Fun_People Archive
27 Jan
Dead medium: Telegraphy

Content-Type: text/plain
Mime-Version: 1.0 (NeXT Mail 3.3 v118.2)
From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Tue, 27 Jan 98 13:27:53 -0800
To: Fun_People
Precedence: bulk
Subject: Dead medium:  Telegraphy

Forwarded-by: Bruce Sterling <>
Subject: Dead Media Working Note 29.7

Dead medium:  Telegraphy

From:  (Bill Burns)

Sources:  "Museum recalls when news moved in dots, dashes" by Libby Quaid,
Associated Press,  January 22, 1998 Telegraphy Talk (
Also seen in Austin American-Statesman, Sunday Jan 25, 1998, page A6

(((Bill Burns remarks:   More news on Morse from the telegraph key
collectors list.  The event described was at the Newseum on Jan 21.  I find
it a little ironic that the Morse code demonstration can be heard in
RealAudio: )))

"Telegraph Served AP for 8 Decades"

By Libby Quaid
Associated Press Writer
Thursday, January 22, 1998; 2:57 a.m.

"WASHINGTON (AP) == The Associated Press once had an army of 1,500
telegraphers who spread the news to the world in staccato bursts.

     "'There's only four of us left,' says Aubrey Keel, whose career spanned
bureaus from coast to coast and whose world was the 46 combinations of dots
and dashes that made up Morse Code.

     "For the eight decades the news cooperative depended upon the
telegraph, a good fist was in demand. His own could tap out up to 45 words
a minute, the 96-year-old Keel boasted as he demonstrated his trade
Wednesday as part of the AP's 150th anniversary observation at The Freedom
Forum's Newseum, a museum in the Washington suburb of Arlington, Va.

     "From his home in Kansas City, Mo., Keel brought the tools that once
ruled the business == a vintage green Western Union telegraph like the
machine he started on, and a Vibroplex 'lightning bug' that is still made

       "Smoothly, swiftly, he flicked his wrist, and the
'dahditditdidahdahdididit' became verse received by a retired Illinois
railroad telegrapher, George Nixon, seated with his own machine in the back
of the room:

"'Along the smooth and slender wires, the sleepless heralds run.
"'Fast as the clear and living rays go streaming from the sun.
"'No peals or flashes, heard or seen, their wondrous flight betray.
"'And yet their words are quickly caught, in cities far away.'


    "(Telegraphers) had to know three 'languages' of Morse Code; American,
International, and Continental (created because the space letters C, O, R,
Y and Z and the long L couldn't transmit along submarine cables) as well as
Phillips Code, a shorthand version of Morse.

     "First recruited by the railroads during a telegrapher shortage in
World War I, Keel took years to develop the skill that now comes so easily.

...."'I don't know how else to explain it. After you do
it for a while, it's like music,' Keel said. 'It's like riding a bicycle or
playing the piano. You get rusty at it, but you don't forget it.'


      "But the newspaper telegraphers 'had it made,' Keel said. When he was
hired by the AP in Lubbock, Texas, Keel made $32.60 a week for 48 hours of
work. The average railroad salary was about $25, he said.

      "Older operators had a reputation for hard living, but Keel had
learned his lesson as a novice in an earlier job. It was Prohibition, and
he decided to drink a bottle of home brew with his more experienced

       "'I came back, and the wire started up == I could hear it, but I
couldn't get it down,' Keel said. 'You never saw a man sober up as fast as
I did.'

      "He remembers when the Texas AP phased in the Teletype printer in
1928, letting 30 operators go in one day.   'Someone said, 'Those Teletypes
will never work, they'll have us back in a week,' Keel recalled.

      "But they didn't. Keel weathered the storm, eventually becoming
communications chief in the Milwaukee, Des Moines and Los Angeles bureaus.
He retired in 1966.

      "Today, he often 'talks' to retired telegraphers transmitting via ham
radio == unless he's busy using email from a home command center that
includes two computers, radio gear and a digital camera and scanner. His
old employer now transmits news at 9,000 words a minute.

     "He glanced down at his old 'green key,' adjusting the Prince Albert
tobacco can that changes the telegraph's pitch.

     "'It's hard to think that AP started and for 80 years, that was their
means of communication. And look at what they are today,' he said."

prev [=] prev © 1998 Peter Langston []