Article: New York Central Wire Plant Ranks High - 1921

Editor's Note: The Michigan Central railroad was one of the most progressive railroads in Michigan history. Under the leadership of President Henry Ledyard and with the backing of the immense financial resources of the Vanderbilt family the Michigan Central led in the adoption of the telegraph (1855) and the telephone (1905) for dispatching. This article, from a 1921 edition of the Railroad Signal Engineer, discusses the advances of the telegraph and telephone for communications on the NYC, including the Michigan Central. 

For a summary of "take aways" from this article, click here.

From the Railway Signal Engineer, August 1921.

Included 156,000 Miles of Wire, of Which 65,000 Miles Are Used Exclusively for Railroad Business

Latest Inventions Employed

To keep pace with the growing traffic, the railroads of the New York Central Lines have developed a telegraph and telephone plant that includes about 12,000 miles of pole lines and 156,000 miles of wire, of which 65,000 miles are used exclusively for railroad business. This is credited with being the largest railroad wire plant in America.

The telegraph was used almost exclusively up to 1907, at which time the telephone was developed for dispatching trains. At present the telephone is used for dispatching on all branches of the railroad. There are also a large number of railroad private long distance telephone circuits, the principal ones being the extraordinary large gauge copper wire, one pair of which extends from New York to Buffalo, and another pair from New York to Chicago, with branches to Boston, Pittsburgh, Detroit and other places.

Have Instant Service

Practically all important points between New York and Boston, St. Louis and Chicago are connected in the network of the telegraph and telephone service, so that the general and executive offices have instant intercommunicating service.

In developing this wire plant, the telegraph department has made use of the latest inventions, such as the vacuum tube, telephone repeaters, composite equipment, "phantom" circuits and Dr. Pupin's famous "loading" coils, all of which aid in the extension of the range of telephone transmission.

By superimposing telegraph on telephone wires and coupling up two circuits, several additional telegraph and telephone circuits are obtained without additional cost for wires. For instance, in the case of two pairs of wires put up primarily for long-distance telephone service, these wires, in addition to giving normally two telephone circuits, form between them a "phantom" telephone circuit, which third telephone circuit is obtained by the insertion of special coils at the terminals, thereby, forming the third path for the so-called "phantom" telephone circuit. Each of the four wires forming these two pairs of wires is then composited for telegraph circuits, making four distinct telegraph circuits, which can be used for either single or duplex operation.

Summarized, these two pairs of telephone wires would give a maximum of three long-distance telephone circuits, and four telegraph circuits, each of which could be duplexed, so that eight separate telegraph messages could be sent on the wires at one time, while at the same time three separate telephone conversations may be carried on. This method of operation is called "simultaneous telephony and telegraphy," and is being developed fully wherever needed.

In addition to this multiplex use of circuits there is under promotion the further use of existing wires by the employment of the wired radio system of communications invented by Major-General Squier of the United States Signal Corps, which method employs alternating current of very high frequency, enabling additional circuits of both telegraph and telephone to be obtained from one pair of wires by stepping up each circuit in steps of about 5,000 cycles per second. That is to say, the first circuit on a pair of wires may be obtained at a frequency of 30,000 cycles per second; the next circuit can be obtained at 35,000, and so on up. It is thought practicable to obtain at least twenty different circuits from one pair of wires.

Wired Wireless Successful

At a recent meeting of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers at New York, Major-General Squier stated that this method of using one pair of wires for various purposes was considered so far advanced that the Navy Department has now under consideration a plan for wiring battleships so that one or two pairs of wires will service all purposes - that is to say, furnish electric power for operating machinery, electric light, telegraph and telephone communication and other similar purposes.

A recent test was made of this wired radio on the Harlem division of the New York Central, and further tests are now under way, so that it may reasonably be expected that in time there will be a great increase in communication without the necessity of building additional wires. This will be a very great convenience to the railroad, not only for the additional communication available, but also especially on account of lessening the number of wires along the railroad.  On the four-track railroad systems there are many places where there are now 60 wires on the pole lines, which are needed for the operation of automatic block signals, and for telegraph and telephone service for the railroad and the telegraph companies. This large load of wires entails considerable expense on account of the maintenance of poles strong enough to carry the heavy load during sleet and heavy wind storms.

