A Phelps telegraph key
ca. 1870
"Troy's Forgotten Inventor"

George M. Phelps

Master Telegraph Instrument Maker and Inventor

  The name George M. Phelps is best known among collectors of telegraph keys for making a classic camelback style key. This highly sought after key, used by telegraphers during the 19th century to send Morse code, really represents just one small example of his talents as an inventor and machinist. His accomplishments and contributions to the telegraph industry in the United States during the 19th century were considerable. From humble beginnings as an apprentice machinist in Troy, New York, Phelps would eventually become recognized along with Thomas Edison as being one of the two leading telegraph electro-mechanicians in the country.

During his long and productive career, Phelps invented and improved printing telegraph systems, set design standards for many telegraph instruments, invented stock tickers and telephone instruments, and built the patent models for some of Edison's early inventions. He became the Superintendent of the Western Union Telegraph Company's largest factory and machine shop located in New York City. And at the end of his career, was Western Union's sole staff inventor. To put things in perspective, Western Union in the 19th century was the technical equivalent of a 20th century AT&T and IBM rolled into one. His prominence in the U.S. as a telegraph inventor during this era has earned him a place in the Smithsonian.

Mr.Phelps was born in Watervliet, N.Y. ( West Troy ) in 1820. Soon after coming of age, he became an apprentice machinist working for his uncle Jonas H. Phelps in Troy, N.Y. as a mathematical instrument maker. Jonas later became a partner with William Gurley, and form the company, Phelps and Gurley. This company was recognized world wide for making high quality surveying instruments and is still in existence today as Gurley Precision Instruments. George Phelps was employed by them as a machinist for several years. In 1850, at age 30, George Phelps set up his first shop on the corners of First and Adams St. in Troy. By this time his machinist skills had expanded into areas involving work in light machinery, paper sorting machines, and safe locks. Some of his earliest patents were designs on speed governors. He learned his trade well, and developed a high degree of accuracy of eye and hand that would soon be highly sought after.

During the 1840s Phelps watched with great interest the developments of Professor Morse and the telegraph. Instrument designs of all systems in use at this time required mechanical aptitude and the technical challenges faced with this industry would frequently require a mechanical solution. In 1852 the telegraph industry was highly competitive between companies using conventional Morse technology and those using printing telegraph systems. The expansion and growth caused by this competition created a shortage of instruments, and even more so, a shortage of skilled workmen to make them. One of the printing telegraph systems used at that time was the printing telegraph of Royal E. House, which was efficient for its day, but very complicated and slow to be built by only one factory in New York City. Managers of the House line, having heard about the mechanical abilities of George Phelps, approached him to consider building the House instrument. Phelps formed a partnership with Jarius Dickerman, a silent partner and landlord who provided funds for the formation of the business : "House's Printing Telegraph Instrument Manufacturer." The new establishment was located at 41 Ferry St. in Troy. The House instrument, capable of transmitting up to 40 words per minute, was used throughout the U.S.on various lines for several years - many were built in Troy. Phelps built these for at least four years before his involvement in the next printing telegraph system.

The House Printing Telegraph-1852
Click here for a larger view

Many were manufactured in Troy by G.M. Phelps.

Photo courtesy of The Smithsonian Institution

In 1855, David E. Hughes, a 24 year old music teacher from Kentucky, while trying to devise a machine to copy extempore music, accidentally came up with a design for a new type of printing telegraph. It was based on governor design that used a vibrating spring tuned to a particular " tone" to achieve synchronization between two printers. The new printer also had inexpensive power requirements. With the House printer, power was supplied from compressed air produced by a man ( Grinder ) turning a crank. This method required an additional person besides the keyboard operator. With the Hughes printer, power was supplied by two, fragile, weight driven, clock-like mechanisms that were wound up and then set in motion by a single operator.

Synchronization between the transmitting and receiving printer was a must but the Hughes printer with its vibrating spring had a tendency to spin out of sync. The Hughes printer despite its problems had potential and impressed a group of New York City businessmen. They purchased the North American rights to it and formed a new telegraph company with intentions of putting the Hughes printer into commercial service. That new company was the successful American Telegraph Company. Management of this company immediately gave the Hughes printer to George Phelps to solve its problems. Phelps made two important changes to the printer. He invented a device to re-sync both the transmitting and receiving printer after the completion of each character. He also combined both drive mechanisms together in such a way to increase the number of characters reaching the platen in the shortest possible time. These improvements made the Hughes printer a success and it was quickly placed into service on some of American Telegraph Company's lines. Hughes took his Phelps-improved printer to Europe in 1858 where it was widely accepted and was eventually used in several European countries. Hughes stayed in Europe and was honored with the title of Baron. 65 years later in 1923, British author H.H. Harrison, reported the Hughes printer was still in use in Europe. Many more years of continued service was predicted. He also claimed it was essentially the same as it was when it left the hands of Hughes and Phelps.

