knitting, I link one stitch to another and then the next rumination. The needles click softly, like distant shoe-steps. “Let your fingers do the walking,” billboards read, mere decades ago, to advertise the local yellow pages. Now, everywhere, our thumbs do the talking. Or hold the yarn at just the right degree of tension. We call ourselves a wireless society
a telegraph operator might be permitted or obligated to fill her spare minutes with various kinds of needlework.1 And possibly other domestic tasks, if the wire ran directly through her home. While it involved the mysterious force of electricity2 and a certain intimacy with the words of strangers, telegraphy was viewed as suitable work for women because it could be done while seated and would therefore not put too great a strain on their reproductive organs. Though not as well recognized as technical skill and transmission speed, tidy handwriting and polite manners were essential traits in this nascent customer service industry. Here in Utah, young women were among the first trained telegraphers; three friends, who chose the wire pseudonyms Belle, Estelle, and Lizette from their favorite novel, learned Morse code by tapping out newspapers on a wooden practice key. Subsequent telegraphic work and their marriages took them to separate towns, but they kept in frequent electronic contact throughout their lives, even stringing a private telegraph system between their homes so that their daughters could learn to operate
a practiced communion
unlike my own lapsed contact with friends I haven’t spoken to in years and might not see again. It’s not forgetting exactly—in fact, I often imagine them as they were when our lockers stood together. Stretching my fingers wide, I am reminded of K cracking her knuckles as she solved chemical equations. Or I think of the fanciful names G would have invented for the blue of this yarn back when the three of us were inseparable, when we smuggled sci-fi paperbacks into boring assemblies. I’ve missed adding a stitch at the beginning of the row, so I work backwards, recapturing the last handful of stitches on my left needle, looping in the addition, then redoing. We’ve drifted, not deliberately, but perhaps necessarily, out of each other’s range; as if it were the last of many unspoken agreements: to allow ties to unravel as we once let go of the tow rope behind a motorboat and floated apart. Far from our years of daily proximity, would we like—would we even recognize—one another’s adult selves if we gathered now? Their numbers are still in my phone, their recent achievements presumably touted on social media. Technology, it seems, neither hinders nor enables our corresponding
over long silences
operators’ lives, when I try to trace their windings, twist into obscurity. Thanks to an interview collected in the early 1900s, Estelle has left the clearest record, full of risks and duties, but even it is riddled with gaps. Her first assignment, in 1867, was in Sanpete County, Utah, where she was stationed to report damages and/or request aid in case the Black Hawk3 attacked. She was also expected to train two local residents as telegraphers so they could take over her duties when she moved on to her next post.4 For three years, she traveled wherever her father and the Deseret Telegraph Company decided she was needed. In 1870, she married and settled near Dry Creek. Within two months, she was pregnant and employed again—this time maintaining the company’s branch line connection to the Alta Mine, which was strung right through her parlor. When Estelle suffered a near-fatal hemorrhage, or perhaps an infection after childbirth, her friend Lizette showed up to tend both the baby and the line. A few years later, with a second child, Estelle commuted to the Sandy Railroad Office, where she cared for the infant in between preventing train collisions and, by switch repeater, forwarding dispatches from the Emma Mines5 and exchanging news with other operators, handling one interruption and then
while she is out walking, my mother, intent on getting the most out of every free minute, calls me. She spends her working hours sitting, listening single-mindedly—with every fiber, she says—to other people’s lives. She loves her work. She hates being still. But she has never subscribed to the myth of balancing it all—the idea that three kids (more or less) and a full-time psychiatric practice would make equal counterweights on some ideal scale—so she never retold it to us. I work another row as she tells me about all our Ohio neighbors’ (even 1,500 miles away, I still think of them as our neighbors because they’ve known me my entire life) children, injuries, gardens, dogs. When our walking and talking end, I leave my phone at rest on the arm of the couch
a beckoning omniscience
