Thursday, December 26, 2013

Ma Kiley: Railroad Telegrapher

Thomas C. Jepsen’s biography, Ma Kiley: the Life of a Railroad Telegrapher (Texas Western Press, University of Texas at El Paso, 1997) comes from Mattie Kuhn’s autobiography, “The Bug and I: Parts 1-4,” Railroad Magazine, April-June 1950.  Jepsen took his lead from the narrative and tracked down the records that substantiated the story.  Just as we have usernames, so did telegraphers; and Mattie Kuhn called herself Ma Kiley for 40 years, actually some years after she began working.  Her first message was on the death of Queen Victoria, January 22, 1901.  She had learned to send and receive some months before, desperate to earn a living after leaving the first of several husbands.

By that time, women were a visible minority, first in railroading (from 1832), then in telegraphy (from 1846).  Jepsen’s introduction and his annotations to Mattie Kuhn’s story provide footnotes to sources.  At the end of the book, he cites Carolyn Marvin’s When Old Technologies Were New (1989) to substantiate some of the parallels between women in telegraphy and women in computing. The computer is, after all, only a prodigious telegraph; and the roots of ASCII are in Morse Code.

When not a boomer pounding brass, Kuhn also waited tables, drew water, and even sold life insurance.  She knew nothing but hard work and hard fortune when not making money as a telegrapher, though she did break down and cry when another telegrapher bought her dinner and a train ticket; and slipped five dollars into a magazine - as much a gesture of camaraderie as any deference to her womanhood. Usually, she rode free: her pins for the Commercial Telegraphers Union of American and the Order of Railroad Telegraphers were her pass. 

They were different lines of work.  Railroads were 20 years slow in figuring out that they could manage and control trains with the only thing that traveled faster.  In addition, commodities brokers, hotels, banks, and many other enterprises also needed telegraphers.  Mattie Kuhn worked for both.  So, she belonged to both unions. 

The telephone impacted telegraphy but did not finally make it obsolete until 1940.  The telegraph was generally more reliable when accuracy and precision were at a premium. Paper tapes for recording messages went out of common use in the 1850s, but still were installed when legal issues demanded a recording.  Compared to that, a telephone call was mere hearsay.

Mattie Kuhn worked until 1942.  Encouraged by a published author she met, she spent eleven days typing up her narrative. She sent her story to Railroad Magazine, as did many veterans.  The age of steam was passing.  The telegraph was gone.  “I can find no one who speaks my language,” she wrote.  It is not known when Mattie Kuhn taught herself to type.  Telegraphers owned their own typewriters, as they owned their own “bugs” - Vibroplex sending and receiving keys.  

The telegraph and the typewriter were both machines that liberated women by rewarding their intelligence while granting no privilege to men’s strength.  The first female telegrapher was Sarah G. Begley in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1846.  Elizabeth Cogley was the first woman employed as a railroad telegrapher, in 1852, for  the Ohio and Atlantic Telegraph Company. (Railroads and commercial companies found a hand-in-glove relationship with the railroads providing rights-of-way, and telegraph companies providing operators who also worked as station clerks.)

Typically, women were paid less, on the assumption that they would soon marry, though this seems statistically not at all true.  Mattie Kuhn eventually demanded and got the wages she wanted wherever she worked, but that was based on a long string of references for both railroad and commercial offices – and her own strength of character.  She was willing to walk away from a deal she did not like.  The telegraph was the medium by which operators sent out inquiries, just as software developers use the Internet.  Like today’s programmers, telegraphers also had to know hardware.  Mattie Kuhn passed ad hoc examinations in the wiring of switchboards, the maintenance of circuits and batteries, and the proper grounding of her own direct current device.

She never recovered from the death of her second child.  She left him at an orphanage, apparently with money for his care, but she returned to find him unconscious from fever and he never woke up.  It was a long time before she could cry. 

She herself missed three months of work because of typhoid fever.  Suffering from appendicitis, she was given an array of concoctions before paying for her own transportation and surgery. 

The book runs 138 pages, notes and all.  It is dense with feeling, insight, and expression. 


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