In 1856 The American Telegraph Company purchased the Phelps and Dickerman factory in Troy and placed George Phelps as its Superintendent. Phelps, utilizing his experience with the House and Hughes instruments, continued to conceive improvements to a printing telegraph system and what eventually evolved in 1859 was one of his most notable inventions.
The Phelps Combination Printer or, The American Combination Printer, as it was sometimes called. Although very different from previous printers, it was called The Combination because Phelps took certain features of the House and Hughes printer and then added his own improvements. This printer would become recognized as the most successful type printing telegraph in the world. Phelps used a piano-like keyboard similar to the one on the House printer. It consisted of 28 keys, including a dot and a space key. He retained the improved synchronization concept of the Hughes. He also used his newly invented electro-magnetic governor to obtain higher stable speeds and made provisions for a choice of available power sources.( air, steam, and later electric motor) Soon after its introduction this printer was put to heavy use for nearly twenty years on some of the more important circuits in the East between Boston, Albany, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington . Two leading authorities on telegraph technology in the 19th century had the following to say about this printer. Franklin Pope: " As an example of consummate skill in mechanical design, this apparatus stands unapproached in its department of technology." George Prescott: " The operation of this instrument becomes more and more satisfactory every day, and is looked upon by all who have become familiar with its performances as the best telegraphic apparatus which has yet been produced." Its output was once measured during a eight and a half hour period between New York and Philadelphia. It transmitted 670 commercial length messages during that period and part of the time the instrument sat idle. Some of the instruments showed only minimal wear after printing over 5000 miles of paper. It should also be pointed out that in comparing the efficiency of this printer with conventional Morse transmission, that it typically takes multiple pulses of current to send a character using Morse Code on a circuit. With this printer, a single pulse can produce any character.
Click here for a larger view (63K) of printer:

In 1861, The American Telegraph Company placed George Phelps as Superintendent of their largest factory in Williamsburg, N.Y. (Brooklyn). At that same time American also purchased the rights to Phelps' more important patents. With American Telegraph's well established lines along the entire east coast, Phelps would design and build any instrument required for the company's system. It was here that his artistic and mechanical skills would be applied and become more recognized with conventional Morse instruments. With the outbreak of The Civil War, The American Telegraph Co. contributed instruments, manpower, operators, and new lines to support the War effort. Accordingly, Civil War era instruments made by Phelps had American Telegraph Company markings on them.

In the late 1860s, the heading of one of the more popular telegraph journals in the U.S.,
The Telegrapher, illustrates Phelps' influence in the industry. The table on the left has a full
compliment of Phelps' Morse instruments, and on the right, his Combination Printer.

Western Union, meanwhile, by continually absorbing other telegraph companies , was on the road to become the dominant telegraph company in the U.S. One of the last consolidations occurred with the acquisition of The American Telegraph Company in 1866. With this acquisition, Western Union now had the Williamsburg factory, along with George Phelps and his patent rights. With the huge volume of instruments required by this company, Western Union eventually designated three sites to be "Western Union Shops" : Williamsburg, N.Y., Ottawa, Ill., and Louisville, KY.. In 1869 the Williamsburg factory moved into larger facilities in New York City.

Phelps / Western Union weight-driven register, late 1860s.

This instrument imprinted the
dots and dashes of Morse code
on a narrow strip of paper.

Phelps' career with Western Union found him working on any technology new or old that would ensure Western Union's dominance in the industry. In addition to being the Superintendent of Western Union's New York factory, he was also their Chief Machinist. In 1870, Phelps' design of a stock ticker later called the "Financial Instrument," proved valuable to Western Union in forcing a merger of The Gold and Stock Telegraph Company. Gold and Stock , the only company transmitting market information from the New York Stock Exchange, negotiated with Thomas Edison for the production of his Universal Private Line Printer to compete against Western Union. After several set backs, Edison's printer only had moderate success at this time. Western Union, threatening to enter the New York market with a new and faster printer from Phelps, arranged a merger with Gold and Stock in 1871. After the merger, the original Phelps stock ticker became their "Financial Instrument." With the design of his newest stock ticker, Phelps created a machine that was faster, very efficient, and more reliable compared with previous ticker designs. This instrument is one example of Phelps' artistic talents. He was noted for building machines and instruments that were considered beautiful.