because it allowed for unprecedented speed of communication, telegraphy generated profound change in every sphere it touched. Ghosts now spoke, the Fox Sisters and other mediums claimed, in coded knocks. And why not? Since distance was abolished, messages might well cross the barrier of death, too. Lives, meanwhile, seemed to unfold simultaneously across the nation;6 tensions mounted between northern and southern states even as—perhaps because—the rapid flow of news closed a temporal gap between them. Families and businesses compressed their letters. Trade accelerated. So did governance: Lincoln used telegrams to command his generals, keep abreast of battles as they were fought, and redirect troop movements; his speedy communications developed into a key part of the Union’s strategy. As a result, many male telegraphers joined the Military Telegraph Corps, so railways and city offices hired and promoted women operators. Spies began tapping wires. As dramatically as its ancestor, the printing press, and its descendent, the internet, telegraphy transformed our world
in tick and pause
wrap the yarn again over the needle, I remind myself, to add a stitch. A German woman taught me to knit and sometimes I catch myself counting in a language I don’t know. A stroke, a few years before, had disrupted her speaking ability. When words didn’t occur for motions, she wrapped her hands around mine and guided them. Wordless. Then I would convert gestures to verbs in order to remember. This was back in the Midwest, almost two years ago. Counterclockwise now to purl. Except not yet. My brother texts about cornbread; we are teaching him, remotely, to bake. He’s shopping in Chicago, shoots back his usual, all-purpose thumbs up
gossip, though discouraged by management, was a definite perquisite to the job. As telegraph lines spread throughout the United States, operators used the wires during low-volume shifts to exchange jokes, compose mediocre limericks, place bets of questionable legality, play chess, invent secret codes, and support one another’s procrastination efforts across this early frontier of electronic communication—annihilating distance
between thoughts, the rows widen. I’ll call my sisters this afternoon—it’s Saturday, there’s time. Most weekends, I am the one to reach out. I press one name after another, let them answer if they are not busy with their kids or work or writing med school applications. Often no one picks up. We never leave messages, but allow a received call to signal our interest, our good intentions. Kin work7 is both choice and task, one we prioritize or let slide week by week, depending on mood and circumstance. Traditionally the handiwork of mothers and wives, it has lately been digitized by single adults
as electronic traffic increased between towns, unmarried women typically operated the light lines—so called because they transmitted personal, rather than business, correspondence—in city offices.8 Unlike those who worked in rural outposts or remote train stations, women operators in urban centers were generally treated as second-class telegraphers. They earned lower wages, worked in smaller offices, and were required by management to maintain certain standards of dress and decorum. The older women who managed the “ladies of the city department” often viewed themselves as chaperones and guardians of morality. Lizzie Snow, “a mature and malevolent manageress” (as one employee named her in a resignation letter), who rose through the ranks of Western Union, was known for zealously enforcing rules. No laughing or chatting, unless on break. No coarse language. No reading novels, even when the line was empty. Any stray word might distort an incoming message. Any questionable behavior could tarnish the office’s reputation.9 No leaving the building for lunch. Snow encouraged her employees to spy on one another and had them tailed back to their boardinghouses at night, just to be sure of their whereabouts. Despite such treatment, operators felt that their skill was valued. They had one of the few jobs by which a young woman could support herself, and sometimes a parent or siblings, in a city. But telegraphy was rarely viewed as a long-term career. In the West, a mother, like Estelle, might bring her children to a railway depot and even raise them there. For most women back East, though, marrying meant quitting telegraphy, trading distance writing for homemaking
around here is what I happen to bother with between projects. Knitting nothing I absolutely need, I’m overlooking a floor I haven’t swept today and won’t sweep tomorrow unless I hit another stumbling block in the series of poems I’m trying to write about operators and mediums. It’s a privilege: not cleaning up after anyone else, but to clear my head. I loosen more yarn from the skein, let it pool beside me on the couch. Cooking I learned half by accident, half by helping my parents. And laundry I like because it reminds me of folding sheets with my nanny—the two of us stepping apart and then together. A privilege even in our century: my mother made room for her own work by hiring another woman to help care for her children. I’m glad my mother was able to make this choice. And glad for myself that it added yet another storytelling and word-savoring adult to our lives. During every drive home from school, we heard a book on tape or a memory recalled aloud; I could look down at the road and imagine sentences unspooling from our tires. Even now, I envision listening as traveling
as velocity toward mystery
