Telegraph Laughter

There some is debate whether 19th century typists ever used smileys or emoticons, but its clear that they did know how to convey laughter in their messages. In an 1891 article in the Annals of Hygiene journal, “Laughing by Telegraph,” the author writes that telegraph operators had figured out how to convey their emotions over the wires with the ubiquitous “haha” that we type and text today. Take a look:

“Laughing by Telegraph”

Telegraph operators lead a highly monotonous life, and are entitled to all the diversions they can extract from the unemotional machine over which they preside. A laugh transmitted over the wires cannot be of a very infectious nature, but it can be accomplished, nevertheless. When an operator becomes lonely, says the Indianapolis News, and his sounders are clicking out messages not intended for him, he calls up some friend and opens a conversation. This, of course, cannot be continued long before something “funny” is said. It then becomes the duty of the operator to laugh, which he does by making four dots, then one dot and a dash, thus: …. . -, spelling ha. Thus to all jokes he replies h-a, h-a. From the same authority we learn that surprise or incredulity as well as amusement, can be conveyed by a few clicks; thus four dots followed by two dashes make the expression “hm,” the precise meaning of which, in any given instance, is to be judged, no doubt, by the context.

Barclay Telegraph Women
Barclay Telegraph Operators, circa 1908. Library of Congress.

After I read this, I also said to myself “hm.” The precise meaning of which, I can tell you, is I found this interesting but not enough to get any serious lols from me.

It is cool to know that some telegraph operators had a sense of humor and were able to express it with each other to stave off the physical isolation and loneliness of their job.

: )

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