It takes but little imagination – especially with the surface noise of 78s – to listen to these often ancient discs as if they were coming off the air. The fact that, however `beat-up’ the record is, the code is always readable, also forms a fitting tribute to the efficiency and versatility of Morse Code as a means of communication in unfavourable circumstances; even if there is a negative signal-to-noise ratio, one can still read the Morse quite easily.
Have ‘dialects’ of Morse code changed in the last 90 years? I don’t know; but hearing ancient Morse is still fun – and perhaps you will notice some trends?
Just click at the start of the audio bar to hear a sample of the disc in question. Also, some – though not all – of the booklets that came with the records are to be found on a separate page. A link to this page is given whenever we have the booklet.
Set #1. 1907.
Logically, the first American record company to issue Morse training records should have been the Edison concern. Thomas A. Edison had been, earlier in his career, a ‘wandering telegraphist’ – a romantic existence, virtually unique to the frontier territories of the USA in the second half of the 19th century. Note added 27th October 2017. We know now that Edison definitely did make Morse training records, but we haven’t yet located definite info. about them. But the earliest such recordings we’ve come across so far were made, probably in the second half of 1907, by the Electric Novelty and Talking Machine Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut. These are ‘Mercury Telegraph Records’. They were available either as single-sided discs or as cylinders. We are deeply indebted to Mike Csontos for supplying the illustrations and audio samples for these elusive items, from the various examples in the AWA Electronic Communication Museum at Bloomfield, NY, USA, to which institution sincere thanks are also tendered. No details are known of the operator(s) who made them; but the discs themselves were manufactured by the Columbia Graphophone Company, whose factory was also in Bridgeport. Doubtless, the cylinders were made by them too; but no surviving examples are known to us. Even at this period, the sound quality of Columbia discs was extremely good, enhanced by Mike’s fine transfers. Note of course, that these discs were intended to train ‘line telegraphists’, not for wireless telegraphy, so the signal is in the form of the clicking of a Morse sounder. Here’s the first part of the first disc.
We don’t have the documentation to go with the discs, but the record logically enough, starts with ten single dots, then ten single dashes. There next follows the letter A (di-dah) 5 times, then letter B (dah-dididit) 5 times. At this point, if you are unaware of American Morse, you will be surprised that letter ‘C’ is not ‘dah-di-dah-dit’, as in the International Morse Code? No! In American Morse, ‘C’ was ‘didit , dit’, the comma indicating a space within the character. There is a list of American Morse characters as a link from Set #9 below. The 16 discs Mercury discs later appeared under the name of ‘Carnegie’, by which they had become double sided discs, still made by Columbia, now openly attested on the label itself. A sample of side 15 follows – the guy is really taking off by then! 8^)
This set is also commendable because it brings in the characters at high speed with a long space between them; the characters themselves were not slowed down as was all too often the case. This really does make it easier in the long run, when learning Morse, though you have to work harder in the first stages. Indeed, taken as a whole, in spite of being made over a century ago, this set is one of the best to be found on this page, as you’ll hear, compared to some of the shaky offerings below… By the way, news of this set appeared over here in Britain; it is mentioned in the Trade Journal ‘Talking Machine News’ dated 1st January 1908. That interesting paragraph is given in Footnote 1. You can see 5 more of Mike’s pictures of these discs and the sticker on the back of the single sided Mercury discs on this page: Morse booklets
Set #2. Circa 1912-1915.
The famous London department store Gamages issued records of Morse code: they have in fact the distinction of being one of the earliest major retailers to sell ‘Wireless’ components, this dating back to before the Great War, 1914-1918. Indeed, Gamages were involved with the very dawn of the British amateur radio movement; they leased a room at a nominal rent on their premises to the fledgling Wireless Society of London as far back as 1912. This group eventually became the Radio Society of Great Britain (The equivalent in the U.S.A. is the American Radio Relay League – ARRL.). While on the one hand the store’s motive may be seen as exploitive of a new, ‘high-tech’ and expensive pastime, on the other, we may well suspect the existence in the store’s management, of a devoted pioneer radio amateur: a person – as yet unknown – who served the hobby very well indeed during its early days. Of course, War engenders scientific progress, so it may be that this Gamage 78, doubtless one of a set, was produced after the start of hostilities in 1914. Anyhow: you already see its battered label… Now listen to some of it.
