John C. Barclay : Western Union's Chief Engineer, 1902-1910
J. Casale - W2NI

John C. Barclay :
Western Union's Chief Engineer, 1902-1910

John Barclay was best known during his lifetime by his inventions associated with printing telegraphy. Yet, he received 38 U.S. Patents during his career that covered a wide range of telegraph inventions. Some of his lesser known inventions and improvements are very interesting to examine. Many became industry standards because of the high level positions Barclay held with Western Union.

John C. Barclay Barclay was born in Greensburg Pa. in 1856. When he was twelve he worked as a messenger for the Pennsylvania Railroad in Greensburg and in addition doing his school work, studied telegraphy in his spare time. At fourteen he was hired as a telegrapher for the Pittsburgh and Connellsville Railroad. Three years later he moved to Elizabeth, N.J. and became the assistant train dispatcher for the Central Railroad of New Jersey and soon after was an inspector for automatic fire alarm systems used in New York City.

His first association with Western Union was in 1875 as a telegrapher in Baltimore. Shortly thereafter he moved to Chicago to work for the American Union Telegraph Company. By 1882, Western Union absorbed American Union and for the next 28 years Barclay was associated in some way with Western Union until he retired.

Telegraphers typically jumped around from job to job during their careers, but Barclay's next move in Chicago was not typical. While working as a telegrapher in Chicago he studied dentistry in his spare time and in 1888 received the degree, Doctor of Dental Surgery. For the next eleven years he practiced dentistry in Chicago, but at night worked as an office manager for Western Union and studied engineering.

One of his experiences as a night manager in Chicago received national attention during the 1894 Pullman railroad strike. Barclay was instrumental in having federal troops dispatched to a nearby burning rail yard by telegraphing riot conditions directly to the White House, who in turn informed President Cleveland. In 1898 Barclay gave up his dental practice to accept a high level engineering position with Western Union and was responsible for operations West of the Mississippi. Four years later, his old boss Robert Clowery became the president and general manager of Western Union and transferred Barclay to New York City promoting him to Chief Engineer. A year later, at age 47, Barclay also became the assistant general manager of Western Union.

Barclay's name is probably best recognized today with his invention of the Barclay Box Relay. Earlier box relays consisted of a conventional Morse relay sealed in a box that would resonate the sound produced by the action of the relay's lever. A Morse relay by itself is relatively quiet and not used alone for copying Morse code. However, by enclosing it in a wooden box and having the lever strike against it, the lever's action was amplified making it functional for copying Morse. Box relays required no local battery and could operate from weak currents directly off a main line making it an ideal portable instrument.

Barclay Box Relay

Barclay improved this design by using a shallow brass box with a wooden diaphragm making it similar to a snare drum. The "drum" was attached on its side to the instruments's base with the magnets partially enclosed, making them accessible instead of being sealed as in the old box relays. The openings for the magnets also helped to port the sound away from the "drum." To increase the striking effectiveness of the lever, he used steel instead of platina (platinum) contact points and selected hard maple instead of cherry or mahogany for the diaphragm.

Barclay's Box Relay was produced in two configurations. The most common was the relay with a key on the same base, but it was also available without the key and used as a stand alone relay/sounder. Two wiring options were available for each. In one, four binding posts were included, just like in a conventional Morse relay.

A close-up view of the 'drum' Two for connecting the magnets in series with the main line and two for utilizing the relay's normally open SPST (single-pole/single-throw) contacts. The later being an option if a local series circuit consisting of a battery and sounder was to be driven by the relay. The other option was just two binding posts for the magnets. Barclay favored eliminating the two binding posts associated with the relay contacts. He felt if the box relay was truly efficient, "it will do the work expected of it" and not require the local circuit.

For dating purposes, Barclay's Box Relay was introduced in 1903 and The Bunnell Telegraphic and Electrical Company had exclusive rights to it. Barclay Box Relays with "Bunnell Tel. & Elec. Co." markings are the most uncommon, as that company was in the process of merging with J.H. Bunnell & Co. that year. His Box Relay was manufactured for several years by Bunnell and even today makes for an ideal portable or demonstration piece.

