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Daguerreotype, 1/4 plate
4 1/4 x 3 1/4 ins (image)
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Gift of the Hall Family Foundation, © Nelson Gallery Foundation
This photograph was previously owned by Rob McElroy and sold at Cowan Auctions (2010, American History, Including the Civil War, Lot 245). At that time the lot description said:
When Samuel Morse used an electrical telegraph to send the message What Hath God Wrought in May, 1844 from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore, Maryland, he transformed communication in the United States. By the end of the Civil War, the telegraph had become the means by which information was transmitted long, as well as short distances.
Daguerreian images of telegraphers are hardly unknown, but to our knowledge this is the first featuring a female operator. She stares confidently into the camera, her hands on a key and relay, a tape suspended magically in the air. On the left side of the plate the telegrapher has her first two fingers positioned on the ivory knob of an early camelback (also called a humpback) telegraph key, and in the center is an early and scarce Morse-design weight-driven telegraph register by J. Burritt & Son of Ithaca, NY. The register recorded the dots and dashes of the telegraph signal onto a paper tape so that messages could be received (and recorded) at any time, thus allowing the telegraph office to receive and record messages even when no telegraph operator was present. The paper tape can be seen entering the machine from an unseen spool of tape suspended above the machine. After the dots and dashes were recorded onto the tape from a pointed stylus, the tape exited the machine and fell to the floor.
The firm of J. Burritt & Son (In business under that name from 1838 -1862) was primarily a jeweler with a previous history in the clock making business. It appears their Morse-style register may have been the only piece of telegraph equipment they manufactured, and probably only for a short time, as very few Burritt registers have survived. The first commercially sold registers were introduced in 1843 but weighed almost 200 pounds because their electromagnets used the same gauge insulated wire as the telegraph lines. Not until 1845 (the year this Burritt register was probably manufactured), was it discovered that electromagnets could be wound with thinner gauge wire, thus drastically reducing the size and weight of the telegraph equipment. The first fine-wire magnets used by Morse himself were made by Charles T. Smith in Professor Morse's room in Washington, in the year 1845, the same year Burritt manufactured his register.
On the right side of the photograph, the woman has her hand resting on an unidentified telegraph relay, her thumb and first finger positioned around a tightening knob of what looks like a tall binding post (presumably made of brass). A loosely coiled bare wire for carrying the incoming telegraph signal, can be partially seen extending from the base of the relay on the far right side, extending out of the frame (underneath the brass mat). Also visible at the far right side of the image (only seen when the brass mat was removed) is a second tall binding post (very similar to the one the woman is resting her fingers on) which is attached to the far right side of the relay's wooden base. The coiled signal wire is attached to the top of this hidden second binding post.
According to Tom Jepsen, a specialist in the history of women in telegraphy and the author of My Sisters Telegraphic, this is the earliest image of a female operator that he has encountered. Jepsen believes that this daguerreotype predates, by 20 years, the earliest image he has ever found showing a woman telegrapher, and that image dates from 1871 and was not a daguerreotype. It is probable that the young, well-dressed woman in the portrait just finished or graduated from a telegraphy course and was proud of her achievement and new vocation, and therefore wanted to have an occupational portrait made to celebrate her achievements.
For a background to this topic:
Thomas C. Jepson, 2000, My Sisters Telegraphic: Women in the Telegraph Office 1846-1950, (Athens: Ohio University Press)