Telegraph Service Remembered

The sound of a message unrolling before your very eyes as it arrived on the 50 baud teleprinter or telex machine, is something that is hard to forget. It might have been a news story arriving from NZPA at one of the local newspaper offices, or a much anticipated order for goods arriving from overseas, or an imperious message arriving from Head Office instructing that something be done IMMEDIATELY.

All in upper case. Text in black to show it was an incoming message. The thrill of seeing the words being written at a constant rate across the page, the printhead rising and rotating to position each character to be struck against the ribbon to print a letter or number on the paper held in place by the platen. And, as the printhead reached the right-hand edge of the page, the sickening lurch to the left that shook the printer and table as it prepared to print the next line.

The whine of the motor starting was the sound that alerted you to an incoming message. Then the familiar sound of the answerback code RADPHON NZ31010 being printed in red to identify it as local text as your machine identified itself to the caller. A slight pause as the sender obligingly transmitted their answerback code before sending the message.

Another pause, and the message started. Haltingly, if the sender was typing, rhythmically, if they were sending a pre-typed message from a paper tape. At the end of the message the caller could activate a bell on your terminal if they wanted a response immediately by pressing the BELL key. “Ting!” or ” ting, ting, tinga, ting!” if they were impatient or jittery.

Otherwise the caller could simply disconnect after following the etiquette of pressing the IAM key and printing their answerback code at the bottom of the message, followed by the WRU (for “who are you”) key to trigger your machine’s answerback code.

And then silence. “Rrrrrrrrrrr!” As you pulled the top of the message to bring all the text from under the glass. “Thriiiiiip!” as the paper was pulled forward and along the cutting edge to separate it from the roll.

Sounds of the past. Sights of the past. The early teleprinters (like the Creeds and Olivettis) came supplied with metal tables to carry their immense weight – many went on to have long careers in the garages and workshops of the blokes who maintained the telegraph networks and equipment – long after the printers had been laid to rest.

New Zealand operated an 80 volt telegraph network for much of the 20th century. Signals between the machines and the network used a bi-polar +/- 80 volt baudot code which was the bane of any technician who had the misfortune to come into contact with the 160 volts of a telegraph signal in full flight. It felt as if a nest of rats was trying to eat its way out of your arm!

There were several private point-to-point and broadcast telegraph networks for press, large companies and the public telegraph service. There were switched networks too. The better known telex network which allowed business and government to exchange messages and, of course, the gentex service which made telex facilities available to those without a telex machine.

Remember those yellow forms with terse messages (sometimes contrived using incomprehensible shorthand) trying to convey as much information within the chargeable limit? These telegrams could be sent by completing a special form at any Post Office and were usually addressed to a person at a particular telephone number. The teller at the Post Office would stamp the form with a “thock!” and the messages were despatched in batches to the nearest telegraph office.

Telegraph operators would type the messages into the network, and their counterpart at the receiving end would cut and glue the message onto one of the ubiquitous yellow “inland telegram” forms. The message would be telephoned to the recipient, and the form annotated “telephoned.” If the recipient couldn’t be contacted, the form was marked “NR” for no reply and set aside for another attempt. The contact was usually attempted at half-hourly intervals and a “NO REPLY” stamp was applied to the reverse of the form providing a history of attempts to telephone the message through, showing times and the initials of the operator at each attempt. Once the telegram had successfully been delivered by telephone, it was (in the 1970s and 1980s) placed in one of those distinctive brown window envelopes marked TELEGRAM in blue and delivered in the post.

Charging for telegrams was simple, although I’m a bit vague as to the initial word count limit. It was a flat rate for a minimum of 12 words, with an additional fee for each word thereafter. The minimum included the recipients details, so these were usually brief such as “Bruce Kawerau 54321.” It was unnecessary to include the word “phone” in front of the telephone number or a salutation in front of the name, although many inexperienced users of the service did so, thereby reducing the number of words available to convey the message.

New Zealand’s telegraph network was decommissioned a few years back, after more than 120 years of service. It had become redundant as people used cheaper telephone calling rates, facsimile and email to convey their important news.

3 Responses to “Telegraph Service Remembered”

  1. Chris M says:

    Ah! The old Creed teleprinters – well I remember them from my days as a student at Canterbury University….

    As an early “nerd”, one of the first to study what was then called “Computer Science” (well, I was supposed to be studying it – I vaguely remember getting distracted by DXing, beer, trains – generally anything to avoid work!) and was a member of the students computer club (the name escapes me now).

    We were all busy building our own computers back then, based on Zilog Z-80 CPUs. Of course, commercial monitors and printers were totally out of the question for penniless students back then, so “monitors” were old black & white TV sets, keyboards were a collection of switches (true enthusiasts toggled binary code directly into the computer through these switches) and printers were, well, you probably guessed it – old teleprinters.

    I remember that our club won a collection of old Creed teleprinters in a government surplus auction. I think they were either ex-Post Office or ex-Railways, and I think our winning bid was something like $5 each (a lot of jugs of beer back then!). From memory these were Creed 50s – big green beasts. The collection we won was located on the West Coast, and being one of the few who had a car, my services were “volunteered” to go and round up the beasts and drive them back to Christchurch.

    A day excursion to The Coast was duly organised and we set off. We managed to make it to the Coast without spending the money earmarked for the teleprinters on beer, and collected the beasts without further ado.

    Heading back over the Alps the weather started to pack up, the cloud came down, the temperature dropped, and it started to snow. By the time we were coming down Porters Pass there was snow and ice everywhere. Being young and indestructable we didn’t let a little thing like that slow us down! Not until one corner anyway, when the Austin 1100, loaded with 10 tons of solid Creed engineering in the back, decided it had done enough of this going around corners stuff, and started to slide smoothly but uncontrollably towards the edge of the road and the “quick” route straight back down to the Canterbury Plains!

    Luckily, control was regained in time, and after a suitable change of underwear, the shipment of telecommunications history was safely delivered to Christchurch.

    I’m not sure if anyone ever did get their computer projects finished – I do remember having several encounters with the HT supply of my TV “monitor” and living to tell the tale 🙂

  2. Chris M says:

    I found this web page when looking for a photo of my old teleprinter:

    Now I’m confused – none of them look familiar! I suppose NZ made their own cases.

    Cheers, Chris

  3. Grant M says:


    Like you, I remember the old Creed machines we used in the NZBC/BCNZ/RNZ days. Most of ours were relatively simple affairs without the punch tape reader/writer and were centrally switched via “Head Office”.

    The fun started when a machine went u/s. After a tech had visited and fixed the problem we would then have to “REQR” message refeeds, usually in batches of 10 at a time.

    After one outage occurred about 1300 on a Saturday and was not fixed until the Monday, it took until late in the afternnon of the Monday to retreive all the messages we had missed. Thankfully very few were “UU” (urgent) priority and none was so urgent that we had missed a local broadcast.

    I seem to remember that one of the prime reason why we had ‘trouble’ with our systems was that the circuit was designed as 50 baud but had been ‘upgraded’ to 74b. The poor old mechanical relay sets at the exchange had to be literally hand picked for the job to meet the extra speed requirements.

    As ours was an ‘in house’ system (as distinct from the public telex network), we had developed our own peculiaraties and abbreviations.

    Try this one as an address line: BZRN LESS CHRN AKTV

    That meant “To all radio and TV stations except Christchurch Radio New Zealand and Auckland Television New Zealand” (at least, from memory those were the codes). I’m sure someone will correct me if my memory has failed me.


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