Few today are aware of the role that telegraphers played in providing global communications and operating the railroad system in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These "wizards of the wire" enabled ordinary small-town people to receive news and personal messages from afar; they prevented railroad collisions and enabled trains to run on time.
For those who remember the work of the telegraph operators, the image that comes to mind is generally that of a male, since women, according to a still-common misconception, "didn't do that kind of work." Yet in 1897, B. B. Adams, editor of Railroad Gazette, could state that at railroad stations "where the business has increased enough to warrant the employment of an assistant, a young woman to do the telegraphing is frequently the first helper employed." This website provides research resources for telegraphy and women's participation in this early technical occupation, and also provides links to related sites.
" 'My Sisters Telegraphic': The Letters of Nineteenth-Century Women Telegraphers," presented at the Seventh Annual Women's Studies Conference, Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green, KY, September 24-25, 1993.
"Women Telegraphers in the West: Images and Realities," presented at the Mid-America Conference on History, Topeka, KS, September 12-14, 1996.
"Women Telegraph Operators in the Civil War," presented at "Lead, Blood, and Tears:" A Conference on Women & the Civil War, Hood College, Frederick, MD, June 27-29, 1997.
"Women Telegraphers and the Railroad in Pennsylvania," presented at The State Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, Strasburg, PA, March 1, 2003 (View with Adobe Acrobat).
"Mothers of Code Telegraphy: Women Railroad Telegraphers and the B&O Railroad," presented at The B&O Railroad Museum, Baltimore, MD, March 9, 2013 (View with Adobe Acrobat).
"Bringing the News to Chapel Hill: Women Operators and the Telegraph in North Carolina," presented at the Chapel Hill Historical Society on November 24, 2013 (View with Adobe Acrobat).
A listing of books, articles and research materials relating to telegraphy and women in telegraphy
Order my book, Ma Kiley: The Life of a Railroad Telegrapher, from Amazon.com, or directly from Texas Western Press.
Order my book, My Sisters Telegraphic: Women in the Telegraph Office 1846-1950, from Amazon.com.
Online Research Archives
The Western Union Telegraph Company Collection at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Online index of the archives of the Western Union Telegraph Company.
The Samuel Morse Papers at the Library of Congress, 1793-1919. The papers of Samuel F. B. Morse, artist and inventor of the telegraph.
BT Archives, The archives of British Telecom PLC, including the records of the telegraph operations of the British Post Office.
Telegraphers' Autobiography, Biography, and Oral History
Esther Stone Brown, a telegrapher for the New York Central Railroad in Wauseon, Ohio, in 1875; her sister Eliza was a telegrapher in Chicago during the fire of 1871.
Thomas Chase, Telegrapher, Eyewitness report of April 18, 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
The Railroad Telegrapher, recollections of Jim Thompson, a retired telegrapher for the St. Louis - San Francisco Railway.
Rose Wilder Lane, oral history of a telegrapher and reporter who was also the daughter of novelist Laura Ingalls Wilder. Read about her career and life .
Along The Santa Fe, by Charles E. Titchenal, recollections of Santa Fe Railroad telegrapher Charles E. Titchenal.
Granville T. Woods, an African-American engineer and inventor, developed and patented many inventions relating to telegraphy.
Utah History to Go - Transcontinental Telegraph, women operators and the Deseret Telegraph in Utah in the nineteenth century.
Katherine Fenton Nutter, who "came west as a telegrapher and became Utah's cattle queen."
"Just Around The Corner", a series of columns relating to old-time telegraphy, written by ex-telegrapher Bertrande Snell for the Syracuse, NY, Post-Standard between 1945 and 1949. Thanks to railroad historian Richard Palmer for this contribution.
Depot Days in Ann Arbor, the career of Michigan telegrapher Ray Anderson; how 2nd trick operator Lizzie Maroney dealt with restrictions on women's working hours.
"Lone Telegrapher Connects Mongolian Desert with Outside," the story of telegrapher Gao Zizhong, who provides the only communications link from Inner Mongolia's Badain Jaran Desert to the outside world.
Jane McDowell Foster, wife of composer Stephen Foster, who became a telegrapher for the Pennsylvania Railroad after leaving her husband in 1861. Here is a photograph of Jane McDowell Foster.
Georgia Harrman, operator for the Virginia and Southwestern Railroad in 1907.
The letters of Effie Barnaby, Postal Telegraph Manager at the Massillon, Ohio, office in the early 1900s. Read her account of William Howard Taft's visit to Massillon in 1908.
Telegraph-History, articles primarily from the Antique Wireless Association Journal that focus on U.S. telegraph history.
History of the U.S. Telegraph Industry, by Tomas Nonnenmacher, Allegheny College, Economic History Association.
The Once and Future Web, An online exhibition on telegraphy and the Internet, presented by the National Library of Medicine. To hear portions of Ma Kiley's autobiography, "The Bug and I," enter the exhibition, select "Life On The Line," and click on the photo of Ma Kiley under "audio" on the right.
1853 Daguerreotype of telegrapher from the American Museum of Photography.
History of Teletype Development, History of the development of the Teletypewriter, or automatic printing telegraph.
The Aurora Borealis and the Telegraph, early accounts of the effect of the northern lights on the operation of the telegraph.
Telegraphic Apparatus and Collectors' Pages
The Telegraph Office, information on telegraph equipment and history.
Telegraph and Scientific Instrument Internet On-Line Cyber Museum, telegraph instruments and photographs.