Many years ago I played this record to Major A.D. Taylor, G8PG, who was a Marconi Wireless Operator in the Merchant Navy before joining the Royal Signal Corps on the outbreak of WW2 in 1939. In his opinion, the sound was generated by a high-frequency buzzer; of the kind probably used for (land-line) communication between trenches and back to HQ during the Great War, and also WW2 for that matter. Certainly, the sound is, for the want of a better word ‘agreeable’, compared with some of the tones that were to be used in the future, as you’ll presently hear. The number of records in this set is unknown; neither is it known whether a booklet accompanied the disc(s). This record is also unique among all that follow, in that it carries the Morse text on its label. The audio sample starts with that text.
Set #3. 1916-1917.
This record is datable, because it is part of 2 sets made by The Gramophone Company (HMV) during the Great War. It was recorded on 24th January 1916. The exact date is not given in the EMI Archives, but Andrews and Bailey give this date. -1. These sets were produced by The Wireless Press, the publishing wing of The Marconi Company. Now let’s remember that records – especially HMV records – were expensive at the time, and so any aspiring telegraphist (Wireless or land-line) would need to spend quite a lot of money to buy this set of 6 discs! (HMV B-625 / B-630). How many people bought the full set we can never know. We can reasonably conclude, though, that some people started buying them one by one and then gave up, probably because of the expense. This is because we have found no less than three copies of the second disc of the set; but not more than one copy of the later ones, and some of them, no copy at all. The set actually survived in the catalogue until 1933. Another useful thing is that because these discs were made under the aegis of The Marconi Company, the tone we hear on the discs may, I suppose, resemble what you would have heard if you were listening, on Marconi equipment, to a Marconi Transmitter. (Radio ‘systems’ were quite exclusive before the Great War, and one company (e.g. Marconi) would not communicate with another (e.g. Slaby-Arco) except for distress calls of course.) Enough talk! Listen to part of HMV B-626.
And, for good measure, some brisk faster sending from HMV B-629.
Undoubtedly, a book or booklet was issued to accompany these discs, but alas, I have never seen it. Curiously, though this set was recorded in January 1916, it was not issued until February 1917. The reason for this surprising delay is unknown.
Set #4. 1917.
We only have two discs from the second set of 6 issued by HMV. They were recorded on the 12th December 1916 (all except one side – that devoted to Distress working’ – which was made on the 13th January 1917.) The set was issued in April 1917, and deleted in December 1926. All other details are similar to the set described above. However, one interesting disc – B-789 – is devoted to the Morse sounder. This had been of course the ‘traditional’ method of receiving Morse since what, the 1840s? It is fascinating that Samuel Morse’s original system was devised for automatic sending and receiving; it had apparently not been envisaged that ‘ordinary human people’ could learn the various Morse symbols in their heads, and become, as it were, an organic interface! Quite soon, though, the skill of doing this was acquired, and the operator would simply listen to a clicking relay connected to the land line, and write down what the message said. This was regarded as an amazing thing at the time… and of course immensely simplified much early line telegraphy. It has also been regarded as an ‘amazing thing’ by countless thousands of service personnel trying to learn Morse code under the eagle-eye of a determined instructor, that they themselves would ever survive the ordeal itself; never mind learn the code! Nearly all of them did, though. Part of the sounder record:
Again there must be a booklet for these discs; or perhaps there is one book or booklet for both these HMV sets? Who knows?
Set #5. 1917.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the irresistible might of the United States of America had entered the Great War. There, too, the incredible expansion of Wireless Telegraphy (W/T) in naval and military spheres required thousands of new telegraphists, and the Victor Talking Machine Company hastened to supply records from which people might learn the Morse code. The set of 6 Victor records came in a stout cardboard container. A corner flap opened to allow the discs to be withdrawn. This flap is of unfavourable configuration and, alas, many a purchaser of these must have snapped off a piece of one of them trying to get it out of its box, as has occurred with disc 5 of this set. But no matter! The set came with a small booklet, which was separate: if you put it into the box, it would be very hard to get out again, so its survival with this set of discs is quite amazing. We are very much indebted to Kurt Nuack of Texas, USA, for donating this set to us. For those who may not know, Kurt is one of the foremost and most highly respected dealers in the antique 78 record world. -2. Because of his generosity, you can hear what International Morse (Footnote 2) sounded like in the U.S.A. back in 1917, when these discs were recorded. Here’s an extract from side 12, Victor 106-B, the last disc in the set.
If any of you are wondering what the booklet said, that’s not a problem. Here is a link to the page that contains all the ones we have: Morse booklets .
