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  • Writer's pictureSteve Bartholomew

Telegraph Ladies

The nineteenth century offered few job opportunities for an educated, single woman. She could become a servant, governess, or school mar’m. However, there was another job that historians tend to forget about: that of telegraph operator.

The first woman telegraph operator was one Sarah G. Bagley, hired by Western Union in 1846. Many others soon followed her example; by the 1870’s as many as one third of telegraphers were of the female persuasion. Some male directors believed that women would make better operators than men because they have more sensitive fingers. They were probably more stable on the job, not being allowed in saloons.

Another reason women were considered suitable for the work was that it wasn’t physically strenuous, despite having long hours—usually ten hours a day, six days a week. Telegraphers in those days were an elite club, much like computer geeks today. They often got to know each other personally though never having met in person, a situation that sometimes led to “on-line” romance.

Not all operators worked in large offices; many were sent to remote locations on the prairie, where they found themselves in effect running the railroad. Many of these were women. In fact they might be found in such places up until the early twentieth century, when Morse code began to be obsolete.

Personally, I found the story of these ladies so fascinating, I put two of them in books of mine, THE WOODCUTTER, and TUNNEL 6. They well deserve to be remembered.

For more information on the subject, please read The Victorian Internet, by Tom Standage, ©1998 by Tom Standage.

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