The Milwaukee-Madison chapter of the Morse Telegraph Club celebrated the 227birthday of Samuel F. B. Morse, the inventor of the telegraph, on April 27, at Spring Brook Golf Club in the Dells.
The non-profit organization is an international club dedicated to preserving the knowledge and traditions of Morse code — a system of sending messages that uses long and short sounds, flashes of light, or marks to represent letters and numbers, according to Merriam-Webster.
Most, but not all, the club members are self-described “old-timers” who used Morse code on-the-job while employed as telegraphers for railroad companies, or in other positions that utilized Morse code. Membership to the Morse Telegraph Club was originally open only to the railroad and telegraph communities. Nowadays, the club is open to anyone with an interest in the telegraph.
At the event, two working Morse circuits were up-and-running, so club members could communicate with other chapters throughout the United States and Canada. The Morse Telegraph Club president, James Wades, was also present at the birthday celebration, along with the president of the Madison-Milwaukee chapter, Don Mahoney, and members of the local chapter.
“Telegraphy is a language of rhythmic patterns,” Wades said. “It’s like a foreign language.”
Just like obscure languages that have become obsolete, telegraphy is also a dying art. In fact, the day before the birthday celebration, on April 26, the British Columbia, Canada, chapter met for the last time since it’s been unable to keep up its membership numbers — a consistent pattern seen throughout the 25-30 chapters of the international club.
The club is; however, making a concentrated effort to keep telegraphy alive by recruiting new members from amateur radio clubs — better known as ham radio clubs – since the members believe the history of the telegraph is important.
The telegraph was instrumental in standardizing time, press syndication, the creation of wire services and establishing a lot of the text lingo and abbreviations that are still used today, Wades said. For example, POTUS, the abbreviation for President of the United States, was first used by telegraph operators in the 1890s, Wades said.
The telegraph was able to remain in usage until the 1980s because it was such a fast and efficient means of communication, Wades said. It wasn’t until the introduction of computers that the telegraph finally became obsolete.
Yet despite its dying nature both in usage and membership, the ex-telegraphers haven’t given up on their interest in the telegraph. Their goals as a club are to: demonstrate telegraphy, explain its history and methods, educate the public, rebuild telegraphs, design and build museum displays and communicate with the telegraph. However, one of the club’s goals stands above all the others.
“We’re just trying to keep the telegraph alive,” said Mahoney.