We could not leave the USA without a tribute to the great Thomas Alva Edison, could we? This is the only recording on this page that is not a tuition record. According to Edison Sales Bulletin No. 199, dated 13th. October 1920: ‘A short time ago at the solicitation of The Old Time Telegrapher’s Association, Mr. Edison made a special disc RE-CREATION in the “Morse” code, a copy of which was presented to all members of this association.’ The bulletin goes on to say that this un-numbered disc (a corresponding Blue Amberol cylinder existed, too) would be made available to any others who might want to purchase one. It seemed unlikely that a copy of this exotic item would ever surface, but luckily I was informed -3 that the Edison sounder record had been issued on an LP. This LP, on the Mark 56 label, at first proved very elusive, but eventually a copy of the track was sent by Merle. Several years later, my excellent discographical friend Joe Moore -4 was paying one of his regular visits to the Edison National Site at Orange, and he brought back a transcription made directly from the copy in the archive there of master 7459-A. He even supplied a photostat of the file card, which you see above. Listen to 73 year old Thomas Edison sending part of the following text, which was supplied by Merle Parten, K6DC.
The record is generally quoted a being made on the 24th July 1920, but the file card differs!
Interestingly, other Edison discs of telegraph recordings (by other operators) are known to exist.
‘GS GS NY
GA your Edison Message please OK min
To the Telegraph Fraternity
Amid the activities of a busy life full of expectations hopes and fears my thoughts of early association with my comrades of the dots and dashes have ever been a delight and pleasure to me I consider it a great privilege to record in morse characters on an indestructible disc this tribute to my beginnings in electricity through the telegraph and with it a godspeed to the fraternity throughout the world
Set #7. 1922/3.
Following the Great War, interest in ‘Amateur Radio’ burgeoned. Transmission by Morse code continued to expand rapidly of course; but wireless transmission of speech – and music – was now possible too. Many men and boys put up aerials and tinkered with coils, variable condensers and crystal detectors. Some women certainly did so too: but, oddly, ‘pottering about with bits of junk’ has always tended to be a male preserve, hasn’t it? The more affluent enthusiasts could afford to buy one or more valves (vacuum tubes), a seemingly magical device that could do many things… It could greatly amplify a radio signal; it could rectify (or ‘demodulate’) it, thus rendering it audible; above all, it could serve as a generator of radio frequency oscillations. (It could even do all three things at the same time, though you might not want it to!) The inevitable result was the birth of radio broadcasting as we know it today. Many people became just regular listeners to the programmes of news, lectures, musical recitals, church services, stock prices and so on. Some others, though, wondered what the many Morse signals they could also hear through their headphones ‘were talking about’. Accordingly, there remained a market for Morse training records. The Radio Craze of the early 1920s was to be catered for by more than one company. Some time in 1922, Gamage’s Department Store returned to the fray with a monumental set of 24 discs! Alas, we have never seen any of these, so know nothing about them. But also, sometime in the second half of 1922, the Edison Bell Company produced a 4-disc set (with optional album), together with an 8-page leaflet. This really is a rare item, and we are grateful to the late John Hobbs of Nottingham for presenting us with the set he found. Hear some code from disc 1903:
There are a number of strange things that are recommended as aids to learning Morse in the various books and booklets that accompany these early discs! Several are to be found in this Winner leaflet. Click here: Morse booklets .
Set #8. Issued ca. May 1923.
The Columbia Graphophone Company seems to have been the next British firm to enter the Morse disc market. Recorded in January 1923, their three-disc set (3262 – 3264) was accompanied by an 8-page booklet. These discs were available separately, but the booklet came with the first disc. Oddly, all the discs here have 1930s-style labels. One can’t help wondering whether, the Spectre of War looming again in the mid-1930s, these discs enjoyed an enhanced sale at that time. No definite deletion date is known this set; but we do know it was still available around say 1934, because in one of his books, the famous writer on radio matters F.J. Camm recommends that people wishing to learn Morse should not use these because ‘…the Columbias have rather a ‘spark’ sound to them..’ or something similar. And in fact, when you listen to a sample of the sending on these discs, the sound is really rather like that of the buzzer on the primary of an induction coil; this form of ‘spark transmission’ was general in 1923, but was gradually superseded by the far more efficient continuous wave system. Camm was, of course, perfectly right; but these Columbias give us the chance to hear what we might have heard if we were sending on a small spark transmitter in 1923. Above all, the first disc in the set carries a spoken commentary, the first we have so far encountered. The beginning of that side is reproduced here.
A further, faster sample from disc 3264 can be heard.
And, as before, you can study the whole of the booklet (which is also pretty idiosyncratic!): Morse booklets .
Set #9. Advertised in 1939.
