1847.  He had entered the service as a messenger boy at age 14.  Within a year he became an operator at Frankfort KY, and was reading by sound.  Not only so, but he had also taught himself to send and listen at the same time, writing down an incoming message while sending another.

Some other operators by that year were listening to a message or two, then writing them down later.

On the first of May 1847 the Albany Evening Journal reported that a business man named W. C.  Buell was sitting in the telegraph office listening to the incoming messages when the operator's tape printer fouled up.  Buell was found to have correctly "read" and remembered what had been sent.

That same year a Louisville broker, who had been sitting in a telegraph office, was fined and jailed for listening to market reports coming in and not paying for them (because he had no operator's license)! That same year, a Mr. Books, operator at Pittsburgh, wrote out a long message by sound alone.  Receiving by ear alone was proving to be not only possible, but practical (and time saving).  Nevertheless, some offices were slow to accept receiving by ear alone,  and required all messages to be recorded even though the operator read by ear.

In 1852-3 an Erie RR conductor refused to accept train orders received by ear, and complained to his superintendent about the operator, Charles Douglas.  When Douglas was reproved, he insisted on being tested, and demonstrated that not only did he copy accurately for short messages, but also for very long ones.  Thereafter the Erie RR officially permitted copying by ear.  The sounder was invented in 1856 and was used extensively and almost exclusively during and after the Civil War, though a few diehards persisted in requiring the old recorders to be used.


Telegraphy grew up with the railroads, making train dispatching, etc., easier and safer.  At first, most telegraph offices were in the RR stations.  Each station, as well as many other important locations (such as switching points) was manned by an operator.  There were many more "country" and small-town stations than "city" offices.  Most operators came from the country and small towns where they remained,  but some were attracted to the advantages of city offices.

Telegraphy was mostly a young man's occupation.  The majority were boys whose ages ranged from nine upwards. Most of them ranged from 14 to 18.  Some were in their 20's, but few above that.  Many of them became superb operators, very accurate, fast and reliable.  Almost all were completely trustworthy and loyal. They refused to divulge the contents of messages to other than the addressees.  Many of these young chaps who had served in railway and public telegraph offices became operators for the armies of both sides during the Civil War, frequently doing service far beyond the call of duty, and at great personal risk. (Although they were usually stationed right on the front lines, yet they never received military honors or pay.)

In the early days pencils were used to copy, and an adequate supply of sharpened ones was kept at hand for each operator. Later, many telegraphers copied with pen and ink (in beautiful Spenserian script -- think of the risk of blots with the old steel pens!), at speeds that ranged up to 30-35 wpm: neat deliverable copy.


This was a period of growth, both in the number of RR offices, and especially the size of big-city offices.  Women in large numbers began to become operators in the city offices because it was cleaner and more respectable work than domestic or factory labor.  There were several categories of operators in the city offices: those handling slow traffic from country places, those handling higher speed material, financial report operators, and at the top, press (news).

The goal of most male operators was to advance and be able to handle high speeds accurately.  These were honored men with the highest pay.  In a city telegraph office it was common to "haze" a new operator.  The others would arrange to have an unusual or garbled message sent to him, or more often a message sent at speeds too fast for him and watch him sweat and worry it out. If, when he looked around at their amusement and realized it was put on, he took it pleasantly, he was considered "initiated" and accepted into the telegraphic fraternity. But if he was infuriated or upset, he was considered still a freshman.

When typewriters became practical in the 1880's they began to be used in American telegraph offices.  A superb operator was said to be able to copy 50 -60 wpm without trouble,  and many of these were said to have copied regularly 5 - 6 words behind to do this.


When Marconi entered the scene with his wireless, the "Continental" or "International" Morse code was in wide use everywhere except in America.  Wireless was then primarily -- in fact, almost solely -- used where wire lines could not be strung.  That meant that it was almost entirely ship to shore or ship to ship.  American operators were American-Morse trained, and soon had to add "Continental" code to their repertoire, using both codes:  American Morse among themselves and "Continental" with other operators.  Many became highly proficient in both codes, using them interchangeably as needed, on a moment by moment basis.

For a period of time up to about WWI this became a requirement.  However, using the somewhat faster and very "ditty" American Morse with the early spark transmitters made copying difficult whenever static was present.  The static and the signals tended to sound too much alike, and at the low radio frequencies then in use, static was heavy during at least half the year.  During this period the U.S. Navy developed an entirely different set of code symbols, probably for this reason, but they were abandoned in favor of the "Continental" code just before the U.S. entered World War I.  It was about the same time that the "Continental" form of Morse code also became standard in the U.S. for commercial and among almost all radio amateurs.

When were the terms "dit" and "dah" introduced?

The March 1926 Wireless Magazine refers to the 1923 Transatlantic signals of (F)8AB as fluttery 25 cycle with "dahdahdahditdit didah dahditditdit".  Were there earlier examples?   With a sounder, instead of "dits" there are "iddies" and for "dahs" "umpties" to distinguish the two types of clicks.  Another description was "klick, kalunk".  In addition to this, of course, was the spacing between words. Good sending had to be relatively precise.

Accuracy was demanded of commercial operators: they were rated on the quality of their sending. A sender or receiver who had to repeat or to ask for repeats could be disqualified.  It was not merely a matter of courtesy, but of economics:  errors meant delays for customers and cost time and money to the telegraph companies. The good telegrapher adjusted his relative lengths according to the perceptive skill of the receiving operator, by making larger or smaller differences in the relative lengths.

One operator reports from his experience that careless Morse sounded worse on a sounder than on CW.  Words with lots of Old Morse letters:  joy  jack  jail  Japan jelly  jewel  jiffy  join  jolly  jungle jury  quick quality queer  equip quote ill long loss late  labor  loyal  legal limit  lip

The signal AR Comes from the American Morse  fn = finished

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The Art &Skill of Radio-Telegraphy-Second Revised Edition-
©William G. Pierpont N0HFF
This page last updated August 02, 1998

Modifications and compile by Thom LaCosta - K3HRN - December 2004