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What Does a Telegraphist Do?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 01 September 2014
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September 22 ,  1862 :  US President Abraham Lincoln announced his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.  more...

A telegraphist operates telegraph equipment to maintain communication over the airwaves. This career is largely obsolete, as telegraphs have been replaced by other communication methods including radio and satellite. From the 1800s, when the telegraph was originally invented, to the early 1900s, when other technology began to supplant it, telegraphists transmitted signals from ships, between locations on land, and in military conflicts. Telegraph operators, as they were also known, included a mix of both men and women.

Operating a telegraph required several skill sets. The telegraphist needed to be able to listen to and interpret incoming messages, converting telegraph code into meaningful text to relay to the intended recipient. They also needed to encode and send messages out, and in some cases also relayed messages along the telegraph line. For example, a radio telegraphist might get a message on board a ship intended for a recipient on the other side of the ocean. The original message couldn’t make the trip in one transmission, and was instead relayed through a series of telegraph operators to reach the end destination.

Morse code was the standard language used by telegraphists. People who worked for the military also utilized cryptography in their work to send messages securely. If intercepted, such messages would be meaningless to people other than the intended recipients. Codebreakers worked on the development of new codes as well as the interpretation of codes used by the enemies to keep up with clandestine transmissions.

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The telegraphist would have used a device known as a telegraph key to send signals down a wired telegraph system or over a wireless radio network. The key allowed for burst transmissions that could be long or short, depending on how the telegraphist activated it, allowing for the creation of a code based on stringing long and short signals together. Telegraphists worked in a variety of settings including companies with telegraph bureaus, like newsrooms. Some were employed by government agencies, and handled telegraph transmissions in the field as well as in office settings.

Other jobs for a telegraphist included employment for companies that sent telegraphs on demand from customers. Members of the public could arrive at an office to compose and send messages, which were billed by the line, and could receive messages through these same offices. Telegrams, as they were known, provided a medium for quickly communicating important information in an era before personal phones, radio signals, the Internet, and other communication media.

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