Telegraphic Numismatica

Detail of Morse from the reverse of an 1896 $2 silver certificate, ANS 1980.67.17
Detail of Morse from the reverse of an 1896 $2 silver certificate, ANS 1980.67.17

On January 6, 1838, American polymath Samuel F. B. Morse and his partners Leonard Gale and Alfred Lewis Vail hosted a successful private trial of their new electric telegraph system. Morse was a celebrated painter who became fixated on the idea of creating an expeditious means of long-distance communication when his wife fell ill and died while he was away (the news, delivered by mail, arrived only after the fact). Morse’s signature contribution was adding extra circuits or relays to the existing electromagnetic systems, which ensured that the telegraphic signal would carry over longer wires. The first message that was transmitted that day was an aphorism: “A patient waiter is no loser.” (The more famous phrase associated with the telegraph, “what hath God wrought,” was sent in 1844 as part of a public demonstration of the new commercial telegraph line between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.)

The electric telegraph expanded exponentially in the mid-nineteenth century, transforming commerce and communication throughout the United States and eventually around the world. The key to the globalization of the technology was overcoming the challenge of manufacturing underwater cables that were durable enough to survive and transmit signals across vast distances. The first successful effort to lay a trans-Atlantic cable was undertaken by the Atlantic Telegraph Company headed by Cyrus W. Field. On August 16, 1858, the first message was sent from England to the United states, which read: “Europe and America are united by telegraphy. Glory to God in the highest; on earth, peace and good will toward men.” Shortly after, Queen Victoria and President James Buchanan exchanged congratulatory messages, but the cable failed after just a few short weeks.

ANS, 0000.999.4493
ANS, 0000.999.4493

Nevertheless, the venture had demonstrated the viability of undersea cables, even if there were some technical issues that still needed to be worked out. The New York Chamber of Commerce commissioned a medal from Tiffany & Co. to celebrate Field and the engineers that had made the project possible. The richly symbolic result depicted Columbia and Britannia holding a cable across the globe. In the small cartouche below the figure of Mercury stands with the fruits of American commerce, which includes a beaver.

A more entertaining version of Tiffany’s rather formal medal were a series of tokens struck for the occasion by George H. Lovett of New York City.

ANS, 0000.999.4501
ANS, 0000.999.4501

Here an electrified handshake takes place across the Atlantic between ‘Brother Jonathan,’ a contemporary personification and parody of a New Englander, and a British gentleman. The latter asks “How are you Jonathan,” to which he responds “Purty well old feller, heow’s yer self.” Another fascinating momento from this event was a token produced by Granville Stokes, a merchant in Philadelphia who purchased a portion of the failed cable.

ANS, 1952.110.26
ANS, 1952.110.26

Stokes had the cable cut into quarter-inch thick slices and a suitable die was made to serve as a housing and advertising card for his business. It was then attached so that a cross-section of the cable showed as the reverse. It was not until 1866 that trans-Atlantic telegraphic communication was re-established when a new 1700-mile long cable went into operation.

ANS, 0000.999.57219
ANS, 0000.999.57219

The means by which signals were sent and interpreted via the telegraph was by what came to be known as Morse code. In this system, numbers, letters, and symbols were assigned a combination of dots and dashes that allowed for quick communication by simply tapping on a receiver. Skilled technicians could transmit a remarkable amount of text, up to 30 or 40 words per minute. A silversmith named S. W. Chubbuck from Utica, New York, seemed to have a particular interest in the Morse code system. This silver token is one of two minted, though more were made in bronze, and it depicts the full “Morse Telegraph Alphabet” and advertises his business, which apparently had a connection to the telegraph industry. Chubbuck later issued paper scrip during the Civil War that also included a tutorial in Morse code.

ANS, 1945.42.278
ANS, 1945.42.278

Perhaps the most famous bits of telegraphic numismatica are the Canadian nickels minted during the Second World War. New twelve-sided five-cent pieces were struck in brass and chrome-plated steel in 1943 amidst metal shortages caused by the war. As you can see, the device on the reverse was a torch splitting through a large V, which both indicated the denomination (5 ¢) and nodded towards the Allied ‘V for Victory’ campaign.

ANS, 1944.33.1
ANS, 1944.33.1

Some will note that the rims of the coin look a bit strange. This is because Thomas Shingles, the engraver of the Royal Canadian Mint, included a message along the rim in Morse code. Beginning at 6 o’clock (under the N) and reading clockwise it says:

We Win When We Work Willingly

Here’s a closer look at the top edge where the word “WORK” is spelled out: W (·——)  O (— — — ) R (· — ·) K (— · —)

1944.33.1.det

And with that short lesson in Morse code we end our short survey of the numismatics of the telegraph!

Matthew Wittmann