Online image courtesy of www.aviationancestry.co.uk
Levy’s, originally a cycle & record shop in Whitechapel since at least the early 1900s, had also produced their own labels, which issued much exotic material in the Jazz line in the 1920s and 30s. Their longest-lived label was called Oriole, and they eventually had two custom recording studios in central London. Unfortunately, all their recording files were discarded, so dating Oriole products is extremely difficult. More by hunch than anything else leads us to include these 2 exotic, privately produced, items here. They might date from the War days, or possibly earlier. There can’t have been too many copies, or else a proper printed label would presumably have been used. The printed text for the first disc is typewritten, while that for the second disc was printed on an ink duplicator. The frequencies of the notes employed here is by far the highest we’ve experienced; on the first disc, it is around 1485 Hz. Listening fatigue would tend to set in quite early, I would have thought. The text of disc 1 refers to the opening of a chain of radio stations to ensure efficient communication between aircraft. This sounds rather like the return of civil aviation after WW2; or might it even be from the later 1930s?
To see the two typewritten sheets accompanying the discs: Morse booklets .
In early September 2006, noted discographer Steven Walker thought these were likely to date pre-WW2. This was confirmed when, in January 2020 a copy of disc 1A appeared on ebay. Both sides bore a printed title sticker stating: ‘Producer – C E Masters’. Googling “Morse – C E Masters” instantly brought up the above advert. We are very grateful to www.aviationancestry.co.uk ; also we now know there were three records in the set!
Set #10. Late 1930s?
I’m not sure exactly when this next set appeared. The Linguaphone Institute had existed since 1901 offering language courses on record. Indeed it still flourishes, and we learn from its website that it goes from strength to strength and currently offers courses in at least fifty different languages. These are of course, on CD and not the original wax cylinders of 1901. However, they do not, apparently, offer a course in the Morse code. But they did at one time. In the absence of definite information, we must date this set of 5 Linguaphone discs to the mid-1930s. It has a 48 page booklet with it (so you will have to be content, alas, with a couple of images from it), authored by Lieutenant-Colonel L.V. Stewart Blacker, O.B.E., and the sender of the code is Sergeant C.E. Harvey of the Royal Corps of Signals. But let me hasten to explain several anomalies with these discs. First, the wording of the introductory part of the booklet is rather ‘olde-worlde’, and suggests a date more like the 1930s; ‘The Romance Of Wireless’, all that sort of thing. But near the end of the booklet, a reference is given to the publication ‘Handbook For Wireless Telegraph Operators’, 1940, published by His Majesty’s Stationery Office. This is after the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939; but the general text of the Linguaphone booklet makes no special reference to the importance of Wireless in Wartime, as would assuredly have been the case had the book been written (or extensively re-written) after the outbreak of the War. Thus I place the booklet itself as ‘early war years’. A further problem arises in that the 5 discs are pressed in vinyl, not the usual brittle shellac – though we also have a singleton disc in shellac. Vinyl came into use in this country in about 1949. So I think here we have a set of discs that was around for a very long time – nothing unusual about that, as we have already seen – and that the various components of the set (the master records, the contents of the booklet, the pressings) here occur in a confusing time-spread! So let us hear some of Sergeant Harvey’s sending.
The booklet contains a couple of fascinating appendices: a page listing some symbols of the American Morse code, and another listing the Cyrillic alphabet with their International Morse equivalents. Morse booklets .
Set #11. Issued April 1941.
War came again, and the Columbia set was now definitely obsolete. So they re-made it, and extended it to 4 discs (DB-1995 – 1998). All 8 sides were recorded on 28th January 1941, and the set was issued in April that year. We have 2 incomplete sets on the shelves here, each consisting of the first 3 discs, plus a singleton of the first. These three are very much a re-make of the early ones, as you can hear from the spoken introduction.
We have no original leaflet, but Pat Hawker, G3VA, kindly sent a photocopy. It’s down to 6 pages, but contains the text of all four records, and is also closely based on the 1923 booklet, even to having the vertical strokes for the dashes. They were described in ‘The T & R Bulletin’ (the magazine of The Radio Society of Great Britain; the magazine was later re-named ‘The RSGB Bulletin’, and later still, ‘RadCom’). In a letter to me dated 4th March 1991, Pat relates that it was the note in the RSGB magazine that led him to buy the 4th disc, which attains the speed of 18 words per minute. On 30th July 1941, four more sides were recorded, and issued on DB-2041 and DB-2042 in October 1941. They comprised ‘Unpronounceable Code in Five Letters and Figure Groups’. The four sides were at seven, eight, eleven and thirteen words per minute. To hear an extract of Columbia DB-1997 (which features two signals; the student has to follow the main one without being distracted by the other), just click here.
See the paperwork by clicking here: Morse booklets .
