J. Casale - W2NI

Horace G. Martin

Part One : The Telegrapher

HM - Horace G. Martin

Horace G. Martin
Inventor of the Vibroplex at age 30.

From the family photo album of
Alice Martin Goldston
Behind all the data that exists today about Vibroplex keys : the various models, their manufactured dates, and the many labels, is the story about Horace G. Martin. Without Martin's sole invention of the Martin Vibroplex, almost a hundred years ago, there would be no Vibroplex Company, and the careers of many telegraphers in this country would probably have been severely shortened.
Martin's inventions in semi-automatic key design have been used by thousands of commercial, press, railroad, military and amateur telegraph and radio operators both on land and at sea for decades, yet very little has been documented about Martin himself. Where did he come from? What or who motivated him to experiment with semi automatic key designs? What about the man? Did he seemingly come out of nowhere just to seize a marketing opportunity for telegraphers who were suffering from telegrapher paralysis? This was the crippling syndrome that affected the arms of many telegrapher's from the daily abuse of manipulating a manual telegraph key.

I will attempt to answer these questions in a multi part article that will trace his life at least to the point where he first introduced the Martin Vibroplex. This installment will cover his early years and will also focus on an incredible telegraph tournament he participated in that should leave a lasting impression.

Some of you may have heard or suspected that before Martin invented his famous Vibroplex he was a telegrapher. After reading Part One you will learn that Martin was not just an ordinary telegrapher, but one of the finest telegraphers in the United States.

Up front you should know that Horace Greeley Martin's roots are in the South, born in Adairsville, Georgia, located about 50 miles north of Atlanta in 1873. It would appear that Robert and Sarah Martin, when selecting a name for their son, were influenced by the life Horace Greeley, founder and editor of the New York Tribune, who died a year earlier. He was popular in Georgia as a promoter of the south's reconstruction after the civil war. It is interesting that Martin's career as a telegrapher, either by coincidence or design, heavily favored the press service.

Martin's father was a former Confederate soldier. At the time of Horace's birth, he worked as a miller in a grain mill east of Adairsville in Pine Log, Georgia. Horace as a youth spent his time at the train depot in Adairsville were he first learned telegraphy. Adairsville was the half way stop between Atlanta and Chattanooga, Tenn. for the Western and Atlantic Railroad. Martin was hired as an extra operator for them when he was only nine. He was recognized between the ages of ten to fourteen as having excellent penmanship and typewriting abilities. With these abilities he was hired as a telegrapher for the Associated Press in Atlanta. He then left the Associated Press to work for Western Union in Atlanta and advanced to the position of chief operator for the entire Atlanta office.

While still a teenager, Martin was married to Miss Gena Stephens of Atlanta. She was the cousin of Alexander Stephens, the former vice president of the Confederacy, and the daughter of James M. Stephens who, like Martin, had similar roots as a telegrapher with the Western and Atlantic Railroad, and later became the superintendent of Western Union's southern operations. In 1893, Horace and Gena Martin became the parents of Horace G. Martin Junior, the first of their eight children. The motivation behind some of Martin's later moves in life can be best understood knowing that he and his wife were from Georgia.

As Martin gained more and more experience as a telegrapher, better opportunities came his way to work circuits of greater importance. Telegraphers with the ability to move high volumes of copy in the least amount of time received the best pay and Martin jumped around from city to city seeking these opportunities. He was re employed by the Associated Press, this time based out of Memphis, Tennessee working their important Memphis - New Orleans wire. He became known on the wire by his personal "sine" (call sign) of "HM" and as time went on, "HM" developed the reputation as being one of the best senders ever in the press service. Martin was also ambidextrous and had a talent as a telegrapher for doing totally different tasks simultaneously. With this kind of reputation better opportunities awaited him in New York City, where the nation's largest telegraph hubs were located . Early in New York he found employment with some of the brokerage firms on Wall Street, or as telegrapher's referred to it as the "Street". But by the mid 1890's he went back to the press service working for various newspapers as a telegrapher, reporter, and a telegraph editor.

During the 1890's there were two major news organizations in the country who fiercely competed for newspaper contracts, The Associated Press and The United Press. They were both head quartered in Western Union's 195 Broadway building in New York City. Martin's next move was to work as a telegrapher for The United Press. He developed important associations with people at The United Press that would directly or indirectly effect his career in the years ahead. They included: the general manager, Walter P. Phillips, a long time telegrapher, newspaper editor, and the inventor of a telegrapher's short hand called the Phillips code; Roderick Weiny, lead engineer and Electrician for The United Press; and Fred Catlin, prominent telegrapher famous for the "Catlin grip", a standard method of handling a telegraph key. In early 1897, the United Press was losing most of their major contracts to The Associated Press which resulted in them filing for bankruptcy. By April 8, 1897 The United Press ceased operations and laid off all of their employees, including Martin. Walter Phillips went off seeking new business opportunities while Martin went back to work for Western Union. This only required him having to report to work to a different floor at 195 Broadway, while commuting from his home at 377 Seventh Ave. in Brooklyn.

The Grand National Telegraph Tournament
In 1898 an event took place in Martin's life that is a story in itself. Telegraphers in the 19th century would occasionally compete against each other in telegraph tournaments demonstrating their abilities as fast senders and accurate receivers. An electrical exposition was to take place in New York City in May of 1898 under the auspices of the New York Electrical Society and it was determined that May 14th was to be set aside during the exposition for a telegraph tournament. The size of this tournament was to overshadow anything else previously attempted and it was appropriately named, The Grand National Telegraph Tournament, and no better a place could have be selected for such a competition than Madison Square Garden. Cash prizes were to be awarded to the first and second place winners in three categories for both sending and receiving : a message class, code class, and the most difficult, the championship class.

