View Full Version : Memphis Telegraph Office, 1862

08-30-2004, 10:02 PM
MEMPHIS DAILY APPEAL, [MEMPHIS, TN], May 29, 1862, p. 2, c. 6-7

The Telegraph.—The telegraph has since its invention, proved one of the most important and useful means of communication that man has ever made available. The politician, the man of business, and of science, and the public generally, have found it invaluable in the various departments of government, commerce, learning, and ordinary life. Since the breaking out of the war, its utility has become more apparent than ever before, and thinking some account of its practical working would be of interest, at this time, to the public, we availed ourselves of the kindness of Mr. Coleman, Dr. Green, and Mr. Montgomery the other day, to look over the telegraph office in this city. The following details are the result of our investigation:

In the working room of the office an assistant is seen pushing down, at intervals of various length, a round knob attached to a lever, which is connected with a little instrument standing on a table; when the knob, or key as it is called, is pushed down, it permits the galvanic current to flow on the wires which we see suspended along the streets and railroads. This current is obtained from a large number of bottles standing in a closet in the rear of the operating room. Each bottle is partially filled with sulphuric acid diluted with water, in which is immersed a piece of platinum and a piece of copper. The acid gradually eats away the metal by chemical action, and in doing so originates the galvanic current by means of which telegraphic communication is carried on. The reader will be able to form some idea of this galvanic power by placing on his tongue a silver half dollar, and beneath it a piece of zinc. On drawing the two pieces of metal forward, so that they shall touch at the tip of the tongue, an acrid taste will be perceived at the moment the metals come in contact. The moisture of the mouth performs the office of the diluted sulphuric acid, and the acrid taste is the consequence of galvanic action. Pressing down the key of the above mentioned instrument, connects the wires on the poles with the battery, as the arrangement of bottles and metals is called—in the closet; and the current engendered in the battery runs on the wire, in a larger or smaller proportion, as the key is kept down a longer or shorter time. These jets of the galvanic fluid pass along the wire to the end of it, unless, at any place between the spot where the instrument is placed and the termination of the wire, a connection is made from the wire to the ground. If that is done the current passes into the earth, and the message proceeds no further.

When the current reaches the point for which it is destined, as Corinth, Vicksburg, or new Orleans, it moves an instrument there with motions corresponding with those impressed upon the key by the operator in Memphis. The instrument can be so arranged as to impress upon a long ribbon of paper, kept moving forward by a sort of clockwork, a number of dots or dashes, corresponding in number or length with the impressions made on the key by the operator, and between the dots and dashes will be spaces, caused by the interruption of the current when the finger of the operator ceases to press upon the key.By arranging these dots, dashes and spaces in various ways, they can be made to represent the letters of the alphabet, just as placing the fingers of the hand in particular positions represents letters in talking to a dumb person. As an example, the letter A is represented by a dot and a dash, thus, . -- ; D by a dash and two dots, thus, -- . . ; T is a short dash, --; L is a long dash, ----; and so on. The following is a specimen of the sort of writing done by the telegraph, in doing which it will be remembered that the writer, or operator, is sometimes five hundred miles from the spot where the marks he produces are made and read:

… ….. . .. . .. .-- ----
--.. .. … ….. .-- -- .. . ….
-- . . -- …. .
. -- ….. ….. . .-- ----

This is made up of the following letters: S … p ….. e . c.. . I .. a . – l ---- d --.. i .. s … p ….. a . – t – c .. . h …. T – o . . t – h …. E . A . – p ….. p ….. e . a . – l ---- Special dispatch to the Appeal. It will be observed that two dots represent O as well as I, but the space between them is larger; the space between words is much larger than that between letters. It is not a little remarkable that the simple characters of the dot, the dash, (which is only a prolonged dot), and the spaces between are capable of so many combinations as to form all the letters, all the figures and the punctuation marks, without the employment of more than five characters for any one letter, or more than six for any one numeral. This way of representing letters and numerals will appear complex to the reader, but it is really so simple that a good operator can write—as it is termed—a message more rapidly than the most expert penman at the other end of the line can copy it off.