The Vibroplex Collector's Page, Information on Vibroplex semi-automatic telegraph keys ("bugs").
Glass Insulators, a webpage for collectors of telegraph and telephone insulators.
Telegraph Stamps, a webpage for collectors of stamps issued by telegraph companies and post and telegraph administrations.
Telegraphic Literature Online
Modern Practice of the Electric Telegraph, by Frank Pope. An 1881 classic put online by Charles Keith.
Historical Sketch of the Electric Telegraph, by Alexander Jones. Published in 1852; placed online by Making of America.
The Telegraph Manual, by Taliaferro P. Shaffner. Published in 1859; placed online by Making of America.
Western Union Telegraph Company Rules, Regulations, and Instructions, published by Western Union in 1866. Placed online by Making of America.
Railroad Telegrapher for the years 1887-1905,placed online by the University of Iowa Libraries. The journal of the Order of Railroad Telegraphers.
"The Young Women at the London Telegraph Office," an essay by Anthony Trollope which appeared in the June 1877 issue of Good Words.
Women Telegraphers in the Cinema
The Lonedale Operator (1911), directed by D.W. Griffith, stars Blanche Sweet as a telegraph operator who foils an attempted robbery.
The Girl and Her Trust (1912), Griffith's remake of "The Lonedale Operator", starring Dorothy Bernard.
The Hazards of Helen: Episode 26, "The Wild Engine" (1915), an early silent serial starring Helen Holmes as an intrepid telegraph operator.
Railroad Operation and Terminology
U.S. Railroad Retirement Board genealogical information for railroad workers after 1936, includes links to sources of information on railroaders before 1937.
Railway Signalling and Operations, rules and regulations of the Order of Railroad Telegraphers (ORT).
Telegraphers' Unions and Labor History
George Estes and the Order of Railroad Telegraphers, recollections by Oregon telegrapher George Estes of ORT union activities in the late nineteenth century.
The Seattle Telegraphers' Lockout of 1918, a paper written by David Radford as part of the University of Washington's Seattle General Strike Project.
Guide to the United Telegraph Workers Records 1928-1996, records of the union which absorbed the Commercial Telegraphers Union of America (CTUA) in 1968.
The Transportation-Communications International Union, (TCU), history of the union which absorbed the Order of Railroad Telegraphers in 1969.
History of Women in Telegraphy
Sarah George Bagley, biographical essay on Lowell, Massachusetts, women's rights advocate and first female telegrapher (1846), from the Center for Lowell History website.
Norwegian Women Telegraphers demand wage increases and workplace equality in the late nineteenth century.
The Employments of Women, Virginia Penny's 1863 book on employment for women in the United States; see pages 100-101 for telegraphy.
Letters of Phoebe Wood to Ezra Cornell. 1849 Correspondence between Phoebe Wood, telegrapher in Albion, Michigan, and her brother, Ezra Cornell, telegraph entrepreneur, made available online by Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University. Early writings by a woman telegrapher; see correspondence of July 13, 1849; September 23, 1849; and November 24, 1849.
Family History and Photos of Phoebe Wood and Ezra Cornell, from the Albion, Michigan, History/Genealogy Page.
Louisa Dunkley and her role in establishing the Victorian Women's Post and Telegraph Association in Australia in the 1890s.
Mathilde Fibiger, Danish novelist and women's rights advocate, became the first female telegraph operator for the Danish post and telegraph office in Copenhagen. See her photograph from the Danish Royal Library.
Letter to the Telegrapher from "134," a woman operator, December 26, 1864, 32.
Telegrapher Editorial on "Lady Operators" by Lewis Smith, February 27, 1865, 58.
Letter to the Telegrapher from "Magnetta," a woman operator, February 27, 1865, 61.
Letter to the Telegrapher from Mrs. M. E. Lewis, a woman operator, February 1, 1866, 42.
Telegraph History - Australia
The Overland Telegraph Line, construction of the Australian Overland Telegraph from Adelaide to Darwin in 1872.
Telegraph History - Canada
Telegraph in Newfoundland, history of telegraphs in Newfoundland.
Canadian Railway Telegraph History, history of railroad telegraphs in Canada.
Atlantic Sentinel: Newfoundland's Role in Transatlantic Cable Communications. The history of Newfoundland's role in the building of the transatlantic telegraph cable, by Donald R. Tarrant.
Photograph of Emily Johnson, a telegrapher who worked for the Government Telegraph Service in the Northwest Territories in 1897.
Telegraph History - Germany
Die Geschichte der Telegraphie, history of the telegraph and telephone in Germany (In German).
Telegraph History - India
Indian Telegraph, history of the telegraph in India and the work of Dr. William O'Shaughnessy, by John H. Lienhard of the University of Houston College of Engineering.
Telegraph History - Japan
A Chronology of Telegraph and Telephony, The NTT online museum of the history and development of telecommunications in Japan.
Telegraph History - New Zealand
Early Telegraphy and Telegrams, The history of the telegraph in New Zealand.
Telegraph History - United Kingdom
Distant Writing: A History of the Telegraph Companies
in Britain between 1838 and 1868, an excellent website detailing
the early history of Britain's telegraph industry before the
takeover by the British Post Office - maintained by Steven Roberts.
Comments and suggestions on the content of this site are welcomed. Please address comments to
Thomas C. Jepsen
515 Morgan Creek Road
Chapel Hill, NC 27517
Or, e-mail me at email@example.com
last updated January 20, 2014.