Morse Code on 78 rpm Records.
This article is illustrated by small pictures of the 78 labels and booklets, &c. To see a larger and better quality picture of them, just click on the small one. To hear the audio examples (generally about 40 seconds in duration) simply click on the links in the text. All audio samples on this website are in mp3 format. Acknowledgements to contributors occur in the text and at the end of the article. Text references are indicated by a number in green.
This seems a very esoteric subject; but in fact there is already a small number of Internet references to such records, as I found a couple of years ago, to my surprise and delight. However – though I may be wrong – I don't think there are many places where you can actually hear audio samples of such discs, as you can on this web page.
I have been interested in early Jazz, 78 records, and also the origins and development of radio for all my life. From time to time the balance between these topics changes; and I must admit that, generally speaking, Radio tends to come in third place these days. But I had to learn Morse code to get my Amateur Radio Licence, and what could be more natural than to pick up 78s of Morse code whenever I saw them?
The fact that these are almost always records for teaching Morse code is inevitable: however, it takes but little imagination – especially with the surface noise of 78s! – to listen to these often ancient discs as if they were coming off the air. The fact that, however `beat-up' the record is, the code is virtually always readable, also forms a fitting tribute to the efficiency and versatility of ‘the code’ as a means of communication in unfavourable circumstances! Even if there is a negative signal-to-noise ratio, one can still read the Morse quite easily!
Have ‘dialects’ of Morse code changed in the last 90 years? I don't know; but hearing ancient Morse is still fun – and perhaps you will notice some trends? I once actually began to compile a serious Discography of Morse Code 78s (and cylinders!); but alas, I no longer have the time or the concentration to carry it on. So here, you'll just be able to see the label of the 78, and hear a sample of what it contains; plus the contents of whatever booklet or leaflet accompanied the discs... assuming I've been lucky, and the leaflet was still with the 78s!
Logically, the first American record company to issue Morse
training records should have been the
There follows what may be the oldest, certainly the rarest early
record in my collection. It was kindly presented to me by John Hobbs of
The next record is datable, because it is part of 2 sets made by The Gramophone Company (HMV) during the Great War. It was recorded on 24th January 1916. The exact date is not given in the EMI Archives, but Andrews and Bailey give this date. -1. These sets were produced by The Wireless Press, the publishing wing of The Marconi Company. Now let’s remember that records – especially HMV records – were expensive at the time, and so any aspiring telegraphist (Wireless or land-line) would need to spend quite a lot of money to buy this set of 6 discs! (HMV B-625 / B-630). How many people bought the full set we can never know. We can reasonably conclude, though, that some people started buying them one by one and then gave up, probably because of the expense. This is because I have found no less that three copies of the second disc of the set; but not more than one copy of the later ones, and some of them, no copy at all. By happy chance, each of the 3 copies of B-626 on the shelves here has a different label, and of course, the labels help to date the pressings. The earliest copy shown here may be the original label under which the discs first appeared. The HMV trade mark had been printed in colour until about 1915, when sepia was adopted as an economy measure. The second copy, because the picture appears in colour, must have been pressed after the War... it is thought that colour reappeared in late 1919 or 1920. The white quadrants are also characteristic of this time, as is the general label layout. The third copy is slightly harder to date, but my guesstimate is ~1926. The set actually survived in the catalogue until 1933. Another useful thing is that because these discs were made under the aegis of The Marconi Company, the tone we hear on the discs may, I suppose, resemble what you would have heard if you were listening, on Marconi equipment, to a Marconi Transmitter. (Radio 'systems' were quite exclusive before the Great War, and one company (e.g. Marconi) would not communicate with another (e.g. Slaby-Arco) except for distress calls of course.) Enough talk! Listen to Part of HMV B-626. And, for good measure, some brisk faster sending from HMV B-629.
Undoubtedly, a book or booklet was issued to accompany these discs, but alas, I have never seen a copy of it. Curiously, though this set was recorded in January 1916, it was not issued until February 1917! The reason for this surprising delay is unknown; but it must have been due to something quite significant.
I only have two discs from the second set of 6 issued by HMV. They were recorded on the 12th December 1916 (all except one side – that devoted to Distress working' - which was made on the 13th January 1917.) The set was issued in April 1917, and deleted in December 1926. All other details are similar to the set described above. However, one interesting disc – B-789 – is devoted to the Morse sounder. This had been of course the 'traditional' method of receiving Morse since what, the 1840s? It is fascinating that Samuel Morse's original system was devised for automatic sending and receiving; it had apparently not been envisaged that ‘ordinary human people’ could learn the various Morse symbols in their heads, and become, as it were, an organic interface! Quite soon, though, the skill of doing this was acquired, and the operator would simply listen to a clicking relay connected to the land line, and write down what the message said. This was regarded as an amazing thing at the time... and of course immensely simplified much early line telegraphy. It has also been regarded as an ‘amazing thing’ by countless hundreds of thousands of service personnel trying to learn Morse code under the eagle-eye of a determined instructor, that they themselves would ever survive the ordeal itself; never mind learn the code! Nearly all of them did, though. Anyhow, you can hear some of this ‘sounder’ record (B-789) by clicking here. The label of the adjacent record (B-790) is also reproduced as a matter of interest, because my copy has a 'white quadrant' label, but with the picture in sepia, so it’s an early-ish pressing, and hence represents a fourth label type for these discs. Again there must be a booklet for these discs; or perhaps there is one book or booklet for both these HMV sets? Who knows?
