"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
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.
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
"[it] may be regarded as a specimen of the highest efforts of the human intellect."
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
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
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.
The two telephones below incorporated the inventions of Edison and Phelps.
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 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
Photos and Descriptions of some of Phelps' Telephones
Photos courtesy of The Smithsonian Institution-National Museum of American History
"Crown" Telephone Series
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, James D. Reid's book, The Telegraph in America was published. It is considered one of the most comprehensive works ever written documenting the history of the telegraph industry in the United States to that date.
Reid profiles only three, "prominent inventors of the day" in his book. They were: 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:
American Morse relay of the present day,  is another simple but eminently characteristic
example of his [Phelps'] skill in the adaptation of novel, convenient and tasteful designs to old
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."
At the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, there is an exhibit showing the evolution of the information age in the United States. Among the inventions of Joseph Henry, Samuel Morse, Alfred Vail, Elisha Gray, Royal House, and Thomas Edison a short paragraph is displayed:
"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:George May Phelps lived at various addresses while in Troy, his last
"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
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 at that location. It seems appropriate that someday
another plaque could be placed there, for it was on these same grounds where George Phelps once manufactured and invented his telegraph instruments.
It was here that he conducted his work on the House, Hughes, and Combination Printing Telegraphs.
His contributions in the development of the printing telegraph in the United States are specifically recognized by the Smithsonian Institution in their Information Age exhibit... They place a machinist from Troy among America's "first" group of telegraph inventors.