In conclusion, I hope you have enjoyed this little tour around some of the byways of Morse code on 78s. There are certainly sets waiting to be discovered. I already know that Linguaphone issued a set with red labels. Logic suggests that these were a second set, with faster sending.
If you have comments, corrections or observations you wish to make, please email firstname.lastname@example.org; I’ll be happy to receive them and of course to give you credit for further information.
Footnotes, credits, references &c.
Footnote 1. TEACHING TELEGRAPHY BY TALKING MACHINE. The latest rôle of the talking machine is as a telegraphy teacher. It is so utilised by the Electric Novelty and Talking Machine Company, of Bridgeport, Conn. In one of their booklets, an interesting account is given of the extent of the present-day demand for skilled telegraphists in the States. It is estimated that there are immediate openings in the United States for at least 30,000 operators. Evidence of the exceptional opportunities of advancement that are open to telegraphists is offered by the testimony of leading railway men to the fact that about 85 per cent. of the railroad managers of the United States began as telegraph operators, while the point is still further emphasised by an impressive list of men now eminent in various spheres who started life at the Morse Key. The Electric Novelty and Talking Machine Company have come to an arrangement with the Columbia Phonograph Company, and a series of lessons in telegraphy have been prepared on disc and cylinder records. The lessons are numbered from 1 to 16 on 4 in. cylinders and 10 in. discs, and from 1 to 9 on 6 in. cylinders and 12 in. discs. These records are known as “Mercury Telegraph Records.” They give a faithful presentation of the work of competent telegraph manipulators, arranged in graded form from the simple dots and dashes which constitute the Morse alphabet, through all possible combinations of these elements, to the most complex Stock Exchange messages. A book of lesson keys is supplied with the records. The learner simply sets his talking machine going and listens with the lesson key before him. Constant repetition trains the ear until perfect proficiency in reading by sound is attained. Similarly, the pupil is enabled to have unlimited practice in sending messages, and to cultivate a rhythmic “touch,” by simply imitating the finished work which the talking machine reproduces to him. It is claimed that the entire course can be mastered in from 6 to 9 months.
Footnote 2. The International Morse Code was a modified version of the original American code. The American code was largely logical, but some of the symbols had not only dots and/or dashes, but also internal spaces in a letter. For example, the letter ‘C’ was indicated by two dots, then a two-unit space, then a further dot; while Y was two dots, a two-unit space and then two more dots. However logical this may have been to Samuel Morse and other U.S. telegraphic code pioneers, it received short shrift in Europe when Morse system telegraphs were first installed here. It was in Germany that the American Morse code was rationalised; the internal spaces were discarded, and some new symbols brought in. As had already been done in the American code, the shorter symbols were carefully allocated to cater for the frequency with which common letters occurred. Now in German as well as English, the letter ‘E’ is the most frequently used letter. Therefore it was allowed to remain the shortest symbol: a single dot. In German, the second most frequent letter is ‘I’ so this was allocated the next-shortest symbol, i.e. two dots. But in English, the second most frequent letter is ‘T’. The Germans allocated a single dash to this letter. So though the difference is very slight, the International Code is in fact based on the letter frequency in German, not English. Incidentally, there seems to be one single survival of American Morse: the symbol ‘dit-space-dididit’ was the American Morse symbol for the ampersand ‘&’. To this day, ‘dit- space-dididit’ that is, ‘ES’ in International Morse – is still used all over the world as the standard abbreviation of the word ‘and’.
-1. Catalogue Of HMV “B” Series Records. Frank Andrews & Ernie Bayly. CLPGS, 2000.
-2. 78 enthusiasts will benefit greatly from visiting Kurt’s website: http://www.78rpm.com
-3. Merle Parten, K6DC, of California.
-4. Joe Moore, one of the our most indefatigable discographers, long a student of, and specialist in, the (American) Edison Company’s recordings, especially of Jazz and Dance Music.
Thanks again to: The AWA Electronic Communication Museum at Bloomfield, NY, USA: http://www.antiquewireless.org; the late Arthur Badrock; Mike Csontos; the late George Frow; Adrian Hope; Richard Johnson; Pat Hawker G3VA; the late John Hobbs; the late William McGhie; Joe Moore; Kurt Nauck; Merle Parten, K6DC; Tony Smith G4FAI; Thomas Sutton; the late Major A.D. Taylor G8PG; also G2KU; GOGDN, G4TPB, G4HGV. If I have left anybody out, please let me know & it will be rectified.
(Ex KE0NT, WS0B.)
Page finished 9th January 2005.
Revised & corrected 29th December 2008.
Revised & re-formatted 27th October 2017.
C E Masters advert added 4th January 2020.