Meanwhile, on the other side of the
We could not leave the
'GS GS NY
GA your Edison Message please OK min
To the Telegraph Fraternity
Amid the activities of a busy life full of expectations hopes and fears my thoughts of early association with my comrades of the dots and dashes have ever been a delight and pleasure to me I consider it a great privilege to record in morse characters on an indestructible disc this tribute to my beginnings in electricity through the telegraph and with it a godspeed to the fraternity throughout the world
Following the Great War, interest in ‘Amateur Radio’ burgeoned.
Transmission by Morse code continued to expand rapidly of course; but wireless
transmission of speech – and music – was now possible too. Many men and boys
put up aerials and tinkered with coils, variable condensers and crystal
detectors. Some women certainly did so too: but, oddly, ‘pottering about with
bits of junk’ has always tended to be a male preserve, hasn't it? The more
affluent enthusiasts could afford to buy one or more valves (vacuum tubes), a
seemingly magical device that could do many things... It could greatly amplify
a radio signal; it could rectify (or ‘demodulate’) it, thus rendering it
audible; above all, it could serve as a generator of radio frequency
oscillations. (It could even do all three things at the same time, though you
might not want it to!) The inevitable result was the birth of radio
broadcasting as we know it today. Many people became just regular listeners to
the programmes of news, lectures, musical recitals, church services, stock
prices and so on. Some others, though, wondered what the many Morse signals
they could also hear through their headphones ‘were talking about’.
Accordingly, there remained a market for Morse training records. We have
already seen that the first HMV set remained in catalogue until 1933; thus,
this set, engendered by the fury and tragedy of War, clearly enjoyed a new
lease of life in peacetime for a more constructive purpose. But HMV were not
allowed by their competitors to be the sole source of Morse discs. By no means!
The Radio Craze of the early 1920s was to be catered for by more than one
company. Some time in 1922, Gamage's Department Store returned to the fray with
a monumental set of 24 discs! Alas, we have never seen any of these, so know
nothing about them. But also, sometime in the second half of 1922, the Edison
Bell Company produced a 4-disc set (with optional album), together with an
8-page leaflet. This really is a rare item, and I am again grateful to John
The Columbia Graphophone Company seems to have been the next British firm to enter the Morse disc market. Recorded in early 1923, their three-disc set (3262 – 3264) was accompanied by an 8-page booklet. These discs were available separately, but the booklet came with the first disc. I'm lucky to possess two sets of these, plus a singleton disc that turned up. It's quite amusing, actually: the first set acquired was quite expensive, but I didn't mind, as I really wanted it; besides, the discs were mint, and the leaflet was still with them. Then, a couple of years later at a record bazaar, a collector who knew I was looking for such discs, offered me a set again, also mint, with booklet. He'd kept them on one side for me. ‘Oh, that's great!’ I said; ‘thanks! How much do you want for them?’ He replied: ‘Make me an offer!’ That was fair enough; and on the basis of what I'd paid for the first set, I offered him fifteen pounds. (~ US $22). ‘Oh no!’, he exclaimed, ‘that's too much!’ Having lost my presence of mind due to this unexpected response, I countered with a conciliatory offer of five pounds. (~ US $7.50). He frowned at this, which was evidently too low; but he accepted it anyway! If that dealer happens to read these lines, I'll be happy to buy him a couple of pints of best bitter as belated compensation! A very curious thing is that all seven of the discs on the shelves here – in spite of the fact that the set appeared in 1923 –have labels from the 1930s. These are quite distinct, as the catalogue number appears to the right of the centre hole; on earlier pressings, the number appears at the bottom right of the label. So, just for completeness' sake, we also show a near-contemporary label, which would have been the original label for this set. I can't help wondering whether, the Spectre of War looming again in the mid 1930s, these discs enjoyed an enhanced sale at that time. No definite deletion date is known to me for this set; but I do know it was still available around say 1934. Because, in one of his books, the famous writer on radio matters F.J. Camm recommends that people wishing to learn Morse should use another set of discs, because ‘…the Columbias have rather a 'spark' sound to them..’ or something similar. And in fact, when you listen to a sample of the sending on these discs, the sound is really rather like that of the buzzer on the primary of an induction coil; this form of ‘spark transmission’ was general in 1923, but was superseded – in some cases very slowly – by the far more efficient continuous wave system. Camm was, of course, perfectly right; but these Columbian give us the chance to hear what we might have heard if we were sending on a small spark transmitter in 1923, and thus are very fine! Above all, the first disc in the set carries a spoken commentary, the first we have so far encountered. The beginning of this side is reproduced here. A further, faster sample from disc 3264 is included here. And, as before, you can study the whole of the booklet (which is also pretty idiosyncratic!) on this sub-page.
