Telegraphy Shortcuts

Posted by | June 20, 2014

When timber and coal camps started springing up throughout Appalachia in the late 19th century, they provided work for surveyors, lawyers, engineers, doctors, dentists, mechanics, railway workers, postal employees, and telegraph operators.

The telegraph offered employment to anyone who could master the technology, regardless of background. There was even a hierarchy of status, as operators moved from small, rural locations (with less traffic) to large, central offices (which had huge traffic). Telegraph operators were paid well and felt themselves part of an honored profession. It was a good way to make a living for a lot of people.

Kentucky telegrapher, WW I era

This photo from the University of Kentucky’s Nollau Collection is undated, but resides in a file labeled ‘Military Women, WWI.’ Location not specified.

However, many telegraph operators who used the key for long periods of time developed a debilitating problem, which they called “glass arm.” Today the same type of problem has a kinder name — “Repetitive Motion Disorder,” or RMD.

“The Anglo-American Telegraphic Code,” a shorthand phrasebook for telegraphers, was  published in 1891. It helped telegraphers avoid RMD by spending less time sitting at the key, but it also helped them send faster, which meant they earned more money, since telegraphers were generally paid by the word.

The book’s preface explained: “In this era of reduced postal and telegraphic rates, concessions to the important principles of economy and expedition in the means of communication by mail and telegraph, the publication of the Anglo- American Code meets an urgent demand.

“It is the outgrowth from what, at first, consisted of various special codes, adapted to special businesses, which were quite limited in scope, and later, of more general codes of wider scope. At last a demand comes for one which will embrace all subjects of correspondence, and this work is designed to meet it.

“The expense and publicity entailed in the use of the telegraph are recognized as serious obstacles. This work will cause a great diminution of these, in many cases practically eliminating them. Embracing as it does, social and domestic, as well as business and miscellaneous subjects, a large proportion of correspondence which is now conducted through the mails, can, through its medium, at slight expense, be conducted, confidentially and quickly, by telegraph.

“Its use will also be recognized as an important means of confidential communication not only in telegrams but also in letters and postal cards.

“This system will be found to be a novel one to the greater part of the public, but it is believed that its usefulness and importance will be promptly recognized while its simplicity makes it available for every one.”

The Anglo-American Code Book, as might be expected for a business guide of its era, was heavy on code phrases for various railroads running throughout the region. Very often the codes are nonsensical words, such as “renavigor,” standing for the “Mariette & North Georgia” railroad.

Other times we can imagine the code’s authors having their fun as they worked away on their manuscript; the code “boastful” stands for the “Western Maryland” railroad, and the code “banjo” for the “Ohio & Mississippi, preferred stock.”

The Anglo-American code book also has plenty of codes for commercial agricultural products.  Why on earth did its authors come up with the code of “bondwoman’ to represent the “common North Carolina sun dried apple”?

Not all 470 pages of the book are this entertaining, but there are chuckles aplenty for the patient reader willing to dig for its hidden gems.

sources:  The Anglo-American telegraphic code to cheapen telegraphy, by American Code and Cypher Company, 1891, Benjamin H Tyrrel, NYC

http://www.la.ca.us/frandy/

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