Wire Magic

What happens when you send one of the 16,000,000 telegraph messages that flash across Canada every year

FREDERICK EDWARDS December 15 1937

Wire Magic

What happens when you send one of the 16,000,000 telegraph messages that flash across Canada every year

FREDERICK EDWARDS December 15 1937

Wire Magic

What happens when you send one of the 16,000,000 telegraph messages that flash across Canada every year


WE BEGIN by imagining a Mr. Younghusband, who lives in Vancouver. This day our Mr. Younghusband is in a state. He paces the corridors of a Vancouver hospital, muttering to himself, clenching and unclenching his fingers, smoking an endless chain of cigarettes which he cannot taste. His condition is familiar to the bustling nurses and the aloof physicians who pass and repass him, paying him no attention. Mr. Younghusband is in the throes of a quite normal case of the about-to-become-a-father jitters. Thousands like him stomp around the corridors of Canadian hospitals every year.

But at last Mr. Younghusband’s ordeal is over. A nurse smiles on him, offers congratulations. At once he rushes out to the nearest telegraph office to send a reassuring message to Mrs. Younghusband’s parents, living in Sydney, Nova Scotia:

“Seven pound boy both doing splendidly love.”

Inside ten minutes the waiting parents in Sydney know that their daughter in Vancouver has come up out of the dark valley and that they are now proud grandparents.

Spanning a continent or hopping into the next town, telegraphed messages flash continuously with the speed of light, carrying words of congratulation or condolence, announcing pending arrivals or departures, opening and closing business negotiations, buying and selling, requesting and forwarding cash remittances, distributing world news, acting as vital trade arteries to stock, grain, cattle and produce exchanges, consoling lonesome sweethearts separated by harsh circumstances. From the chummy “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” greeting to the momentous business message in code, “Deal closed stop have million on deposit bank opening Monday stop,” there is hardly a single phase of modern human relationships that does not at some time or another call upon the telegraph organizations for assistance and co-operation.

How is it done? By what intricate necromancy is it made possible to flash words across the continent in less time than it takes to write a letter, much less get it to a mailbox. We all know that it is done. We all have sublime confidence that when we turn in a message to a telegraph office it will be delivered to its destination, accurately and swiftly. But how?

Modern Improvements

/''NBVIOUSLY THE present perfection of telegraphic communication did not just happen overnight. Actually it is the culmination of two centuries of experiment, trial and error, slow and patient development. Although Samuel Morse is generally and properly honored as the father of modern telegraphy, one Stephen Gray first, established the scientific fact, that electricity could be conveyed between distant points by means of an insulated wire. The Gray discovery, made in 1729, antedates the Morse electromagnetic self-recording telegraph by more than 100 years, since the first Morse patents were granted in 1837.

From Samuel Morse's inventions, especially the Morse dot-dash code, and the combined efforts and researches of known and unknown succeeding experimenters, the present amazingly efficient system has developed. In small communities, where the volume of business does not warrant the installation of the more complicated and costly automatic multiplex machines, the Morse system is still used, changed very little from its original form after a century in the public service.

For more than sixty years practically all progress in telegraphic communication stemmed from the Morse inventions, until in 1900 a French scientist, Baudot, turned up with an automatic printer. Baudot operated six printing machines in each direction over a single wire, with a capacity of 360 words a minuteand that was the beginning of the present high-speed system. The use of automatic printers has increased enormously in Canada since the war. Today telegraphic communication is about evenly split in this country; fifty per cent Morse, fifty per cent automatic.

To trace the progress of our Mr, Younghusband’s message from Vancouver to Sydney step by step, involves a fascinating study of one of the most intricate series of processes modern communication systems can offer. We have supposed that Mr. Younghusband. excited and elated, dashed in person to the nearest telegraph office, wrote out his message and handed it over the counter to a receiving clerk. In the circumstances that is probably what he would do; but there are other means of getting a telegraphic message quickly on the wire.

In cities and towns, every telephone is a branch telegraph office. A call to the number listed under “to send a telegram” connects immediately with a young lady who has been specially trained for her job. With a headset over her permanent wave, she sits in front of a typewriter. As the message is recited to her, she types it directly on a telegraph blank, repeats it back to the sender, checks any corrections, then forwards it by pneumatic tube or carrier belt to the point where it is put on the wires. In big cities the telephone receiving battery numbers from four to a dozen operators, according to the volume of anticipated business and the hour of day or night. The girls are expert typists who have been trained in a number of unusual accomplishments. Usually they are bilingual, and they have cultivated a keen ear for tricky foreign accents struggling with the English tongue. They have to jxjssess unlimited patience and a talent for never making mistakes. Exact accuracy, not a common attribute of frail human beings, is essential for the making of a good telegraph-telephone operator.