Phelps' transmitting apparatus used with
the stock ticker above. One operator
could simultaneously transmit stock
information to hundreds of different offices.

" The best apparatus of this character is that invented
by Mr. G.M. Phelps, and is in use upon the
lines of the Western Union Telegraph. "
....Thomas A. Edison, 1879

Click here for a larger view (89K) of printer:

In 1875 Phelps introduced the last in his series of large, fast, printing telegraph machines used on major lines. Drawing upon his experience with the House, Hughes, and The Combination, Phelps built what was noted as his most significant achievement in printing telegraphy :
The Phelps Electro-Motor Telegraph
Ten years in development, this printer design was based around an arrangement of his new electro-motor/governor and was able to achieve speeds of up to 60 wpm. It was driven by Phelps', precision, electro-magnetic motor. Designed for hard commercial use, it was found only on important high traffic circuits. It operated at full speed on Western Union's New York to Chicago wire without requiring a repeater. This printer was on display at the U.S. Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876. It was judged by scientists of the likes of Sir William Thompson and Joseph Henry. It received their highest award for " Excellence and Superiority" over other apparatus. James D. Reid, another respected telegraph authority in the 19th century stated:
"[it] may be regarded as a specimen of the highest efforts of the human intellect."

Phelps' Electro-Motor
Click here for a description
and a larger view (77K) of the motor

An example of one of Phelps' printing telegraphs from
The Smithsonian Collection. This printer represents Phelps'
U. S. Patent 161,151 - March 23, 1875. Printers of
this design were used in the reporting of gold, stock, produce,
and petroleum quotations. They were also used for reporting
commercial news and sporting event results.

The photo above courtesy of The Smithsonian Institution
Click here for a larger view

During this same period Phelps was also involved with significant developments in conventional Morse systems. In early 1872 Western Union adopted Joseph Stearn's patents for duplex telegraphy. This prompted Thomas Edison to approach Western Union's president William Orton about possible interest in other systems. Western Union, concerned about controlling this technology, arranged with Edison to come up with possible competing designs. Alternative duplex equipment designs by Edison were given to Phelps to be built for experimentation.

In 1874 Western Union and Edison came to an initial agreement on Edison's new Quadruplex system. The Quadruplex, Edison's most significant telegraph invention, would allow four simultaneous transmissions on a single conductor and would save Western Union considerable money. Edison gave his equipment specifications to Western Union to be constructed by George Phelps. His initial specifications called for some of the following to be built:

6 Small relays
6 Single sending sounders
6 Reversing sounders
6 Differential polarized relays
24 Keys
6 Switches
6 Bridge rheostats

It is interesting to note Edison's language in his specifications. He directs usage of some of Phelps' instruments as "using ordinary Phelps sounders" or "using ordinary Phelps binding posts". He also draws by hand a sketch of a modified Phelps sounder*. A business relationship existed between the two inventors with Edison's association with Western Union. Phelps at this time was 54, Edison was 27. On one internal correspondence memo, Edison makes reference of Phelps as "Mr. P."

Edison submitted several orders for instruments to
be made by Phelps at Western Union's factory.
This series of Quadruplex Drawings*, in Edison's
handwriting, was received by Phelps on
July 13, 1874. Edison used the instruments built
by Phelps to conduct his Quadruplex experiments
on Western Union's lines. Phelps also built Edison's
Quadruplex patent models.

* With permission of the Thomas A. Edison Papers--Rutgers University
Click here to view copies of this seven page
sequence of Edison's Quadruplex drawings (350K)

After the completion of tests, Western Union quickly utilized the Quadruplex on various circuits. Major litigation took place for the patent rights, but by 1877 Edison and Western Union came to an agreement. At the time of this agreement, Edison also agreed to give Western Union sole rights in the U.S. for all inventions that could be used on telegraph land lines. This would involve Phelps in building more of Edison's experimental/patent models. The first following this agreement was Edison's Sextuplex, a system using a combination of his Quadruplex and acoustic techniques to achieve six simultaneous transmissions on a line. This arrangement with Edison would continue right into the telephone era and Phelps would build some of Edison's early telephone patent models.

