Are you reading this story in print? Or perhaps on your smartphone, that indispensable device you ritualistically pin your eyes to every day and night?
One day, that oh-so-important gadget will surely become an anachronism as new modes of communication take over. One day, you might well find yourself explaining to your grandchildren or great-grandchildren what it was like to use an Android or iPhone as you view, from behind the display case glass in some dusty museum, a rare specimen that survived the march of time unbroken.
As the Good Book says, we’re all dust in the wind, and that applies to technology as well. Take, for example, Morse Code telegraphy, a system of text messaging consisting of dots and dashes, combinations of which represent letters or numerals. Considered to be one of humankind’s top 10 inventions, well before there were telephones, fax machines or computers, Morse Code beepity-beeped from a tapping device called a “straight key” along telegraph lines to bring people news of births and deaths, weddings, tragedy and joy, emergencies and disasters, and other news of personal and global import. This medium of communication was, in a word, indispensable.
But that was then.
The last surviving members of the B.C. Chapter of the Morse Telegraph Club held their final meeting on Thursday, April 26, in room A123 of the Oasis building at Fleetwood’s Elim Village retirement community, saying goodbye to this important era in the history of communications.
“We’re dying off. There’s very few of us left,” member Chris Naylor, 87, bluntly explained. When it comes to words, the elderly generally don’t kid around.
“It is the closing of an era,” he said. “Nobody knows Morse Code any more.”
It’s named after inventor Samuel F.B. Morse who, along with physicist Joseph Henry and engineer Alfred Vail, created the electrical telegraph system in 1836.
This means of communication played an immense role in critical moments in history — such as the RMS Carpathia receiving Titanic‘s wireless distress call to save 705 souls, and train dispatcher Vince Coleman bravely sacrificing his own life to alert an incoming passenger train to the imminent Halifax explosion in 1917, saving nearly 300 lives.
Locally, the first telegraph message sent along a line linking the U.S. with New Westminster, by way of the Kennedy Trail, brought news of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.
The last train order sent by telegraph in North America was in the mid-1980s.
The surviving members of B.C.’s club marked the bittersweet occasion of putting their going concern to rest with a cake that was decorated with a small straight key and the words “What Hath God Wrought.”
It’s a phrase from Numbers 23:23 in the Bible and was the first message Morse dispatched, on May 24, 1844, witnessed by the U.S. Congress and sent from Washington D.C. to a railroad station in Baltimore, Maryland.
The 21 people present at Surrey’s luncheon and final meeting — those 10 remaining members who could make it, some of them accompanied by their adult children — sat solemn as retired Lutheran pastor Alfred Johnson, 92, tapped out grace on a straight key, thanking God, by way of dots and dashes, and beepity-beeps, “for the privilege we had to be part of this wonderful system of communication which the Morse Code has been.”
Johnson worked as a telegrapher while attending seminary and raising two children. He started his career as a Morse telegrapher in 1944, as an assistant station agent with the Northern Alberta Railways in Hythe, Alberta at age 18.
After lunch, the club’s final business was done, finances were sorted out, and members decided to donate the remaining $78.28 in the kitty to the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.
And that was it, but not before they honoured Lavina Shaw, 89, a living legend among telegraphers. She had served as president of the Morse Telegraph Club, which had 37 chapters in Canada, the U.S. and seven other countries.
The club had 75 members in the B.C. chapter, and close to 4,000 in North America, when she was president in 2002.
“It’s down to under 1,000,” she said. At the time of its closing, the local chapter had under 30 members scattered throughout B.C., three of whom recently passed.
Shaw remains the only woman and Canadian since 1943 to have held the office of International President of the Morse Telegraph Club, a position which took her to every state in the U.S. and every province and territory in Canada. She recently resigned as B.C.’s secretary treasurer.
“The reason why it’s the last meeting is because I resigned and nobody else would do the work,” Shaw told the Now-Leader.
“They’re dying right and left.
“I’d say one of the highlights was I telegraphed with the last living war veteran of World War I, John Babcock, at age 107,” Shaw said.
“He was a former telegrapher and he could still telegraph at age 107, and I consider that one of the highlights of me being president. He lived in Spokane, and they got him on the wire and because I was, you know, the president they put him on.”
Born in 1900, Babcock was the oldest surviving veteran of the Canadian military. He died in 2010, at age 109.
Shaw was born in a railway station. “I could hear this click-clacking all the time and I was a bit curious, so I asked my dad, who was a station agent, to teach me the code. So I would get on line with other guys on the line who were in their teens and what-not, and talk back and forth,” she told the Now-Leader.
“I learned Morse Code from about age 10. First I went to work for the Canadian National Telegraphs, I got married and moved to Vancouver.”
She then worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway.
“I worked on the commercial end and I used to copy a lot of news from the Vancouver Sun, and from Reuters and the Canadian Press.
“In 1952 I was working down at the corner of Richards and Hastings, at the CPR, and they put me on all day on the line to TIME magazine during the U.S. election.”
Shaw said she earned good pay.
“Very good for a woman. I was getting about three times as much as a secretary. I was paid equal to a man. You had to be absolutely accurate and very confidential, you didn’t dare say anything.”
Meantime, Naylor shared some parting words with the by-now former club members.
“We’re a dying out breed, aren’t we,” he said.
“From all of those we contacted, there’s only 10 of us here today. We are a dying breed, but it’s so good that we could be together just to say goodbye.”
Naylor worked as a train dispatcher in Victoria before he became a Baptist pastor. A highlight of his career as a telegrapher, he said, was sending out the press about the 1951 royal visit to Canada, when he was the “second-trick” operator in Duncan.
There was also an office for commercial telegrams and the lady running it was busy, so she asked him for a favour. “When Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip (visited) in 1951, she asked me if I would come in and send the press for Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa.”
Doug Turner, 78, was also at the last meeting.
“Our ranks are thin. There’s about 10 of us here,” he said. “I’m a bid sad. It’s so profoundly the end of an era.”
Turner worked for a railway company from 1957 to 1962.
“I grew up in a little town, Salmon Arm, and the railroad was a complete link with the outside world,” he recalled. “There was operators 24/7 in the station, which meant four operators.”
“Everything came by train, from coffins to groceries. Telegrams were the main outside means of communication, in the days before cheap long-distance telephone calls, you sent a telegram.”
“I’ll never forget when I was a little boy, during the Second World War, when my mother came home with this nurse crying her eyes out; she just got a telegram that her brother was killed in France.”
Bruce Edwards, 92, was also at the Surrey meeting.
“I like to tell people I was born in a wheat field in Saskatchewan,” he told the Now-Leader.
“I had to make my own way; my father died when I was four years old. So I looked around for some means of getting a vocation together; my mother couldn’t afford to send me beyond Grade 9 so I found a job as a telegraph messenger, delivering telegrams at three cents apiece commission.”
Edwards had worked for CN telegraphs in Regina.
As his beloved club came to a close, he was filled with nostalgia.
“I just prize the old friends; it’s a fraternity,” Edwards said wistfully.
“Something near and dear to my heart.”