By special arrangement with the American Telephone & Telegraph Company and its associated telephone companies, known as the Bell System, the New York Central has the right to connect up its private long-distance lines with the Bell System long distance and city service, which convenience is a great aid in transacting business with the business public. For instance, the president and executive officers at New York can, by use of their own wires, get connection with their own telephone exchange, New York to Chicago, and thence connect up with the other railroads, merchants, bankers and other business men at any point in the city of Chicago or at other adjacent places. This long-distance telephone communication enables the railroad executives and officials to settle instantly, important matters of business by the use of the telephone, which would require days to handle by telegraph or mail.

5,000 Long Distance Calls

The total number of long-distance calls handled over the New York Central Lines' primary long-distance telephone circuits amounts to about 5,000 calls per day. At New York and Chicago, the railroad has 12-position telephone switchboards which give continuous 24-hour service, employing at each point about 15 railroad telephone operators. On the New York Central there are about 5,500 telephones on railroad private branch switchboards, and about 4,000 direct exchange lines connecting with the city exchanges. The number of local city calls is enormous, but they are not kept account of ordinarily.

In addition to the railroad private telephone system, NYC companies spend about $750,000 each year to provide commercial, local and long-distance telephone service, including rentals and operation of the railroad private branch telephone exchanges and the trunk line connections to the Bell System and other city telephone exchanges.

Automatic Telephone Uses

The cost of maintenance of the New York Central private telephone long-distance wires cannot readily be determined, because, in most cases, the wire and the labor for maintaining them are furnished by the Western Union under joint contract, which is a reciprocal agreement providing for the exchange of considerations between the two companies, the railroad giving the right of way for the joint pole line and wires and the services of their operators to handle commercial business, as against the free wire and other benefits granted to the railroad by the telegraph company.

The automatic telephone, which is about to be adopted by all of the Bell Telephone Systems for general city service, has been in use by the New York Central for the past ten years. The best and most efficient plants are located at New York and Detroit. At New York the Grand Central Terminal and electric zone are covered by the private railroad telephone wires, operated entirely by automatic telephones, which are placed in each interlocking tower and other offices closely connected with the maintenance and operation in this very heavy traffic territory. A similar but somewhat smaller plant is giving satisfactory service in the new terminal of the Michigan Central at Detroit.

The development of the long-distance telephone has reduced somewhat the use of the telegraph, because the telephone gives almost instantaneous results, whereas a written telegraph message, ordinarily, suffers some delay on account of the parties being unable to answer at once. However, the telegraph is still being used extensively. There are telegraph wires on each branch and division of the railroad connected with all offices, so that, by interconnecting at general and relay offices, any point on the entire system can be reached. For instance, should it be desired to communicate direct by telegraph from New York to St. Louis, it can quickly be done. Also, in emergency, intermediate and instant communication can be had to any of the stations at distant points.

Sent by "Typewriters"

The telegraph has been developed so that messages are sent and received by the use of what appears to be ordinary typewriters, the sender simply operating the usual typewriting keys, and each message is received on the typewriter on the distant end, without any attention by receiving operator. The system is called the printing telegraph.

An interesting development, especially to old-time operators who were prone to go to sleep while on duty, is the telegraph selector, which is an arrangement by which a bell is rung at any office desired.

It is an amplification of a telegraph relay. When certain combinations of impulses, by hand or special cam key are made, they will close the selector contact that will ring a bell at the desired office.

This telegraph selector has recently has added to it a development called an answer-back, whereby the calling officer who turns the cam key to operate the selector that rings the bell will know that the bell has rung at the distant point, because an attachment is placed on the relay at the distant selector, which opens and closes the line rapidly. This makes the relay chatter at the calling station, giving a clear indication that the bell has rung. This answer-back signal is stopped by opening the key in any station.