You can telephone a telegram to any of the several hundred branch offices throughout Canada with complete assurance that it will be forwarded to its destination rapidly and in true reproduction of your message. All the sender jhas to worry about is the bill, which will turn up a few days later at the address where the telephone call originated.

Many business houses using the telegraph as a regular part of the daily routine use the call-box system. The message is typed and enclosed in an envelope in the sender’s office. A switch button attached to a call box on the wall or a desk is turned, producing a buzzing sound something like a swarm of annoyed bees swinging into action. At the telegraph office a receiving ticker prints on a narrow tape a series of dashes and spaces. Like this.

Flach group of dashes represents the figure indicated by the number of dashes in that group. Thus, the signal above is read in the receiving office as 4253. and immediately a messenger boy grabs his bicycle and hustles off to the address where call box 4253 is located. F'ire and police departments in our cities use the same simple signal system for alarms.

Of course, if our Mr. Younghusband chanced to be a stockbroker with a private leased wire between Vancouver and Sydney, he could simply dictate his message to his operator in Vancouver, and it would be in his Sydney office almost instantly; but few first-time fathers are thus happily situated.

Once a message reaches a telegraph office, whether it is uanded across the counter, telephoned, nr brought in by a messenger answering a call box, it follows a strict routine designed to expedite its forwarding while at the same time

checking every detail of its handling for the protection of the company. Words are counted and noted, the sender’s name and address are recorded, and an automatic time stamp prints the year, month, date and exact time of receipt on the face of the message. Then it passes at once to the operating room for transmission. In the smaller branch offices the operating room is likely to be just back of the receiving counter; but in the larger centres, elaborate systems of tubes and carrier belts speed the telegram to the sending operator.

Fig lit y Messages on Two Wires

TN SI ÏCI1 telegraphic terminals, handling many thousands

of messages every day, the original telegram goes first to a distribution room, where nimble-minded clerks note its destination and pass it along to the section where operators, sending over direct wires to the receiving office nearest that address, are stationed. Over long distances relays are necessary. In the case of Mr. Younghusband’s telegram, the Vancouver operator would send it to Montreal on a direct line, Montreal would telegraph it to Halifax, and Halifax would pass it on to Sydney.

The number of minutes of elapsed time between Vancouver and Sydney would depend upon a variety of circumstances, but especially upon the condition of traffic at that particular hour of the day. Under normal conditions it takes about four minutes to get a wired message from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts. At the peak of the traffic load it might take eight. In any circumstances it will not take longer than ten minutes, which is pretty good going over 3,(XX) miles of space.

From the sending operator’s key or keyboard, if automatic— the message is carried by means of electric impulses over as many thousands of miles of wire—about fifty per cent of the wire is copper, the other fifty iron—as may be needed to bring it to its destination. You see those wires strung aloft beside railway tracks and along highways on tall poles that once were proud trees in Canadian forests. To the casual traveller they are just a lot of wires mounted on an endless parade of long sticks; but your telegraph man knows well that every inch of that wire has its own identity. On huge maps in central telegraph offices each wire is lined and plotted. So many wires into this relay office; so many on branch lines leading to every fractional division of the compass. So many active; so many in reserve for emergencies.

Do not for a moment entertain the naive idea that every

wire carries only one message at a time. The whole course of progress in the science of telegraphic communication during the past forty years has been toward the amazing duplication and multiplication of carrier systems, until today Canadian companies can operate ten or more separate and distinct telegraph circuits on one pair of wires. The ten-channel system in turn can be duplexed, enabling operators to transmit twenty messages simultaneously on the same pair of wires—ten in each direction.

You might think that would be an achievement to satisfy the most ambitious telegraph engineer; but they seem to lie a restless lot. those chaps. Never entirely contented. So they have evolved a four-channel multiplex with a capacity of eight messages simultaneously over one channel, or a total of eighty messages at the same time over one pair of wires. Also, if things get a bit dull they can telephone on the same wires without disturbing the telegraphed messages in the least.

The way this is done is simple routine to the wire folks, complicated as it sounds to the layman’s ear. Perhaps the

easiest method of grasping it is to think of the carrier telegraph system in terms of radio. You can tune in any number of stations on your set at different frequencies, indicated by points on the dial. The channel carrier system operates along similar lines, using tubes very like those in your radio set.

