The Net Advance of Physics RETRO:
Living Online in the Nineteenth Century

2014 January 27

If, as the conventional wisdom has it, the telegraph system was the Nineteenth Century's internet, then the operators -- or "plugs", as they called themselves -- were the century's information-technology professionals. Intelligent, restless, mostly young, they roamed from station to station in search of adventure and better pay. Some of them were brilliant -- Thomas Edison was a plug. Some became rich, and all dreamt of it ; most struggled just to survive. (Occasionally the struggle was literal : the hardware was unreliable and dangerous, electric shock a constant risk.) Within a few years of the telegraphic revolution, they had their own slang, their own songs, their own hacker subculture. They were inclined to sarcasm, disliked corporate authority, viewed non-technical people with disdain. Ensconced in cubicles, they communicated regularly with friends around the world ; they knew each other by their "hands", the idiosyncratic ways that different operators pounded the telegraph key. As women entered the profession, they began to intermarry ; "romance over the wires" had always been a favourite theme of their literature, second only to humour. Here is a glimpse of their world.

Drawings, mainly from the trade journal The Operator, anthologised in Lightning Flashes and Electric Dashes: A Volume of Choice Telegraphic Literature, Humor, Fun, Wit & Wisdom, Contributed to by All the Principal Writers in the Ranks of Telegraphic Literature, as well as Several Well-Known Outsiders [New York: W. J. Johnston, 1877].

Farewell Song of the Last Telegrapher
Posted by Rajiv Gupta 2013 July 17:
"This song was written and sung by Mr. Medhilal, an employee of Grand Post Office, Lucknow, India on the last day of Telegram Service. Mr. Medhilal was Morse code operator in GPO. Now he has been shifted to another department."