There are about 30 principal general and relay telegraph offices on the New York Central, which handle, in normal times, about 55,000 railroad telegraph messages a day. No attempt is made to count the messages handled at way-stations. Way-station operators, in addition, handle Western Union commercial messages.

The Pole Line

The telegraph pole line is the backbone of the telegraph and telephone plant. Previous to a few years ago renewals of pole lines were generally made only when failures occurred. On account of the large outlay involved, the maintenance of poles was neglected.

This construction and maintenance matter has recently been organized on the proper engineering basis, under which rules the poles are built and maintained of such size and strength to carry the assumed loading of wires covered with sleet and subjected to the wind which records show prevail in the territory in which they are located. A suitable initial factor of safety is employed in designing the new pole line, and a minimum factor established below which maintenance shall not fail.

By making regular inspections after the poles have become a few years old the necessary renewals will be made, so that the plant will be kept up to a proper efficiency and avoid the many failures that have occurred in the past, which not only deprive the railroad of communication during storms or at the very time the communication was imperatively needed; but in many cases these poles have fallen on the tracks and interfered with the running of trains.

The Organization

The problems arising from the construction, maintenance and operation of the railroad telegraph and telephone plant include strength of poles and wires, electrical protection, inductive interference, electrolysis, telephone and telegraph transmission and the handling of telegraph and telephone traffic. These engineering problems are about the same on the railroad as in the plants of both the Western Union Telegraph Company and the American Telephone & Telegraph Company, but to a lesser degree in volume. In this connection the wire mileage of the NYC lines is about 12 per cent of the total wire owned by the Western Union Telegraph Company in the entire country.

The organization, including construction, maintenance and operation of the NYC lines telegraph and telephone service, is under the supervision of a General superintendent of telegraph, located at New York, under whom there are superintendents telegraph for each member railroad. These men are assisted by electrical engineers on the larger lines. There is then the usual plant organization of general foremen and linemen, with station linemen or repairmen, who make the minor repairs and clear the wire trouble, and who cover from 50 to 60 miles of road.

To keep the wires working a force of wire chiefs are employed, who have direct charge of the testing.

From the Railway Signal Engineer, August, 1921, pages 318-321.

Take-aways from this article:

  • The NYC owned 156,000 miles of line-side wire.
  • Telegraph was used almost exclusively up to 1907.
  • Telephone came into common use before 1900 and into dispatching by 1907.
  • The railroad pioneered the use of vacuum tubes, telephone repeaters and "phantom" circuits.
  • Two pairs of telephone wires (4 wires) could simultaneously handle 3 phone conversations and 8 telegraph circuits.
  • In 1921, the two most advanced telephone installations on the system were in New York City and in Detroit, in the new Michigan Central depot.
  • There were 30 principal or relay telegraph offices on the NYC. (In Michigan, these centers were in Detroit and in Bay City. There likely were others.
  • The NYC private telephone system was connected to the Bell System in most larger towns on the line.
  • The "automatic" telephone system (which did not require telephone operators) was established about 1910 on the NYC, about ten years before being adopted by the Bell System.
  • The NYC was an early adopter of telegraph/telephone "selectors" which would ring a bell at a station or tower to summon the operator to the phone line. Unlike the Bell System (which had the selector device in a central office), the railroad put the selector in the station or tower itself.
  • By 1921, teletype systems were replacing telegraph keys. Operators could type telegraph messages into a keyboard which would appear on a printer at the receiving location.
  • Telephone poles and lines were a joint investment of the railroad and Western Union. 12% of all Western Union telegraph lines were on the NYC.

See also Telegraph Companies and Railroads in Michigan, a related story.




The following sources are utilized in this website. [SOURCE-YEAR-MMDD-PG]:

  • [AAB| = All Aboard!, by Willis Dunbar, Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids ©1969.
  • [AAN] = Alpena Argus newspaper.
  • [AARQJ] = American Association of Railroads Quiz Jr. pamphlet. © 1956
  • [AATHA] = Ann Arbor Railroad Technical and Historical Association newsletter "The Double A"
  • [AB] = Information provided at Michigan History Conference from Andrew Bailey, Port Huron, MI

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