The Four-Channel System

nro UNDERSTAND the process, take as an example a four-channel line between Montreal and Toronto. The electrical impulses travel over the wire in rotation: Operator A, in Toronto, sends to Automatic Printer A in Montreal; B operator sends to B machine; C to C and D to D -then back to A again.

The rotation is automatically controlled by two revolving wheels equipped with tiny wire brushes—distributors— one in Toronto, its twin in Montreal, turning at exactly the same speed. When the A machine is sending, the distributor in Montreal receives the impulses and translates them into letters of the alphabet, then prints them on an automatic typewriter. A quarter revolution of the twin distributors brings the B machine into line, and so on.

Thus, these four imaginary messages might be sent at the same time:


As each operator begins to send, the distributors pick up the letters in turn, so that the four messages enter the Montreal office in this fashion:



This might look like something you’d try to decipher in a nightmare, but the distributor in Montreal makes its appointed revolutions, picks up each letter as it comes in and prints it on the automatic typewriter in its proper place, so that the four messages appear on receiving machines A, B, C and D, just as they were sent from Toronto. I f you read the messages letter by letter, moving down the list from A to B to C to D, then back to A, you’ll get the idea. By electrically balancing the line, four Montreal operators are able to send simultaneously in the opposite direction to four receiving machines in Toronto, all

through the same channel. Transmission takes less than three seconds.

The receiving machines are themselves fascinating gadgets. Using a standard typewriter keyboard, except that the letters are all capitals and the machine is larger and sturdier, it depresses the correct key by means of a paper tape in w'hich it punches holes, as in a player-piano roll, which passes over a small cogged wheel. The cogs pull the tape into the proper position. The perforations make a pattern of their own utterly undecipherable to outsiders, but read as easily as front page newspaper headlines by the operators. The entire receiving process is automatic. All the receiving operator has to do is keep the printer supplied with telegraph blanks.

Automatic printers are used with tape instead of telegraph blanks in many cases, and the message is cut and gummed on the blank by experts using a gum feeder and two clever hands. Here again the object is to save time. The tape system is much speedier than the old Morsesounder-to-typewriter process ever was.

All central telegraph offices have tucked away in their interiors an elaborate setup of wire racks and switchboards. The wires are brought in through insulated conduits, and carried to a rack where they are separated and assigned numbers by which the traffic employees identify them. From the rack the wires go to a jack on a switchboard, in appearance much like a telephone switchboard. There they connect with another jack which feeds the power supply of 240 volts. From this point they are distributed—the boys call this operation “fanning” —to the operating positions in the different departments: Morse,

Automatic, Stocks, Press, and so on.

Wire chiefs are constantly on the floor supervising conditions. Meters on the switchboards enable these experts to spot trouble without delay on any wire reported down or out of order. The wire chief cuts in on the line, and the meter will tell him almost the exact location of the break. Old-timers at this game can spot wire trouble to within eight telegraph poles— about a third of a mile—of the grief.

Morse Men Becoming Scarce

WHILE THE greater part of the telegraph companies’ business is with the general public, leased wires play an increasingly important role in Canadian telegraphic communication. Stockbrokerage houses are the largest users of leased wires, but many leading industrial organizations with scattered branches have found it profitable to set up private wires, not only for the cash saving, but also for the benefits of instantaneous service. For a twenty-four-hour service a leased wire costs $20 per year per mile, plus the price of equipment. As this works out, the eighthour service between Montreal and Toronto—the one in most general useruns to about $6,600 a year. If the equipment is Morse, no extra charge is made, but the lessor must employ his own operators. Automatic machines of the tape type cost $80 a month on the Toronto-Montreal circuit.

There appears to be a difference of opinion between telegraph company executives as to the situation with regard to Morse operators. The old-time brass pounder was for many decades the backbone of telegraphy on this continent, and elsewhere. One of the earliest Canadian Morse operators, Dr. J. W. Browning, is still hale and hearty at the age of ninetyfour, enjoying life quietly at his home in Exeter, Ont. He was a Morse key operator as far back as 1856, and handled dispatches dealing with the Crimean War. In the American Civil War skilled telegraph operators on both sides became romantic heroes, of greater importance to their army under certain conditions than a whole company of infantry.

Things are different these days. The automatic systems with their multiplex development and their high speed—the machines maintain a steady average of sixty words a minute and can be stepped up much higher are shoving the key-andsounder men farther into the background every year. One result has been a marked decrease in the number of young men willing to become Morse operators. They believe there is no future in Morse. On the other side, one official told us that in a few years time there will be so definite a shortage of skilled Morse men that those who are on hand and know their stuff will be “sitting on top of the world again.” His view is that automatic equipment will not be practical for use in the smaller offices or remote communities for many generations.