Morse code rendered communication voiceless and androgynous; over the wire, at least, any telegrapher might be regarded as a man. If she worked for a railway, she could earn free travel on a deadhead pass. If she remained in place a few years, especially in a smaller town, a telegrapher might become an office manager. Even if she stayed at the entry level, her work put her in contact with distant events and cities. It pulled her into a growing professional middle class. And electricity fascinated the public. She could always transfer her expertise to a more lucrative field: the penning of telegraph romances, a wildly popular subgenre in which lovers flirt and quarrel by telegraph before they meet in person. Ella Cheever Thayer’s 1879 novel, Wired Love,is a prime example. Its heroine, Nattie Rogers, moves easily between technical and social spheres; she’s a neat professional, but shares a boarding house with an aspiring opera singer and other bohemians.10 Because their mysterious technical skills enabled them to make their presence felt in multiple locations, telegraphers embodied a new, indeterminate status
interlacing work and life
instead of talking to a sibling while I knit, I open my laptop. Then close it to consider if I ought to (want to?) remain undistracted by current politics. By Netflix. Unassisted by YouTube videos demonstrating stitch techniques. Open it again. In theory, I like working with yarn because repetition lets my mind wander. And yet, faced with repetition, I grow restless: I feel I should be doing more at once. As much as possible in some optimum combination of processes. Do I intend to resemble my Mac, always running at least five programs and anxious for updates? I set the needles down in my lap, reach forward to check email and delete spam. Refrain from checking the news for now
unknowing: as if waiting
for reports of distant events, which took weeks to travel west in the years leading up to the Civil War. Days during the brief existence of the Pony Express. And just hours after 1861, when the transcontinental line was finally connected in Salt Lake City. Its supporters, including Brigham Young—an early adopter of electronic proselytizing—hoped that the telegraph would “tend to promote the welfare and happiness of all concerned, and that the annihilation of time in our means of communication may also tend to annihilate prejudice, cultivate brotherly love, facilitate commerce, and strengthen the bonds of our once, and again to be, happy union.”11 The Union government also wanted to ensure that it could send accurate news to the frontier in order to dispel the rumors and propaganda distributed by Confederate presses. After it replaced the Pony, the new Electro-talkative animal was heralded as a source of truth and democracy, an efficient means of communication between California and Washington. Though speedy, the national nervous system was vulnerable to breakdowns. Its 22-foot poles could be toppled by snow, by buffalo using them as scratching posts, and by travelers desperate for firewood on their way west. The Utah militia was deployed to guard the connection between North Platte and Salt Lake City. Meanwhile, Brigham Young ordered the construction of a local network—the Deseret Telegraph—and young operators began training in Morse code, anticipating their work as a religious calling
across distance, time
accumulates, and change. Some operators’ lives are harder to imagine than others. What was it like to stand beside the edge of a railway platform and hold out a hooped staff with a scrap of paper on which you’d written instructions for the conductor to grab as the train sped by?12 To know the train might miss its orders and crash if you flinched and withdrew your arm? Not just intellectually, but viscerally, muscles shaking with effort. To know that if the hoop caught on the train, it would drag you under? And that a miscopied or misunderstood order could result in a costly delay or a fatal collision? No wonder Rebecca Bracken earned the name “the angel” from the train crews she directed for forty years. The last train I stood near was the miniature one that circles the Cincinnati Zoo; its top speed is a slow crawl, and it was at a complete halt while I lifted my niece in, sat down beside her to let the engine tug us
around remembered tracks
I have at least an outline for the commercial operators in cities, a series of internships to go by: a young woman walks into a downtown office building, climbs four flights of stairs, seats herself at a machine to communicate with distant cities, to ghostwrite. My skirts were shorter or I wore pants, my office was well air-conditioned and full of windows. The company prepared management and marketing textbooks for publication; I researched stock photos, condensed chapters into summaries, wrote multiple-choice questions, or surveyed professors about how they used supplemental materials. Every day, reading and typing, I worked immersed in strangers’ ideas and sentences. Sometimes it felt like eavesdropping—which could make even the boring parts fascinating. At other times, assigned a repetitive task like checking an index, I found myself in a sort of trance. When I wrote brief, confident email queries, the replies often came back addressed to Mr. Hall; the boss, who’d taken advantage of her androgynous first name to establish business contacts, smiled at me and shook her head. I felt lucky, not just to have a paid publishing internship, but one in an open office full of women. Each of us sat facing her own screen, but, unlike telegraph operators, we were encouraged to swap advice, to work independently
