The Conkling Key is one of the rarest semi-automatic transmitters. As of this writing only one is known to exist in a collection.* The key was sold and promoted by George Conkling who was best known for his work as a telegrapher, than his connection with this rare key. Conkling was considered one of the best all-around telegraphers in the United States and one of the most beautiful Morse senders of his day.
Conkling was born in Mountaindale, New York in 1871 and like many telegraphers in the late 19th century learned telegraphy at a very young age. When he was 15 he was first employed on the West Shore Railroad in New Jersey and worked several railroads during his teenage years. In 1890 he started with the Postal Telegraph Company at 187 Broadway in New York City. He soon became known as an extremely fast operator with the key and as pen receiver. Postal made him one of a "fast quartette" on their Boston quadruplex circuit. A "quartette" consisted of four telegraphers on each end of a circuit that was capable of handling four simultaneous transmissions - two operators transmitting and two operators receiving.
Telegraphers with his kind of speed abilities easily found higher pay on press and financial wires. He worked for The United Press until they went bankrupt in 1897 then in 1898 started working for The Associated Press, The New York Journal and various brokerage houses in New York's financial district. He became a master at using the typewriter and the Phillips code. The standard telegrapher's short hand frequently used in press reports. He also worked one of the heaviest press circuits out of New York, the leased wire of the Chicago newspaper, Inter-Ocean where Conkling would routinely send 20,000 to 22,000 words of press material each night. He became nationally recognized as an expert telegrapher when he won the Morse sending competition at the Grand National Telegraph Tournament held at Madison Square Garden in May of 1898. He won the competition by sending a blistering 345 words in 5 minutes defeating his nearest competitor by nearly 15 words per minute.
Conkling's prominence on the national scene made him highly sought after not only for his ability to send messages but for new start-up telegraph transmitter companies looking for the endorsement of well know telegraphers. In 1902, he became associated with inventor Charles Yetman and began giving instruction to telegraphers on Yetman's typewriter transmitter, a typewriter that could send perfect machine-like Morse. The following year he became the general manager of sales for the newly formed, Yetman Transmitting Typewriter Company. He remained active as a telegrapher, working at various times with the Laffan News Bureau, The New York Herald and in the financial district, and continued to compete in national contests. In 1903, he won the honors of being the best sender of the Phillips Code in the country by winning the event at the Philadelphia Telegraph Tournament. He sent 1000 words of Phillips code in 15 minutes, 55 seconds. He also received a silver cup for being the "most perfect Morse Sender," the first time the award was given in telegraphic history.
In the spring of 1906, he was recruited by well-known inventor and former telegrapher, Patrick Delany to become the general manager of the new Delany Telegraphic Transmitter Company. Delany was the inventor of a wide range of wire and wireless telegraph inventions, including both semi and fully automatic transmitters. With Conkling as his G.M., Delany now had the best sender in the country endorsing his transmitters. Delany's transmitter inventions included both mechanical and electro-mechanical models and are best known today as the "Auto-Dots."
Conkling went on the road at various times promoting Delany's transmitters. He was at the Railway Telegraph Superintendents Convention held in Denver, Colorado in June of 1906 where he manned a booth for the Delany Tel. Trans. Co. The only other transmitter manufacturer at this convention was the Mecograph Co. represented by William Coffe.
At the International Telegraph Tournament held that same summer in Boston, Conkling occupied a suite of rooms at the Quincy House giving telegraphers demos of Delany's transmitters. Conkling was invited by the tournament committee to send his near perfect Morse for both the straight Morse and Phillips Code receiving competitions. There were so many telegraphers lined-up wanting to have a the opportunity to receive his Morse that he had to send 350 words of straight press and 500 words of Phillips Code twice to two different groups of entries. Only a difference of few seconds was recorded between the two groups sent by Conkling exemplifying his precision sending.
Tournaments limited senders in the sending competitions to just hand sending under protest to several transmitter manufacturers. The arguments being that neither Postal or Western Union had rules limiting senders to hand sending in actual service. Conkling was not allowed to use one of Delany's transmitters in the Boston sending competitions so instead used a Lefley key, a manual straight key invented by Samuel Lefley, that had a triple knife blade hinge with no trunnion screws and utilized a rear contact.
