In this extract from the full article, Irving Vermilya reviews how, beginning in 1903 at the age of 13, he helped set up an extensive private telegraph line in his hometown of Mount Vernon, New York. In order to use the line, individuals had to learn to send the dots-and-dashes of Morse code, and also interpret the clicks of the telegraph receiver. (The receiver clicks were loud enough to be heard throughout a room, so you could constantly monitor the traffic on the line.) By around 1907, this telegraph setup had been extended to 42 locations, forming a kind of party line, where everyone connected could listen in as they wished to the two-way telegraphic conversations.
QST, February, 1917, pages 10-12:
Amateur Number One
By Irving Vermilya
For about a year I plugged away at the Morse code--determined that I was going to be an operator any way. I got another fellow, Fred Skinner, interested in the regular telegraph line, and April 8, 1903, we stretched our first line between our houses, Progress was slow, until one day, the nurse girl who took care of my younger brother, came home with a new fellow--a telegraph operator. Well, I thought "Three cheers, I'm going to get this fellow to stick around." I sang his praises to our nurse, told her what a good scout he was, etc. etc. Finally he brought two new telegraph instruments,--a brand new 150 ohms resistance main line sounders and keys. We immediately threw our small four ohm learners set in the discard.
In the course of time, this line grew considerably, as my many friends can vouch for. Fellows, it was some line. After three or four years, it had grown to be six miles long, and had forty-two different fellows and girls on it. It stretched from one end of the city to the other. It even ran under ground for a distance of two and a half miles. But such a wire! I'm almost ashamed to relate it. It was made out of copper, iron, brass, and aluminum. Some parts of it were insulated, and other parts were not. And not a soldered joint.
We stretched this wire--(I say we, but it should be I, as I was elected wire chief, and for fear of getting pinched, I had full care of it) on trees, telephone poles, over trolley wires, and on back fences. Needless to say, the line was working day and night. Some one of the bunch always used it. It was the custom for every one to say "good morning" and then sign off his or her call letters, when we got out of bed, and "good night" before retiring. Some of the operators kept scandalous hours. In fact, some said "GN" after our early risers had said "GM" for the next day. So you see, some of the night hawks were constantly a day behind themselves. New Year's night was always great on this. We would hear some fellow going to bed at 8:00 a.m. next morning, after we had heard our other early risers say "GM" at 5:00 a.m. I always kept my instrument cut in, and thought nothing of hearing my pal, Milo White, say "GN" three o'clock in the morning. We always knew when any of the fellows had been out with any of the girls on our line, as we would hear them chewing the visit over after he got home and while she was getting ready to retire. Then the final "Well, good night, dear."
We formed a company of all the members on this line, to help bear the expense, and held regular monthly meetings at each other's homes.
Up to the time when we had about thirty-six stations on the line, we had gotten along fine as far as juice was concerned. I had all the batteries in my cellar-- eighty-three gravity cells. But, the question of juice was fast becoming a serious problem, as we needed more power to overcome the great resistance of our poor line, and instruments. We had a meeting one night, and after long deliberation, decided we would have to get a dynamo, or something.
After the meeting disbanded, I called three or four of the fellows into conference--Conspiracy is what one girl called it--and told them that I intended to borrow some juice from a certain wire down on the corner. At first, they thought I was talking nonsense, but I finally impressed them that I was in earnest.
Bright and early one morning, I got up and ran the wire down to the corner. I ran in a twisted telephone line, and put it up on real insulators, so that it looked exactly like a real telephone line. Of course when I came to our point where the tap was to be made, I continued the wire on up the street, so that it would not look as though it had stopped, and would throw any pursuer off the track. The line was run on telephone poles about ten feet above the wire we were going to tap, which also ran along the same line of poles. Being a good pole climber, I put on my belt and spikes, and started up the pole on which I had previously strung our line. When I got to the "feed wire", I took out some fine magnet wire, and wrapped it around the feed wire, then I carefully cut a slit in the wooden pole ten feet up to where our line was, and made fast to our line. I laid the magnet wire in the slit I had cut, and covered it all over with putty. It would have taken a greater detective than Sherlock Holmes to ever dig that tap up, or discover it. The fact is proven by the knowledge that we had the juice coming from this source for two years.
While I was up the pole however, I had two great scares. First one was a cop, who came down the street and saw me up the pole. I thought surely he was after me, but he evidently believed I was a lineman, as he passed right on under me. The next and greatest scare, was when the trolley repair wagon came along, and I thought surely the jig was up. I had visions that I had blown out all the fuses on the trolley line, and they were after me. But they too, passed me by without even looking up. When I got home, sure enough, there was 550 direct current volts waiting to be used. I then hooked up ten sixteen candle power lamps in series, and put them from the tapped juice to the ground. This just made them glow, so there would of course be no amperage pulled off the tapped wire. At the fourth lamp up from the ground, I made fast our telegraph line, and then Hurrah, we had plenty of juice day and night. After this, we had no further trouble no matter how many instruments we put on, and no matter what kind of wire we put up. It always went through.
One day, we had a particularly hard run of wire to put up, and had to pass by a certain piece of property where the owner was noted for being a crank. I went to him, and said "Mr. Taylor, may I run a telegraph wire through your trees?" "You cannot. No sir" was my answer. I thanked him, for I knew I was going to run it through his joint somehow or other, even if I had to hang it on the clouds. We couldn't have any one ordinary man stand in the way of this line now. I thought it all over, and finally got out one dark night, and tacked it all along his back fence. When we came to the end of his fence, we ran it under ground in a pipe, and then up the outside of the first tree, the other side of his yard. That wire is still there I'll bet, if his fence is.
The fun began, when we had our next meeting after acquiring the "loan" of the "Tralla Lue" juice, as we called it. Only five or six besides myself were in on it. The rest still believed our batteries were giving the power. The city electrician, who by the way, was my cousin, was by this time a full fledged member of the line. His official job in real life was to have control of every wire in the city. He still holds the job. Now, of course, it would not do to let him in on it, and you can imagine what an uneasy feeling I had when he came to the door to attend the meeting. We got away with it all right, but had several narrow escapes. One fellow said "Say VN, you must have an awful bunch of batteries down in your cellar, that line is working great these days". Another fellow (the nurse's husband now) said, "Where did you get that dynamo VN?" Ye Gods, I was ready to explode. One fellow, Al Jenks, who was in on the thing grabbed up a 45 calibre pistol, that I always had hanging around loaded with blanks for amateurs, and yelled "order". After plenty of storm and stress, and a tax for more blue vitrol for our batteries, the meeting broke up. I certainly was happy.
My ease of mind was never perfect though, and I finally went to the Mayor of the town and asked him if he couldn't fix it up for me to get a little juice from the trolley. Much to my surprise, he did. He wrote a very strong letter to the Receiver of the line (it was in the Receiver's hands) and he in turn granted the permission. I was then quite happy, and that old line lasted until I finally moved away from the city. We made some great operators out of that old line just the same, and fellows, if you are ever near the Hotel Manhattan in New York City, call on Mr. Fred Coleman, who is now manager of the Western Union office there. You will never met a pleasanter man. He is a small man in size, but he certainly had a great big