Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

“So simple that any man able to read and write can work it”

Posted in Technology by Andy Hall on March 13, 2011

Above, “the signal telegraph train as used at the battle of Fredericksburg,” by Alfred R. Waud. Below, the image as it appeared in Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper in January 1863.The engravers have made the figures larger relative to the overall scene, making the image more compact, without changing its basic elements.

The paper noted that

on this page Mr. Waud has illustrated for us the Army telegraph. Of this important institution he says: “The army signal-telegraph has been so far perfected that in a few hours quite a large force can be in constant connection with head-quarters. This, while a battle is progressing, is a great convenience. The wire used is a copper one insulated, raised on light poles, made expressly for the purpose, on convenient trees, or trailed along fences. The wire and the instrument can be easily carried in a cart, which as it proceeds unwinds the wire, and, when a connection is made, becomes the telegraph-office. Where the cart can not go the men carry the drum of wire by hand. In the picture the cart has come to a halt, and the signal-men are hastening along—some with the drum, while others with crow-bars make the holes for the poles, upon which it is rapidly raised.

The machine is a simple one, worked by a handle, which is passed around a dial-plate marked with numerals and the alphabet. By stopping at the necessary letters a message is easily spelled out upon the instrument at the other end of the line, which repeats by a pointer every move on the dial-plate. The whole thing is so simple that any man able to read and write can work it with facility.”

This is a technology I didn’t think came until later — telegraphy without telegraphers having to know Morse. The device in question is a Beardslee Telegraph Machine, introduced in 1862. It was apparently not quite so simple to operate as Leslie’s claimed it to be, and had other disadvantages including a slow transmission rate compared to a traditional key, and a lack of power.

Nonetheless: remarkable!


Waud illustration, Library of Congress. Leslie’s Illustrated News images via SonoftheSouth.