Both Canadian telegraph companies operate under strict Dominion Government supervision, and both have also to comply with government regulations laid down by the United States, since they are

closely associated with the two leading American companies—Canadian National Telegraphs with Western Union, and Canadian Pacific Telegraphs with Postal Telegraph. All telegraph messages are confidential, and severe penalties would follow any breach of this rule. To such an extent is the sanctity of a telegram respected that either Canadian company handling a wire telling, say, of an important shipment of merchandise by rail, would not dream of tipping off the freight traffic division of its associated railway, much as the freight department might yearn for just that juicy bit of information. All messages are checked as sent and stamped as a regular daily routine, then kept on file for a stated interval, never longer than a year. At the end of that period the messages are burned, with a high ranking official supervising the bonfire to make sure that none are withheld.

Through cable communications, any town or village in Canada possessing a telegraph office is in contact day and night with even the remotest communities of the earth. Overseas cables, as well as land messages, have been tremendously speeded in recent years. From Montreal to London by direct wire is a matter of only half a minute. Canadian Pacific Telegraphs has a cable and land hookup direct between Bamfield, B.C., and London which sends messages more than 7,000 miles without a single relay, Bamfield being the Pacific Coast terminus of the Pacific cable. Stockbrokers in Montreal and Toronto use the wires to transact business on the London Stock Exchange every day, often putting across deals involving tens of thousands of dollars in a space of two minutes time.

You can send flowers or money by wire, or birthday or Christmas and New Year greetings. The telegraph companies will do anything in reason to help out, even to the extent of putting together suitable sentimental messages for good citizens whose talent for expression on paper is a trifle on the sticky side. Both companies issue booklets containing examples of suitable messages for every occasion from a Valentine’s Day sentiment to a reassuring word from Santa Claus for anxious tots on Christmas Eve.

Opportunities for Messengers

TELEGRAPH messengers rate a special paragraph all their own. For the most part, the uniformed youngsters who dash around our city streets on bicycles carrying telegrams hither and yon, are lads who have had at least one or two years of high school. Usually they are between seventeen and nineteen years old, although in recent years the higher age brackets have been advanced since the depression period has made it difficult for the older boys to find other employment, and the companies have been loath to put them off the payroll. They buy their own bicycles, but the companies help them with upkeep and repair bills. At the standard rate of three cents a message, plus occasional bonusesand special awards, they earn about $50 a month.

Company officials, many of whom started as messengers, insist that employment as a telegraph boy offers many advantages to an ambitious youngster compelled to work for his living during his teen years. They point out that the work is healthy, since the lads are out in the open, getting fresh air and exercise most of the time. Further, the companies are always advancing bright boys as they grow older, inside their own organizations; and still further, the contacts the boys make with business executives in other lines often prove of great value.

Given enough spunk and enterprise, two or three years of carrying messages in large Canadian cities will provide any youth with an opportunity to better his position. Many shrewd businessmen make a practice of watching the messengers with whom they come in touch every day, and selecting their favorites for junior positions in their own offices. They have learned through experience that a good telegraph messenger is alert, industrious and smart in a greater degree than many of his contemporaries.

Proposed Improvements

"pVEN DRY statistics can be interesting in this telegraph business. For example:

The two Canadian companies maintain between them about 42,000 miles of telegraph poles. There are approximately two million poles standing today throughout the Dominion.

In some sections of the Maritimes, the raw timber for the poles is towed through salt water in rafts for a considerable distance. Consequently the line chiefs have to figure that about one pole out of every four will in a year or so be cut through at the base by groundhogs. This isn’t sabot-

age or malicious mischief. The groundhogs come out of the woods and eat away the poles to get at the salt with which they are saturated. The companies don’t like the idea of maintaining salt licks for groundhogs, but there isn’t anything they can do about it.

There are about 300,000 miles of wire in Canada and 370,000 miles of wire channels. Around 5,500 employees, of whom 1,000 are messengers, handle an average of 16,000,000 messages a year, not including the cable business. There is no foundation whatever for the previously widely held idea that a telegram means bad news. Less than one per cent of the total number of telegrams handled in this country carry word of disaster or death.

One of the oldest of the telegraph jokes treats of the dear old lady who refused to believe that a message from her son was authentic because it wasn’t in his handwriting. The indomitable telegraph engineers are figuring on doing something about that, too. They are working on a practical plan to transmit photographic copies of a filed message over the wires.