A distinguished list of judges were invited to officiate the tournament. Accepting as an honorary judge was Jesse Bunnell, former civil war telegrapher and senior partner of the telegraph equipment supply firm, J.H. Bunnell & Co. : "I will serve as a judge, but hope that you will find enough more old ' has beens ' for associate judges, to enable us collectively to read fifty words per minute.......Of course we will also do anything else that is desired, in the way of furnishing necessary apparatus...."
Thomas Edsion, a former telegrapher himself, had similar sentiments with his colorful reply : "I may come over and act as a judge of 50 word a minute Morse, but I am afraid I would not understand it. The Morse that I was brought up on was about as perfect as the record slip* on a deep sea cable. But if such fossils as Bunnell....are going to pretend to read copper plate Morse,** then I may come over and look wise."

The main event in the tournament was the championship class competition. Six senders would send five minutes of text each appropriately from The Bible's, Book of Judges and a panel of Judges would award prizes to the fastest two telegraphers with the least number of errors. On the receiving side of this competition prizes would be given to the top two receiving telegraphers with the least number of errors copied with a typewriter of the operator's choice. The omission or addition of any character, which included all possible punctuation marks would count as an error. The receiver had to accurately copy the senders mistakes. Horace Martin was one of fifteen telegraphers competing as a receiver in this class and was one of eight from Western Union of New York City.

The tournament setting was in the concert auditorium of Madison Square Garden. The contestants were seated up on the main stage among a maze of typewriters and resonators fitted with sounders for each position, while the judges were off in separate quiet rooms. For the first time in tournament history, permanent phonograms were made of the six senders and these could be duplicated later for play back on a phonograph or a graphophone. The majority of the telegraph equipment was furnished by J.H. Bunnell & Co. with Western Electric also helping out. Western Union and Postal Telegraph, along with typewriter manufactures, Smith-Premier and Remington contributed money for the cash prizes. Smith-Premier also offered to supply a "mill" to any telegrapher unable to transport their own to the tournament.

Martin Vibroplex Label

The Garden was filled to standing room capacity that Saturday night for the start of the championship class competition. Anyone who was anybody in the telegraph business, along with every off duty telegrapher in the New York metro area, was said to be in attendance. For previous tournaments, the spectators could listen in to the Morse being sent with various sounders placed in the crowd. For this event, three gigantic megaphones, each with a sounder mounted in their throats, were set up on the stage that had the appearance of three large cannons protecting a perimeter of a fort.

The Master of Ceremonies marked the beginning of the championship session and introduced the first sender. The official timer recorded the start and one by one each of the six senders sent five minutes of material. At its conclusion, Martin handed in seven sheets of typewritten copy to the judges. The results of the senders ranged from 43 wpm with 10 errors, to 50.8 wpm and one error. Martin's copy was praised by all of the judges, stated as "being the cleanest and most perfect of all the copy handed in" and was an outstanding example of fast telegraphy and typewriting ability. But, there was a problem. Through a mis understanding on Martin's part, he neglected to put the name of the sender on the top of each page he submitted, an omission that could result in him being charged with seven errors. This put the judges in a dilemma. On one hand they were looking at Martin's perfect copy, on the other, the stated rules said the senders name had to be on each sheet. The judges could not come to a decision that night and deliberated over the week end for a decision. On Monday, they announced they charged Martin with seven errors and awarded the first and second prizes to telegraphers who had three and five errors respectively in their copy.

In the days and weeks following the tournament some publications talked about the Judge's controversial decision. One of the major telegraph publications of the day, The Telegraph Age offered their unsolicited support for Martin. While they did not contest the judges decision, they, like many telegraphers that were at the Garden that night, were clearly aware of the perfect copy turned in by Horace Martin and made certain their readers also knew about it. The "official" winner went on to become a footnote in telegraph tournament history, but The Telegraph Age in May of 1898 documented a more important fact by stating :

" It is safe to say there is no better telegraph
operator in America than Mr. Martin."

You might wonder with Martin's reputation of being one the best senders in the press service, why he did not enter the championship class competition as a sender. A reason that should not surprise you is that by 1898, Martin was personally suffering from telegrapher's paralysis. He felt after years of sending nearly 20,000 words of press copy per shift that he was losing his grip.

In the months following the Grand National, Martin starts to go through a transitional period in his life. He was now a 16 year veteran telegrapher who had not yet reached his 25th birthday and facing a limitation to his ability to support his growing family at the level of pay a star telegrapher was used to. In the following year he started "periodic experimentation" with various ideas to transmit Morse other than with a manual telegraph key and considered employment opportunities that could help him develop these ideas. His efforts would ultimately evolve into an inexpensive solution to help other telegraphers afflicted with the paralysis and changed his career from being a telegrapher, to an inventor and manufacturer.......

To Part 2 : The Phillips System and the Autoplex

Return to the Horace G. Martin home page

*record slip : a recording of bi polar current pulses on a slip of paper that represent Morse characters. They were sometimes erratic in amplitude and duration on long sea cables.
**copper plate Morse : an elegant style of handwriting typical of telegraphers.

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