A long gap follows; and I'm not sure exactly when this next set appeared. The Linguaphone Institute had existed since 1901 offering language courses on record. (Indeed it still exists and flourishes, and I learn from its website that it goes from strength to strength and currently offers courses in at least fifty different languages. These are of course, on CD and not the original wax cylinders of 1901!) However, they do not, apparently, offer a course in the Morse code. But they did at one time! In the absence of definite information, I must date this set of 5 Linguaphone discs to... er... the mid-1930s. It has a 48 page booklet with it (so you will have to be content, alas, with a couple of extracts from it), authored by Lieutenant-Colonel L.V. Stewart Blacker, O.B.E., and the sender of the code is Sergeant C.E. Harvey of the Royal Corps of Signals. But let me hasten to explain several anomalies with these discs. First, the wording of the introductory part of the booklet is rather ‘olde-worlde’, and suggests a date more like the 1930s; ‘The Romance Of Wireless’, all that sort of thing. But near the end of the booklet, a reference is given to the publication ‘Handbook For Wireless Telegraph Operators’, 1940, published by His Majesty's Stationery Office. This is after the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939; but the general text of the Linguaphone booklet makes no special reference to the importance of Wireless in Wartime, as would assuredly have been the case had the book been written (or extensively re-written) after the outbreak of the War. Thus I place the booklet itself as ‘early war years’. A further problem arises in that the 5 discs are pressed in vinyl, not the usual brittle shellac. Vinyl came into use in this country in about 1949. So I think here we have a set of discs that was around for a very long time – nothing unusual about that, as we have already seen – and that the various components of the set (the master records, the contents of the booklet, the pressings) here occur in a confusing time-spread! So let us hear some of Sergeant Harvey's sending. The booklet has 48 pages, so is too large to be reproduced here. But it contains a couple of fascinating appendices: a page listing some symbols of the American Morse code, and another listing the Cyrillic alphabet with their International Morse equivalents. These are reproduced on this sub-page.
Set # 10.
War came again, and the
At around the same time, our two final examples were probably
also made. Levy's, originally a record shop in Whitechapel since at least the
early 1920s, had also produced their own labels, which issued much exotic
material in the Jazz line in the 1920s and 30s. Their longest-lived label was
called Oriole, and they eventually had two custom recording studios in central
N.B. Following a discussion with the noted discographer Steven Walker in early September 2006, it now seems likely that these Orioles are most likely pre-WW2 (i.e. pre-1939). It's being looked into; if it proves to be the case, this entry will simply be moved up the page. Though whether they come before or after the Linguaphones - who knows?)
In conclusion, I hope you have enjoyed this little tour around some of the byways of Morse code on 78s. There are certainly sets waiting to be discovered! I already know that Linguaphone issued a set with red labels. Logic suggests that these were a second set, with faster sending.
If you have comments, corrections or observations you wish to make, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org ; I'll be happy to receive them and of course to give you credit for further information.
Footnotes, credits, references &c.
Footnote 1. TEACHING TELEGRAPHY BY TALKING MACHINE. The
latest rôle of the talking machine is as a telegraphy teacher. It is so
utilised by the Electric Novelty and Talking Machine Company, of
Footnote 2. The American Morse Code and the
International Morse Code were different. The American code was, to be sure, the
earlier and therefore more authentic code, closely following Samuel F.B.
Morse's original code. This first code employed not only dots and dashes but
also internal spaces in a letter. Some of it can be seen in the picture above,
accompanying the Linguaphone Morse records. For example, the letter ‘C’ was
indicated by two dots, then a two-unit space, then a further dot; while Y was
two dots, a two-unit space and then two more dots. However logical this may
have been to Samuel Morse, it received short shrift in
References, credits & links.
-1. Catalogue Of HMV "B" Series Records. Frank Andrews & Ernie Bayly. CLPGS, 2000.
-2. 78 enthusiasts will benefit greatly from visiting Kurt's website: www.78rpm.com
-3. Merle Parten, K6DC, of
-4. Joe Moore, one of the most indefatigable discographers we have. He runs a 'Queries Forum' in VJM magazine and has long been a student of, and specialist in, the (American) Edison Company's recordings, especially of Jazz and Dance Music.
Thanks again to: The AWA Electronic Communication Museum at Bloomfield, NY, USA: www.antiquewireless.org/museum/museum.htm; Arthur Badrock; Mike Csontos; the late George Frow; Adrian Hope; Richard Johnson; Pat Hawker G3VA; John Hobbs; the late William McGhie; Joe Moore; Kurt Nauck; Merle Parten, K6DC; Tony Smith G4FAI; Thomas Sutton; Major A.D. Taylor G8PG; also G2KU; GOGDN, G4TPB, G4HGV. If I have left anybody out, or inadvertently used copyright material please let me know & it will be rectified.
Page finished 9th January 2005.
Revised & corrected 29th December 2008.