Those familiar with the Auto-Dots will see basic construction similarities with The Conkling Key. They all used brass parts mounted on a wooden base with a heavy metal sub base. The Conkling Key was sold and advertised separately from the Auto-Dots by George Conkling in 1908 during the time he was Delany's G.M. His address was the same as what was listed for him in the Delany Tel. Transmitter Co. ads that year. Even though it was advertised as "The Conkling Key," neither Conkling's name or the familiar four-leaf clover logo of the Delany Tel Trans. Co. are stamped on this key. The depth of Conkling's influence in this key design is unclear. The Key is stamped "Pat. Applied For" but a search of patents show that none were issued to George Conkling for any invention. The patent was granted to his brother, De Witt Conkling, and F.W. Smith of New York.
"A battery transmitter without a battery" was stated in Conkling’s ads for this key. This meant that its single electro-magnet was driven by line current instead of using a local battery. The generation of dots is quite unique with this key. The pendulum consists of a 2 ˝ X 1/4 X 1/4" armature that is pivoted in the center and located underneath the magnet. It has a rod extending at one end with a movable speed weight. The armature extends diagonally to the outward sides of the vertical poles of the magnet and is held against them by the dot arm. When an operator moves the dot arm to the left, it first frees the armature allowing the spring tension on the opposite side to pull the armature to the dot contact. Secondly, it completes the circuit energizing the magnet which attracts the armature back, causing it to go into oscillation as a result of the two opposing forces. A combination of four items influence the generation and speed of the dots: 1. The amount of current passing through the magnet's coil. 2. The amount of spring tension. 3. The location of the speed weight. 4. The gap of the dot contacts.
It was claimed that this key would work on any circuit regardless of length. Conkling clearly had experience with long circuits. He worked regularly the longest circuit in the world, the E.F. Hutton & Co. leased wire from New York to San Francisco with loops to San Diego and Seattle totaling nearly 5800 miles in length. To make the key adaptable to different line lengths and conditions, a rheostat made of "coils" of fine German silver serves as a selectable shunt across the magnet's coil.
The idea of a line driven key with a rheostat probably makes some think about the Electro-Bug which came out in the late 1920s. The Electro-Bug is a more efficient design using a conventional vibrating pendulum and a magnet that is energized only when the dot contact is "hit". Whereas with the Conkling, the magnet is energized for the entire time the dot lever is held to the left. The Conkling's design requires somewhat of a balancing act from the effects of the four items mentioned above. A part that is missing from the Conkling shown is a "anti-interference pin" (a Delany invention) that was screwed into the open hole of the dot knob and reached over towards the dash knob. It prevented either the dot or dash levers from making a premature false contact until the opposite lever was completely withdrawn.
The reason for the rarity of this key is unclear. The $10.00 price tag was certainly competitive with the all mechanical semi-automatic transmitters being sold at that time. The key may have worked fine on different circuits in good conditions, but being powered from the line may have actually been its weakness. Line current was necessary for basic adjustments. And unlike the electro-mechanical designs that were powered by a stable local battery, an operator of a Conkling had to chase fluctuating line currents in poor conditions to maintain the oscillation of the armature. The simpler all mechanical transmitters obviously prevailed.
George Conkling's life was tragically cut short. He was killed in a car accident in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey in 1917 at age 45. At the time of his death he was still working as a telegrapher but he was also in business with his son operating Conkling's Garage in Ridgefield Park. He was demonstrating his brand new Velie automobile when he was killed.
A few months before his death, the closing prices of the New York Stock Exchange sent by Conkling were recorded on a Phillips receiving instrument. The embossed tape from this machine was transferred to phonograph records so that telegraphers could sample his near perfect work. Conkling was known to his friends as being a true gentleman, but to the national telegraph fraternity he was also remembered not for the products he promoted or the key bearing his name but for being simply an all-around champion telegrapher.
* A second Conkling Key was discovered by an AWA member after reading this article.
Telegraph Age, December 1, 1902, August 1, 1903, January 1, 1904,
July 1, 1906, July 16, 1906, May 16, 1917
The New York Times, May 2, 1917.
The Evening Record, Hackensack,N.J., May 1, 1917
The Commercial Telegraphers' Journal, May 1908
Telegraphers of Today, John B. Taltavall, 1893
U.S Patents, #947,224, #933726
U.S. Census, 1870-1910
New York City Directories, 1905-1910
Burial Records, Grove Church Cemetery, New Durham, N.J.
Carnegie Diamond Medal Telegraph Records Brochure, ca. 1907
received from George W. Conkling (nephew)
Thanks to Gil Schlehman K9WDY for allowing me
to examine and photograph his Conkling Key at Dayton,OH.,May 20, 2005.