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Posted By: Walt Mathers on: 08/07/2006 06:33:55 EDT
Subject: How Unique A Portrayal For Women & Men?

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The telegraph operator was the most romantic figure on the telegraph scene...

Like the locomotive engineer and steamboat pilot, the telegraph operator, communicating instantaneously with distant points using a private language, fascinated boys. They hung about the local telegraph office, usually at the railroad station in small towns everywhere, listening to the clicks of the sounder. The operator might notice their interest and adulation, and introduce them to the Morse.

Alas, few girls are recorded to have had the same interests, though women became excellent telegraphers, and this was perhaps the first skilled employment for women where they were the equals of men.

These days, both boys and girls have no such inclinations, perhaps because the romance has been relentlessly squeezed out of such things. There was a similar interest among British boys, but it was never as strong as in North America, and there was no counterpart of the railroad telegraph operator.

The first American woman operator was Sarah G. Bagley in 1846, at Lowell, Massachusetts. Other early women operators were Emma A. Hunter at West Chester, Pennsylvania in 1851, for the Atlantic and Ohio, and Ellen A. Laughton, who became operator at Dover, N.H. in March 1852 on the Boston and Portland line.

There was much prejudice against women operators, as could be expected, but they were excellent operators, and would work for lower wages. 20 years after the War of 1861 approximately a third of the Western Union operators at New York were female. By this time, female operators were by no means a rarity.

The principal skill of the operator was sending and receiving Morse code by hand and ear. Receiving is difficult to learn, requiring extended practice. Once one can receive, sending is quite easy. The sound of each character is what is learnt, not the individual dots and dashes.

The Vail [of American Morse] alphabet, with its spaced letters, is tricky but faster than Continental [International] code. A railroad operator was usually allowed to take on a small number of students, since this was the usual way operators were trained. There were regular telegraph schools in large cities, where the demand for operators was greatest. Individual operators sometimes affected certain syncopations that gave them a recognizable "fist," but this was bad practice, though irresistible to a certain type of person. The best code was perfect code, since it could be universally understood, like good pronunciation in speech. A beginning operator was called a "plug" by analogy with horseflesh.

The railroad operator's main job was as a signalman and handler of train orders; telegraphy was only a tool he used. Each office had call letters to identify it, usually two letters. When an operator recognized his call in the traffic taking place on his sounder, he would break (open his key) and reply at the first opportunity. Only in an emergency would he break in the middle of traffic. To listen on two wires, the sounders would be made to give different sounds. This would be accomplished by slight adjustments to the sounder or relay springage.

It took considerable skill to listen to one with the other clicking away in the background. Since an operator was usually isolated in an office by himself, he or she knew how to adjust his relay and sounder, and to maintain the wet batteries for his local circuit. In case of any problem with the wires, he would call for the lineman or line repairer. On some of the rickety early commercial lines, the operator might have to double as lineman, hanging the sign "Gone to Mend a Break" on the office door.

Railroad offices gave Western Union a universal presence at a low cost. Of 8203 offices in the Central Division, 7187 were railroad offices, or 88%. The expense of these offices, if devoted wholly to Western Union, would have been prohibitive. Railroad operators also handled Western Union traffic, while they did other things like selling tickets and handling packages, which supplemented their income.

Boys and girls interested in telegraphy delivered messages for the tips they received, or in return for telegraph instruction. Commercial messengers were paid, in large cities by the message, and even then relied on tips to eke out their small wages. Salaried messengers were happier, and more loyal to the company. Service as a messenger was usually the entry position into the industry.

A Chief Operator at each major commercial station was usually appointed to preserve order on the wires, if there were no Wire Chief, and to ensure that traffic was handled expeditiously. A Night Chief Operator did the same on the night shift. Sometimes the Chief Operator handled the technical aspects of the line when there was no Superintendent, or the Super had no technical knowledge. In large offices, there might be a batteryman to tend the noxious Grove cells, and wire chiefs to distribute the traffic over the available circuits. Shifts were usually 12 hours long before the War of 1861, and shortened only very gradually, especially in railway service.

The telegraph operator was a new kind of employee. A few month's training produced a plug operator, but several years' practice was required to develop a first-rate operator who could send and receive at 20 or 25 words per minute. There were also electrical matters to deal with, which were new and technical. The operator worked in a clean, bright office and no strenuous manual effort was required. This made it possible for women to be operators, in no way less capable than men. This was a new phenomenon in the world of work, and the proper status of the operator was not easy to work out.


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Signal Corps Association (1860-1865)
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