While the instrument at the other end, where a dispatch is received, is making such marks as the above upon paper, it makes a clicking noise. The sound, of course, comes at longer and shorter intervals, as the dot, the dash, or the space succeed each other. In other words, there is an exact co-incidence between the length of a mark and the time of the sound. A singular and unexpected consequence flowed from this fact. The operators became so accustomed to the sound made by the instruments, that they could distinguish readily one letter from another; tic, tic, closely following one the other, was as clearly the letter I, as two dots on paper were the same letter. Operators, therefore, at the present time, entirely dispense with the paper and the marks. A second instrument, called a sounder, is added to the first; this has the effect of increasing the volume of sound, and making the tic-tics louder. The operator merely listens to the sounds given by the instrument, and he takes them down as he hears them. In fact, the instrument talks, and he reports its words as a reporter does the words of a speech in Congress. There is nothing in all the range of art that goes beyond this.

The reader is now in possession of the principle facts respecting the practical working of the telegraph, but there are one or two other matters which he will feel interested in knowing. The telegraph, as we have explained, is a talking instrument, and unluckily, like some other talking instruments, it talks too much. Suppose we wish to send a message to Canton, Mississippi, not only will the instrument at Canton repeat what the operator at Memphis signals, but the one at Grenada, and all other instruments between Memphis and Canton will do the same. This is telling too much, but no means are known by which the signals can be confined to a particular instrument. Like old ladies at a tea drinking, when one tongue runs, all run. The message would keep going to stations beyond Canton, but at that place or any other, it can be stopped by placing the instrument in connection with a wire that communicates with the ground, the galvanic fluid passes into the earth, and the instruments at stations beyond that point do not get the particular message thus stopped. The reader will understand from this how the vulgar saying originated of "running the thing into the ground." It follows from what we have just explained that telegraph operators, like doctors, lawyers, and clergymen, come to the knowledge of many private matters. All operators, therefore, are taught that messages passing over the line are sacredly private, and every one of them would be covered with shame if detected in betraying the confidence reposed in his honor, by violating a solemn duty of his profession.

It is very rarely that the telegraph lines or any telegraphers connected with the lines, are ever responsible for the truth or falsity of any information transmitted by them. They receive and transmit messages signed by their respective authors and deliver them to the persons or parties to whom they are addressed; like the postmasters as to mailing and delivering letters, they do not and cannot stop to enquire into the truth of their contents or the responsibility of their authors. In times like these, however, the authorities are exercising a partial restriction upon the telegraph, and having military possession of the lines, messages giving improper information are not allowed to be sent.

The business of telegraphing has rapidly grown into general use during the last five years, especially for commercial purposes. This latter great class of business, however, constituting the main reliance for support and profit, has now been almost entirely supplanted by military business, the commerce of the country being prostrate and the whole country absorbed in the war. The telegraph interests of the country—employing in the North American States an aggregate capital of from eight to ten millions of dollars—has chiefly fallen into the hands of six large corporations.

The corporations owning and operating all the lines in Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, and North Alabama, is known as the South Western Telegraph Company. Their executive office has hitherto been in Louisville but was removed to Nashville at the beginning of the present troubles, thence to this place, and more recently to Jackson, Miss. Dr. N. Green is president, Geo. L. Douglass treasurer, and T. L. Carter secretary; the three constitute an executive board.

The practical management of the line is under our worthy fellow-citizen J. Vanhorn, Esq., as general superintendent, and to his and the efficiency of his competent assistant superintendent, are we indebted for what is universally conceded the best working line on the continent.

The lines across the river and throughout Arkansas, have been chiefly constructed and are managed by our enterprising friend H. M. Montgomery, Esq., as the head of a corporation known as the Arkansas State Telegraph Company, and to his persevering energy we are indebted for maintaining telegraphic communication with Little Rock and Fort Smith, under all the difficulties caused by swamps, forests and floods. To the ever ready kindness of J. Coleman, Esq., the Memphis office has for years owed its high degree of popularity.

Vicki Betts