telegraphic codes and message practice, ca 1845 – ca 1945

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Dictionaries of phrases and codewords or cipher components were commonly used in the age of telegraphy to compress messages and thereby economize on wire costs, and to achieve some secrecy for communications.

There were different kinds of codes, different arrangements of phrase matter, different means of assembling and dis-assembling messages. Typically, a sender would choose from the dictionary's selections those phrases or expressions (about the quality of cotton, for example) that satisfied his intentions, and take the codewords associated with the selections. It is the coded message, packaged for transport, that would be processed and sent along its way by the telegraph or cable company. The recipient of the message would unpack its original meanings by looking the code words up in another copy of the same dictionary — they were listed in alphabetical order — or by following a sequence of other procedures to arrive at the meaning.

Thousands of codes were published or issued privately, but they are largely forgotten now. They present a finely-grained window into their respective domains and their time. And they provide instances of sometimes stunning visual, technical, lexicographic and unwitting poetic achievement.

extracts 1 from Adams, A.B.C. and Bentley's
extracts 2 from Western Union (1917)
specimen pages (various codes)

resources on the web

directory of digitized telegraphic codes, signal codes, and related primary material — new

telegraphy in meteorology — and other observational settings

telegraphese and telegraphese (PDF format)

elementary signs
elementary signs : letters
elementary signs : pictures 1 (1910-24; include lead type)
elementary signs : pictures 2 (1920-30s; integrated systems)
elementary signs : signs

margins : chess codes
margins : A C Booth, Picture Telegraphy
margins : telautography

2 feb 07