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From: billb@savvy.com (Bill Burns)
Dead medium: Telegraphy
Source(s): "Museum recalls when news moved in dots, dashes" by Libby Quaid, Associated Press, January 22, 1998
Telegraphy Talk (keyclicks@theporch.com)
Also seen in Austin American-Statesman, Sunday Jan 25, 1998, page A6

(((Bill Burns remarks: More news on Morse from the telegraph key collectors list. The event described was at the Newseum on Jan 21. I find it a little ironic that the Morse code demonstration can be heard in RealAudio: http://www.ap.org/anniversary/news4.html )))

"Telegraph Served AP for 8 Decades"

By Libby Quaid
Associated Press Writer
Thursday, January 22, 1998; 2:57 a.m.

"WASHINGTON (AP) == The Associated Press once had an army of 1,500 telegraphers who spread the news to the world in staccato bursts.

"'There's only four of us left,' says Aubrey Keel, whose career spanned bureaus from coast to coast and whose world was the 46 combinations of dots and dashes that made up Morse Code.

"For the eight decades the news cooperative depended upon the telegraph, a good fist was in demand. His own could tap out up to 45 words a minute, the 96-year-old Keel boasted as he demonstrated his trade Wednesday as part of the AP's 150th anniversary observation at The Freedom Forum's Newseum, a museum in the Washington suburb of Arlington, Va.

"From his home in Kansas City, Mo., Keel brought the tools that once ruled the business == a vintage green Western Union telegraph like the machine he started on, and a Vibroplex 'lightning bug' that is still made today.

"Smoothly, swiftly, he flicked his wrist, and the 'dahditditdidahdahdididit' became verse received by a retired Illinois railroad telegrapher, George Nixon, seated with his own machine in the back of the room:

"'Along the smooth and slender wires, the sleepless heralds run. "'Fast as the clear and living rays go streaming from the sun. "'No peals or flashes, heard or seen, their wondrous flight betray. "'And yet their words are quickly caught, in cities far away.'

(...)

"(Telegraphers) had to know three 'languages' of Morse Code; American, International, and Continental (created because the space letters C, O, R, Y and Z and the long L couldn't transmit along submarine cables) as well as Phillips Code, a shorthand version of Morse.

"First recruited by the railroads during a telegrapher shortage in World War I, Keel took years to develop the skill that now comes so easily.

...."'I don't know how else to explain it. After you do it for a while, it's like music,' Keel said. 'It's like riding a bicycle or playing the piano. You get rusty at it, but you don't forget it.'

(...)

"But the newspaper telegraphers 'had it made,' Keel said. When he was hired by the AP in Lubbock, Texas, Keel made $32.60 a week for 48 hours of work. The average railroad salary was about $25, he said.

"Older operators had a reputation for hard living, but Keel had learned his lesson as a novice in an earlier job. It was Prohibition, and he decided to drink a bottle of home brew with his more experienced colleagues.

"'I came back, and the wire started up == I could hear it, but I couldn't get it down,' Keel said. 'You never saw a man sober up as fast as I did.'

"He remembers when the Texas AP phased in the Teletype printer in 1928, letting 30 operators go in one day. 'Someone said, 'Those Teletypes will never work, they'll have us back in a week,' Keel recalled.

"But they didn't. Keel weathered the storm, eventually becoming communications chief in the Milwaukee, Des Moines and Los Angeles bureaus. He retired in 1966.

"Today, he often 'talks' to retired telegraphers transmitting via ham radio == unless he's busy using email from a home command center that includes two computers, radio gear and a digital camera and scanner. His old employer now transmits news at 9,000 words a minute.

"He glanced down at his old 'green key,' adjusting the Prince Albert tobacco can that changes the telegraph's pitch.

"'It's hard to think that AP started and for 80 years, that was their means of communication. And look at what they are today,' he said."

Bill Burns (billb@savvy.com)