“Is it a fact—or have I dreamt it—that, by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time?” – Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of Seven Gables

Railroad telegraphy may be bad for the soul.

This morning I was perusing the Miscellany section of the 1902 edition of The Railroad Telegrapher over coffee.  You know, like you do.  The Order of Railroad Telegraphers was a 19th Century American labor union, and existed until roughly 1965, when it changed its name to the Transportation Communications Employees Union, as the telegraph had long been supplanted by fancy technologies like the radio and phone.  By 1969, their 30,000 members merged with the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks, Freight Handlers, Express and Station Employees, and by 1985 merged with the International Association of Machinists, as the revived Transportation Communications Employees Union which according to their official website now boasts 46,000 “people from many different backgrounds, doing many different jobs…clerks, carmen, auto technicians, computer programmers, skycaps and redcaps, on-board service workers, secretaries, supervisors, government workers, truck drivers, accountants, yardmasters, inter-modal workers, police officers, reservations agents, transit workers and more”.  Not a lot of telegraphy going on there, but back at the turn of the century they had their own magazine devoted to the exciting world of radio telegraphy.  And occasionally it veered into the creepy.

In 1902, George Clark was a mild-mannered, middle-aged radio telegrapher in St. Louis, Missouri, who despite his seemingly secure livelihood, found himself rather indolently flailing about for some meaning and contentment in his life.  He finally found an object in life resulting from the rather disturbing revelation that the celestial executive in the universe hate radio telegraphers, a gospel he decided to appoint himself the apostle of.  You see, one day business was slow, and George found himself lounging about the office with his feet on his desk, and he experienced an instance of “automatic telegraphy” analogous to the automatic writing so popular among the spiritualist set.  On the telegraph table on which his legs rested, his finger began involuntarily tapping out in perfect Morse Code, “C.A., C.A., C.A.”. – despite my best efforts, I wasn’t able to determine what Morse C.A. was an abbreviation for, but I think we can probably assume it was some sort of station call sign, as George’s response was “i.i.C.A.” (i.i. apparently being a separative sign).  Any experts in 19th century telegraphic abbreviations, please feel free to weigh in, because despite my best efforts in getting a precise meaning, it’s a somewhat obscure topic.  Then, a clear “Hello, C.A.” was tapped out.  This would of course be rather unnerving in most circumstances.  19th Century radio telegraphers tended to recognize the rhythm and style of the other operators they commonly communicated with, and George noticed his involuntary tappings had an oddly familiar cadence when it tapped out, “Hello C.A., I’ve been calling you for a long time.  Ha, Ha, Ha.”.  George knew the operator, a certain Steve Fordham, and started a conversation – except Steve had been dead for a while.  George described the odd conversation.

“Hello, Steve,” I broke in. “I’ll not ask where you are, your ha, ha, tells me that.”  Stephen Fordham was an old-time friend of mine, who was cowardly shot to death on the main street of a small town in Eastern Tennessee several years ago.  I had often since that time thought of Steve and of the pleasant times we had had together. Steve was indeed a friend, and it was pleasant to know that to me he was not dead. Here was the same old friend chatting of times gone by, as if he were alive and at the other end of a wire. “Give my ’73 to my friends,” were his last words as we said good-bye after a long chat (Clark, 1902, p1133-1134).

Well, clearly by most accounts Steve was indeed dead, or perhaps undead, and using the technology he was most familiar with to gab with his old pal George.  I suppose in a few years, we’ll be getting texts from the afterlife.  “Give my ’73” was apparently the equivalent of “give my compliments”.  Well, rather than completely freaking out and running for the nearest padded room, George took this kind of communication in stride.  It takes a tough man to be a tender radio telegraph operator.  Having discovered his peculiar power to communicate with dead telegraph operators, Mr. Clark set about trying to contact other long deceased acquaintances in the railroad communications business.  While he could always raise the ever faithful, spectral Steve Fordham on the telegraph. There seemed to be a dearth of other discarnate former railroad telegraphers lurking out there on the airwaves.

George was eventually reposted to a railroad telegraph relay in a New England manufacturing town, and became acquainted with another local telegraph operator named Kitty, a “faithful Christian woman”.  Upon her subsequent death, George tried to contact her, and again his finger began involuntarily tapping out Morse code in her style.  He never revealed what they discussed, but assured others that she was “at home and at peace”.  This presented a strange conundrum.  Of all the many railroad telegraph operators George Clark was acquainted with, only two ever seemed to try communicating.  His conclusions, given the context seem pretty reasonable.

Why is it, I pondered, that of all the operators I knew while they were living, I can raise only two that are dead. It finally though reluctantly dawned upon me that it is because these two are in heaven…My object in life is twofold. One is to warn all my friends of the fate of those operators that I could not raise; the other is to find some operator gifted with the same power as myself to join me in organizing a stock company that will put the Commercial Cable Co. out of business (Clark, 1902, p1134).

Presumably, those radio telegraphers not in Heaven were busy roasting in the Lake of Fire, or perhaps in the same Limbo where most of my email communications go.  One has to wonder what it is about radio telegraphers that would incur such a wrathful sort of divine judgement against the entire occupation. It does seem a tad unfair to relegate the entire communications industry at any given point in history to eternal damnation, but as Criss Jami observed, “Some of us humans might be angry at a sovereign God about Hell, but know that that is about as meaningful as a few germs being angry at humans about bleach.”

Clark, George.  “By the Twist of the Wrist, or Wireless Telegraphy”. Order of Railroad Telegraphers (U.S.). The Railroad Telegrapher v19. Peoria, Ill.: Order of Railroad Telegraphers, 1902.