though I did not realize it at the time, I sat only a few blocks and a hundred years from a photographed pause in the rush of work at the Cincinnati Postal Telegraph office. It, somewhat unusually, seems not to have segregated men and women operators;13 people and machines are crowded together—almost everyone wears a white shirt with sleeves rolled up to the elbows. Because it wasn’t yet customary to smile for photographs in 1907, they all seem annoyed at being interrupted. Or maybe they are worried about the recent Commercial Telegraph Union Strike, which inspired 15,000 men and women to walk away from their machines; it also stirred up tensions over wage stagnation and prompted some men to complain that women telegraphers (because they were paid less) undercut their salaries.14 Like the businesses whose marketing strategies I spent my college summers writing copy about, the Cincinnati Postal Telegraph office appears in the midst of technology-driven change. Already the telephone has begun to replace the telegraph for personal communication, and the Teletype device, which transmits messages as they are typed into a standard keyboard and prints them at the other end, has eliminated the need for operators to master Morse code. Over the next few decades, operators’ wages will stagnate; their work will lose its mystique and prestige. By World War II, most operators, like most typists and secretaries, will be women. In the postwar decades, global communication will accelerate as the internet and its infrastructure echo telegraphy with new submarine cables (now much faster transmitters, but still expensive and challenging to repair, and still vulnerable to wiretapping) connecting at the same port cities that once joined the Transatlantic Cable. Telegraphy itself, though, will obsolesce and vanish15
with little fanfare
I pause at the end of a row and flex my hands, consider the almost pain in my wrist—a small muscle at the edge of overwork. When repetitive keying movements strained operators’ nerves, they called the sensation, which was sometimes accompanied by temporary paralysis, glass arm, and debated whether its cause was physical or mental.16 A precursor to carpal tunnel syndrome, which I would rather avoid, so I refrain from googling it for fear of catching the symptoms of anonymous commenters. Then my phone buzzes and I see that it has grown dark beyond the circle of my lamp. I lift the work from my lap and stop
Carter, Kate B. The Story of Telegraphy. Utah Printing Co., 1961.
Jepsen, Thomas C. My Sisters Telegraphic: Women in the Telegraph Office 1846-1950. Ohio University Press, 2000.
1Though such leisure activities were typically forbidden in busy city offices.
2 And such “harnessed lightning” could go rogue during a thunderstorm and might kill the operator of an ungrounded machine.
3The settlers’ term for an alliance of Ute, Southern Paiute, Apache, and Navajo warriors led by the Ute war chief Antonga Black Hawk.
4In compensation, Estelle received free boarding and lodging in Fountain Green; her father was paid fifty bushels of wheat.
5As historian Kate B. Carter observed: “It is hard to understand how she could transcribe those elusive dots and dashes if the baby made the noises natural to babyhood.” Naps? pacifiers?
6And, as ships struggled to deposit properly insulated cables on the ocean floor between Ireland and Newfoundland, the possibility of global synchronicity loomed.
7Defined by anthropologist Micaela de Leonardo as “the conception, maintenance, and ritual celebration of cross-household kin ties.”
8“Tom died STOP Please come if able STOP” would be a light message; a business message might read: “Request funds to purchase additional 20 horses STOP.”
9It may be that firms subjected women to harsh monitoring precisely because their male telegraphers had already been stereotyped as unruly workers likely to drink “reinforced lemonade” after lunch.
10She eventually gives up what appears to be a rewarding career in order to marry a man whose best feature is his ability to tap out puns in Morse code. I cannot recommend this book, but it is available as a free Kindle download.
11The words of J. H. Wade, president of the Pacific Telegraph Company. He was right about commerce.
12To add to the excitement, these “number 19” orders often had to be hooped up at night, which meant that the operator had to use her other hand to hold up a lantern so the message would be visible.
13Or at least not in the posed-candid photographic record published in the Commercial Telegraphers Journal.
14Meanwhile women at Western Union demanded basic improvements like clean bathrooms and protection for “extremely young girls” whose work put them “in personal contact with men of all classes, and absolute lack of discipline among them.”
15The last telegram was sent at 16:30 GMT on July 14, 2013, by India’s state-run telegraph service, which was by then losing billions of rupees per year, but saw a modest spike in business during its final ten days of operation as people rushed to send commemorative telegrams.
16“An operator stretches out her hand to press her finger upon the button of the instrument,” Martha Rayne wrote, “and suddenly her arm refuses to obey her will, and lies numb on the desk beside her.”