Shown here are two examples of
documents* that show correspondence
between Phelps and Edison during
the telephone era.
Click here for a description and larger view

* With permission of the Thomas A. Edison
Papers-Rutgers University

In 1877, Western Union decided to compete with Bell and began the commercial production of telephones. George Phelps patented inventions in both telephone receiver and transmitter designs. Western Union conducted extensive tests with the telephone designs of Phelps, Edison, and Elisha Gray. (Gray was an electrician, inventor, and co-founder of the Western Electric Mfg.Co. in Chicago.) The telephones that were built by Bell, Gray, and Phelps utilized a magneto design. A magneto telephone could be used as either a receiver or a transmitter. A user would speak into the magneto telephone, then quickly move the phone to his ear to listen. On short lines the magneto worked satisfactory, but as a transmitter on long lines, its output was too weak. Early telephones were connected using existing telegraph lines and were often subject to interference from adjacent lines. Thomas Edison invented a carbon transmitter to solve the problems of the magneto. Western Union evaluated Edison's Carbon Telephone Transmitter in a test between New York and Philadelphia, early in 1878. Present for the evaluation in Philadelphia was Charles Batchelor, Edison's chief assistant. In New York, William Orton, (W.U. president) Thomas Edison, and George Phelps were present. It was determined that Edison's Carbon Telephone was superior to the magneto as a transmitter and thus became the standard transmitter used by Western Union. The receiver that was commonly used was the Phelps Single Crown Telephone, shown on the right.

Western Union marketed their telephones through their subsidiaries : The American Speaking Telephone Company and The Gold and Stock Telegraph Company. They sold telephones utilizing Edison's Carbon Telephone as the transmitter paired with Phelps' Single Crown Telephone as the receiver. Gray's telephone was also paired with the Edison transmitter. Western Union's New York factory, run by Phelps, would build both telegraph and telephone apparatus 1877 through 1879. Two examples of phones built by Phelps in his factory are shown below illustrating the Edison/Phelps combinations. The carbon buttons used in the manufacture of Edison's transmitters, were supplied to Phelps directly by Edison from Menlo Park. In late 1879 Western Union and Bell settled on a patent infringement suit filed by Bell. In the settlement, Western Union sold to Bell, its telephone exchanges in 55 cities and 56,000 subscriber telephones.

The two telephones below incorporated the inventions of Edison and Phelps.
The phone on the right also shows an "ordinary" Phelps telegraph sounder being used as the bell.

The first telephone exchange in a major U. S. city was opened in San Francisco by The Gold
and Stock Telegraph Company in February of 1878. The instruments selected for use were
the Edison Carbon Telephone and the Phelps Crown Telephone.

A copy of a 1878 ad by The Gold and Stock
Telegraph Co.. All the telephone instruments
in this ad, with the exception of Elisha Gray's
Bi-Polar, were built in the Phelps/Western Union

Smithsonian Photos

Photos and Descriptions of some of Phelps' Telephones

Photos courtesy of The Smithsonian Institution-National Museum of American History

Left Duplex MagnetoTelephone
Center "Crown" Telephone Series
Right Dual Magneto Telephone Transmitter

Western Union Headquarters, 195 Broadway, New York City - 1875

Click here for a larger (222K) view

Beginning in September of 1877, two million area New Yorkers had the ability to set their time pieces to an event that happened daily at noon. High a top Western Union's headquarters at 195 Broadway in New York City, a ball dropped precisely at noon triggered via telegraph by a operator at the National Observatory in Washington. Western Union's ten story building at that time was the tallest building in New York (and in the U.S.). People could view the ball dropping from several miles around. This system, including the ball and discharging apparatus, was designed and built by George Phelps. The initial time reference used to start "Standard Railway Time" in the U.S. began with the dropping of Western Union's Time Ball in 1883. The Time Ball would remain in use until 1912 when its view was beginning to be obstructed by New York's growing sky line.

Click here for a description of its operation
and more photos of the Western Union Time Ball

1879 was a transitional year for Phelps. Western Union's management decided to discontinue the manufacturing of their own instruments and sold its New York factory to The Western Electric Manufacturing Company. Western Union already had a one third interest in the firm. This year would mark the end for instruments made by Phelps for Western Union. Phelps would remain with Western Union as their only inventor conducting experiments and evaluations until his retirement. The company's experimental shop was also put under his direction.

Its important to note that the Phelps name associated with the manufacture of telegraph instruments would actually continue after 1879. The new Superintendent of The Western Electric Mfg. Co. factory was his son, George M. Phelps Jr., who previously worked as his father's assistant at Western Union and prior to that a bookkeeper at American Telegraph. He too would become widely recognized in the Telegraph industry and later became a co-editor of the publication, The Electrical Engineer with Franklin Pope. George Jr. was born and educated in Troy, N.Y. He was a charter member of The American Institute of Electrical Engineers in 1884 and was their elected Treasurer 1887-1895.

