Last week, I asked you to guess the identity of the object below:
That’s right, it’s a telegraph key.
“Why doesn’t it look like a telegraph key?” you ask. Maybe you think a telegraph key should look like this:
Yes, indeed it should—and that’s the problem.
Samuel F. B. Morse invented electric telegraphy in 1844. In the ensuing years, telegraph keys—those little gadgets telegraphers used to send messages in Morse code over wires before the telephone, teletype, and Internet were invented—were mostly of the type shown in Lou Sander’s image above. The devices required a repetitive up-and-down motion of the hand to send the dots and dashes that composed the message.
As this new technology spread rapidly around the globe, men and women were soon spending whole careers “pounding brass” eight hours a day, five or six days a week—employed by railroads, military organizations, and other operations that needed to transmit information quickly over long distances. By around 1900, manufacturers started producing telegraph keys with horizontal or lateral actions to combat “telegrapher’s paralysis,” a repetitive motion injury that today we call “carpal tunnel syndrome.”
One answer to this challenge was J.H. Bunnell & Company’s Double Speed Key, introduced in 1904. This key, known as “the Sideswiper” for its horizontal action, looked very similar to a standard telegraph key, but the lever was mounted for sideways operation. It became a very popular item in Bunnell’s inventory.
Priority, however, goes to Foote, Pierson & Company with their “Twentieth Century Key,” also known as the “Pump Handle Key,” introduced at the very turn of the century, in 1900. The motion of this device was rotational: The operator swung the handle up and to the left to make contact. Professor Tom Perera of Montclair State University tells us this key was “Popular with Railroad operators.”
That’s probably the reason I happen to own the Twentieth Century Key shown in my teaser photo at the top of this post. It came down from my grandfather, William P. Sommers, who was a young railroad telegrapher and station agent in the early years of the twentieth century. The “pump handle” of this device today is quite stiff, but I suppose that’s a matter of congealed lubricants. Even assuming fresh lubricants and a smoothly operating handle, it’s hard to imagine Grandpa sending with any speed while using such a cumbersome wrist-twisting motion to send the signals.
But the very nature of that wrist motion presumably spared the operator’s carpal tunnels and made the key “popular with railroad operators.” Even so, I suppose by the time Grandpa left the employ of the railroad, his “Twentieth Century Key” was an obsolete relic, superseded by the sleek Bunnell “Sideswipers.” That is what allows me to think the railroad would have let him take the outmoded key with him as a souvenir of his railroad days.
Grandpa was a fierce, truculent, and eccentric man. He was also a stickler for propriety. He would never have simply stolen railroad property.
Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author
Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.
Price of Passage
Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois
(History is not what you thought!)