A 1945 Morse Relay by J.H. Bunnell & Co.

You may have noticed on some Western Electric Morse relays the patent date of July 21, 1903 stamped on the magnets' yoke. This date refers to a Barclay patent for improvements he made to relays. His improvements were picked up by several manufacturers and were found in relays for many years. A Barclay improved relay can be quickly identified by its trunnion bracket that supports a one piece pinned iron armature. His trunnion bracket eliminated trunnion set screws, but more importantly, the shoulder of his bracket acted as a stop for the magnets and prevented an operator from over adjusting the magnets directly onto the armature. A situation that would sometimes crack the armature at the trunnions. His bracket was still being used in 1945, shown on the right, in the Morse relay built by J.H. Bunnell & Co. for the Signal Corps.

Vertical adjustment posts from a Morse relay.

Barclay made a very subtle improvement to vertical adjustment posts used on telegraph instruments with wooded bases. The 1903 improvement was the pinning of vertical posts with two pins that prevented the posts from twisting. One has to think he was drawing upon his dental experience for this idea, but this simple improvement gives collectors today a very useful dividing line in dating instruments. Most vertical adjustment posts used on wooden based telegraph instruments built after 1903 incorporated Barclay's pins.

A Barclay Twist Insulator
Patented Oct. 8, 1907

An insulator invented by Barclay that was used on telegraph lines throughout the U.S. is shown in this article. When a telegraph "line wire" was installed from pole to pole it was held against the side of an insulator by a short piece of wire called a "tie wire." Barclay's invention allowed for the quick replacement of an insulator without having to unwrap the tie wire and, more importantly, without disturbing the line wire. His insulator had a spiral groove above the line wire's circular groove that was threaded opposite from the insulator's internal thread. To replace the insulator, a slight upward pressure was applied to the tie wire while unscrewing the insulator. This caused the tie wire's loop to move up to the spiral groove, then off the insulator. In reverse, the new insulator was screwed into the tie wire's loop, and once the tie wire was down in the line wire's groove, the insulator could be fully screwed onto the supporting wooden pin of a cross arm.

Barclay's inventions and improvements mentioned so far, although important, were not as significant as his engineering contributions in the field of printing telegraphy. During the period of 1905-1908, Barclay received several patents, some of these comprised what was known as the Barclay Printing Telegraph System. Western Union's interest in printing systems was accelerated by the telegrapher's strike of 1907. Barclay's system became Western Union's first practical typewriter page-printing system used on a large scale in the U.S..

In his system, six pulses were required to transmit a single character - three negative marking pulses and three positive spacing pulses of different durations. To transmit a telegram, two methods were possible. One was by direct keyboard entry using a machine that looked and operated like a conventional typewriter that could transmit directly to the line. The other was to create a large number of messages before hand on a perforator. A machine that also looked like a typewriter, but produced a narrow punched tape. This tape was then fed into an automatic transmitter. The transmitter in both methods was a high speed polarity changing relay called a pole changer. The speed of the direct entry method was limited by the typing abilities of the operator, whereas the automatic method could send messages at a consistent rate of nearly 100wpm. The receiving side had a very sensitive polar relay that drove a printer similar to a typewriter, printing out the messages directly on telegram blanks, ready for delivery. The receiving operator just had to feed new blanks for each incoming message. His system worked successfully between New York and San Francisco using seven repeaters, but was typically used on circuits of less than a thousand miles.

Barclay retired in 1910 at age 54 and by 1914, twenty percent of Western Union's business was handled by printing telegraph systems and their primary system was the Barclay Printing Telegraph.

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Copyright (c) by John Casale - W2NI
Troy, New York
Sources :
Telegraph Age, December 1, 1902, August 1, 1903, November 1, 1903, January 1,1908.
Annual Report to Stockholders, Western Union Telegraph Co., 1907.
Barclay Printing Telegraph System, Western Union Engineering Paper, 1918
New York Times, August 25, 1934
Telegraph and Telephone Age, October 1, 1934
Western Union Technical Review, July 1958
U.S. Patents of John C. Barclay, 1903-1914