In 1879, The Telegraph in America, by James D. Reid was published.
His book is considered the most comprehensive work on the
history of the telegraph industry in the United States to that date.
Reid profiles only three, "prominent inventors of the day":
Elisha Gray, Thomas Edison, and George Phelps.

Phelps / Western Union, spring-driven register, 1870s:
This instrument also imprinted the dots and dashes of Morse code on a narrow strip of paper. Phelps protected the register's internal parts by enclosing the register in a brass frame. An operator could still inspect them by looking through the top and end glass covers. The photo on the right shows its internal gears and governor preserved by this design.

All of the instruments Phelps made throughout his career were of the highest quality. There was no such thing as a low end Phelps instrument. He set the quality standards not only by design but by the authority of his position with Western Union. Many of his Morse instruments were Western Union "standards" or "approved" models/patterns. Western Union used his instruments in many of their offices throughout the U.S. This would possibly explain why other Makers marketed seemingly look-a-like models. It is the opinion of this writer that the Phelps camelback key was simply his artistic and functional creativity being applied to an old design. Along with his classic lever design, he relocated and modified the spring tension adjustment previously found on the camelback key of Mr.Thomas Hall of Boston, Massachusetts to a central point on the lever. This move would influence future key makers for decades. Most subsequent key designs used in landline and wireless telegraphy were built this way. Consider this insight by Franklin Pope about Phelps' influence on telegraph instrument design: "The standard American Morse relay of the present day, [1888] is another simple but eminently characteristic example of his [Phelps'] skill in the adaptation of novel, convenient and tasteful designs to old devices."

A Morse relay was a common instrument required to
convert a weak current on a long line into a stronger
current, which would then activate a sounder that a
telegrapher would listen to. In 1888, Western Union had
17,241 offices and handled over 51 million messages.

Much has been said about his accomplishments, but what about the man? From the small amount of information that has been documented about him, George Phelps was a quite genial man. He was thoughtful and reserved in manner with a strong sense of humor. He was an accomplished musician who enjoyed playing the organ at church. William Orton, Western Union's President, was his close friend in addition to being his boss. Phelps was confident and capable in teaching an employee any role required in his factory. In 1881 he suffered a stroke affecting one of his hands. His health forced him to retire from Western Union in 1884. Franklin Pope best describes Phelps' work ethic:

" To him difficulty presented itself merely as a thing to be attacked and overcome.
To yield to it was apparently the last thing to enter his mind."

In the Information Age Exhibit, at the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History, they show the evolution of how information was transmitted during the telegraph era. Among the inventions of Joseph Henry, Samuel Morse, Alfred Vail, Elisha Gray, Royal House, and Thomas Edison they included a short paragraph about Phelps:

"George Phelps, a machinist who specialized in telegraph instruments, developed what
became the standard printing telegraph in American offices. His device could send about
60 words per minute. (Morse sounders averaged about 30 words per minute)."

Additionally, a patent model of a printing telegraph of his is displayed. Above it is stated:
"Phelps printing telegraph (patent model),1859." Although the patent model on display is actually a model of a later Phelps invention, the 1859 patent reference refers to his Combination Printer that he invented and patented while in Troy.

Included in the exhibit are the patent models of Royal House and David Hughes. The reference to Phelps' 1859 patent in the exhibit, puts his Combination Printer in the correct chronological order with the inventions of House and Hughes. Their printing telegraphs also have a Phelps and a Troy connection.

The first paragraph from Phelps' Combination Printer patent, number 26003.
November 1, 1859.
Phelps held over thirty U.S. patents in his career

George May Phelps lived at various addresses while in Troy, his last
residence being 173 Fourth St.. He and his immediate family are
buried in Oakwood Cemetery, Troy, N.Y..

On the campus of Russell Sage College in Troy, there is a plaque placed on the Anna Plum Memorial Building. It gives recognition to Troy's most famous resident, Samuel Wilson (Uncle Sam) for once residing there.

It was at this same location where George Phelps once manufactured and invented his telegraph instruments, including his work on the House, Hughes, and Combination Printing Telegraphs.

Phelps contributions in the development of the printing telegraph in the United States were specifically recognized by the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History in their Information Age Exhibit during the years 1990-2006. They placed a machinist from Troy among America's "first" group of telegraph inventors...

Back to the Telegraph-History home page

Special thanks to the Thomas A. Edison Papers, Rutgers University and to
The Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History
for the use of their documents and photos.

Copyright (c) by John Casale - W2NI
Troy, New York

Visit the following sites to learn more about the history of Troy, New York:

To learn about Franklin Pope, a native of Great Barrington, Mass., please visit this site: