J. Casale - W2NI

The Telegraph Instrument Factory
of John Dean Caton

One of the earliest and most respected telegraph instrument manufactories during the 19th century was the Caton Telegraph Instrument Shop, at Ottawa, Illinois. This shop supplied the instrument needs of many mid-west telegraph offices for many years and eventually evolved into the formation of the Western Electric Company. The shop's beginnings are best understood by following the early life of its founder, John Dean Caton, to see what brought him to Ottawa and subsequently into the telegraph business.

John Dean Caton
Caton was born in Monroe, New York just north of New York City in 1812. At age 3 his father died and his mother moved her four children to a farm owned by her brother in central New York near Utica. He attended district schools year round until he was 11, later spending his summers working on farms to help support the family. When Caton was 16, he entered the Academy at Utica, and in one year had progressed so rapidly that his instructors advised him that he was qualified to teach at one of the area district schools. While teaching he continued his own studies and at 18 decided to pursue a law career by studying and working at a law firm in Utica. Within three years he had completed his fundamental law studies and decided to relocate to the "far west" to start up a law practice in Chicago.

When Caton arrived in Chicago in 1833, he said there were no streets, except those shown on paper, and there was only 200 residents. Pine woods bordered the lake north of the river and the east sides of both branches of the river were clothed with forests of dense shrubbery. Caton was one of the first lawyers to start a practice in Chicago and it grew so rapidly that by 1838 the heavy work load began to affect his health. His doctor advised him that he could not live unless he adopted a more physically active life. Accordingly, he relied on the good effects of his farming roots to regain his health and worked on a farm in Ottawa, Illinois located about 75 miles southwest of Chicago, while doing part time legal work in neighboring counties. By 1842 he had regained his health and once again fully pursued his law career and moved permanently to Ottawa. Later that year, a historic change took place in his life when Judge Ford, of the Supreme Court of Illinois, was elected governor and 30 year old John Caton was appointed as his successor.

The heading from a telegram dated 1864

Caton Pocket Relay

A key and sounder combined into a portable instrument
that was frequently used for line testing.

During his 22 year career on the Supreme Court bench, Judge Caton had many acquaintances and business interests. In 1849 two of his friends in Ottawa were attempting to assist Henry O' Riley of Rochester N.Y. Riley was operating under a contract with the Morse patentees, to bring the first telegraph line into the state of Illinois from St. Louis. They asked Caton to represent them in Peoria for an organizational meeting of a new telegraph company. The Illinois and Mississippi Telegraph Company was formed at this meeting and Caton, who chaired the meeting, was elected one of its directors. Caton, like many of the new directors, knew nothing about the telegraph and they hired a superintendent to run the company who knew slightly more than they did.

For the next three years Judge Caton spent much of his spare time learning everything he could about the telegraph. He became proficient in the art of telegraphy and was able to send and receive his own messages. (Registers being used exclusively to receive at this time.) The three year old company, though, was in bad shape and declining rapidly. Due to poor construction, half the lines were always out of service. Offices did not have the funds to pay expenses and could not secure enough credit to even purchase acid for their batteries from local druggists.

At this point, the other directors wanted to abandon the operation and sell off any assets. Caton remained confident in the long term prospects of the telegraph and came up with a plan to save the company. He proposed to modify the company's charter and under certain dire conditions the company could levy a tax of 2.50 on all shares of stock. And if stockholders did not pay after a period of time, then the company was authorized in a special legal proceeding (court of chancery) to sell off their delinquent shares in a public auction, also at 2.50 a share. The plan was adopted by the board in June of 1852 under the condition that Caton would execute it and assume the presidency, which he reluctantly accepted. To pull this all off legally, Caton had the governor add a special "telegraph" amendment to a piece of legislation that was before the state legislature. He then argued his own position when the bill went before the Judiciary committee, who recommended its passage on to the House.

A key made during the Western Union era
of the Caton shop marked R. Henning Maker.
The funds received from this plan were just enough to get the most important lines temporarily back into service. He had his repairers constantly patrol and test the lines to increase the reliability, but the lines were still going down due to the premature rotting of the untreated hard wood telegraph poles. Caton, still determined, made the decision to rebuild the lines, this time using cedar poles, even if it meant utilizing his own savings and assets to pay for it. He traveled to the cedar swamps of Green Bay, Wisconsin, exploring the area by canoe with Chippewa guides, and arranged for a large quantity of poles to be cut and shipped to Chicago. He then negotiated contracts with the railroads to assist with the delivery and installation. Three long years later the integrity of the lines slowly improved as did the balance sheets of the company.

Considerable railroad expansion was also taking place in the mid-west at this time and Judge Caton, seeing an opportunity, purchased the rights to expand the telegraph into other areas of Illinois and into the states of Iowa and Minnesota. He started two additional telegraph companies on his own and contracted the railroads to build his new lines along their right of ways. The two companies grew to be larger than the original, but by 1856 all three were incorporated as the Illinois and Mississippi Telegraph Company.

With all this growth came the company's economic need to repair and supply their own instruments. The Caton Telegraph Instrument Shop, like the company itself, evolved from a small operation. In 1853 Caton set up a school for telegraphers in Ottawa that also had an extensive library, laboratory, and a workshop. The shop had a lathe, soldering apparatus, wire, and tools. They manufactured and re wound their own magnets and any repairs and modifications needed for the company's instruments were performed there. What evolved from this was a much larger operation.

Judge Caton had a reputation of selecting the right man for the job and when the time came to hire a superintendent for his shop, he hired machinist Robert Henning for the position. And although Caton was normally involved in the smallest details of his company, he gave Henning carte blanche to build and run the shop as he saw fit. All the original instruments that became well known during this era as the Caton, or Ottawa patterns, were of Robert Henning's design.

A close-up of the contacts

A Caton patterned key showing
the "spring" or "snapping" circuit closer design.
The close-up on the right shows the two contacts.

The Caton shop was located a half mile from town by a track belonging to the Rock Island Railroad. A simple sign, "Telegraph Instrument Factory" stood atop a single story brick building that was 130 feet long by 30 feet wide. During its prime, twenty-eight machinists were employed there, most of which had instrument experience from other U.S. or European machine shops. The shop had 18 lathes, one planer, one gear cutter, five insulating machines for covering magnet wire, and a full complement of tools for each machinist. The shop's machinery was belt-driven by a single, coal-fueled, steam-powered engine. It was once observed that the machinists there worked without kid gloves and "shoved their files as though they had to earn their living". Fine examples of their workmanship are shown here in this article.

An interesting circuit closer design that originated at Ottawa is shown on the left. It was called the spring, or "snapping" circuit closer, and was popular among telegraphers and makers. A small set of horizontally mounted key contacts were located on the circuit closer and on the key's lower contact assembly. The circuit closer, being spring assisted, would "snap" and stay into either the open or close position.

In July of 1867, Judge Caton, in a complex lease and sale agreement, turned over the entire operation to Western Union and removed himself from the telegraph business. The instrument shop became Western Union's second largest manufactory. Robert Henning, being highly recommended by Judge Caton, continued as the superintendent at an annual salary of $2,100 dollars. The instruments that were once marked with Caton-Ottawa were now marked like other Western Union shops at this time, indicating the shop's superintendent - "R. Henning Maker". Western Union made improvements to the establishment and in 1869 they started producing their own brass in a foundry located behind the main building. A typical months production in the year 1870 was 70 keys and sounders, 60 relays, and 10 registers. They also produced cut-outs, lightning arresters, and switch boards, in addition to doing their repair work.

Two telegraph sounders of the "Caton pattern".
The one on the left is marked R. Henning Maker.
The one on the right is marked Western
Electric Manufacturing Co.

In 1872, the Western Electric Manufacturing Co. was formed in Chicago that combined the shop of Elisha Gray and Enos Barton with Western Union's Ottawa facility. (Western Union maintaining a one third interest) Previous to this, Gray and Barton, a relatively new company, was advertising that their Morse instruments were of the "Caton" pattern. In fact, their ads stated they had acquired some original castings from Ottawa. The Western Electric Mfg. Co., as late as 1875, were still advertising : "Our Morse instruments are of the Western Union, Ottawa, or Caton style".

Sounder by Western Electric Manufacturing Co.
Another view of the Western Electric
Manufacturing Co. sounder. ca 1872.

Throughout his telegraph years, Judge Caton fulfilled his judicial responsibilities and became the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Illinois 1855 and again in 1857, a position he held until his retirement from the bench in 1864. A year after his retirement he was called back to the Supreme Court by the Illinois Bar on the sad occasion of president Lincoln's assassination. He placed into record their formal resolutions, along with his personal recollections of their former longtime colleague, in an eloquent speech to the full court. (Ottawa, incidentally, was the site of the first Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858.) The remainder of Judge Caton's retirement years were spent traveling abroad and pursuing interests in literature and natural history. His life is an incredible example of the fortitude and perseverance that was especially needed in the early years of the telegraph in America.

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Copyright (c) by John Casale - W2NI
Troy, New York
The National Telegraph Review, July 1853
The Telegrapher, February, March, 1868, August, 1871, July, 1872
Journal of the Telegraph, January 1875
Miscellanies, John Dean Caton, 1880
John Dean Caton, Robert Fergus, 1882
Executive Minutes of The Western Union Telegraph Co.,
Western Union Archives, N.M.A.H., Wash., D.C.
Instruments are from the AWA, Moreau, Reinke, and Casale collections.