A Glen Riddle telegraph key in the Delaware County Historical Society’s collection is similar to the ones used on the battlefields of World War I and on the fateful night of the Titanic sinking.
A telegraph key is a method of communication used in the late 19th and early 20th century that relied on an electrical switch to have an operator send messages, often in Morse code.
The one at the DCHS belonged to Frank Leon Beeby, who was a telegraph operator in Glen Riddle. It’s very similar to the ones in large use during that time, including the one that was used on the Titanic.
Telegraph keys were also used on the battlefields of World War I. Prior to that, the military used messengers, then flags, to communicate.
In 1836, Samuel Morse, Joseph Henry and Alfred Vail developed an electrical telegraph system that relied on a series of pulses to transmit messages. A code was created through the combinations of dots and dashes to convey sentences.
During World War I, telegraphs were used to transfer messages from the front lines to officers, as well as between nations.
The international signal for distress — SOS — was developed by the Germans in 1905, and while it helped save the 46 people on the USS Kentucky in 1910, the signal did not produce the same result with the Titanic. Initially, it meant “Save Our Ship,” then “Save Our Souls,” before being replaced by the voice call “Mayday.”
The telegraph key at the Delaware County Historical Society was used by Frank Leon Beeby, of Kennett Square. He lived from 1858 through 1934.
He married Sarah Lampert, who lived from 1862 to 1926, and they lived in Lenni. Their daughter, Elizabeth “Bessie” Beeby, was born Sept. 5, 1881, in Glen Riddle Station.
Beeby used this device in his work. His telegraph key was donated to the Delaware County Historical Society by Debbie Frederick in 2008 and remains part of the DCHS’s collection.
The Beeby telegraph is preserved at the home of the Delaware County Historical Society, located at 408 Avenue of the States in Chester. It is open to the public Wednesday and Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Thursday from 1 to 6:30 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Parking is free in the lot behind the building or across the street in the city’s municipal lot.
For more information or for ways to get involved, call 610-359-0832.