Telegraph Schools: The Development of Technical Education in Canada

By Michael Feagan

Developing and using large telecommunications networks requires a body of workers skilled and knowledgeable in operating and maintaining that network. In the nineteenth century this training was done through apprenticeships or learning while working other positions at the telegraph office, such as a messenger or clerk. By the turn of the twentieth century, the telegraph industry in Canada was beginning to formalize the education and training of Canadian telegraphers. Many newly established schools were sponsored and supported by major Canadian telegraph companies, which ensured the steady flow of telegrapher labour.

Telegraph schools actually began in the late nineteenth century but they had a poor reputation. Many operators believed that telegraph schools, or “plug factories” as they were derisively called, were not beneficial because they flooded the labour market, depressed wages, and gave inadequate training.[1] Morse telegraphers believed that it took at least one or two years of training and practice to develop mediocre skills.[2] To become a first-class operator, an apprenticeship of four to five years was considered sufficient.[3] This was in stark contrast to the three or six months that most telegraph institutes promised to provide their students with proficiency in telegraphy. There was concern among experienced telegraphers that these telegraph institutes were scams. One Torontonian telegrapher, who went by the alias Kanuck, related such an experience to the journal The Electric Age in 1886. Kanuck decided to investigate a local telegraph school called “McIlwain & Co’s. Short Hand and Telegraph School.” There was only one teacher of telegraphy at the school, named Mr. H, who instructed nine pupils. Kanuck stated that Mr. H was not competent in telegraphy instruction. Mr. H himself admitted that he was only teaching telegraphy to “fill in the time till something else turns up.” Mr. H also admitted that he expected to make some money from his pupils without giving them much in return.[4] Most experienced telegraphers believed telegraph schools were scams that took the money of unsuspecting students and gave them little of the skill and experience they needed to be productive telegraphers.

Nevertheless, many young men and women seemed satisfied with their education in telegraphy. The Dominion School of Telegraphy and Railroading (DSTR) in Toronto published a course advertising booklet in 1917 that included letters from graduates describing their satisfaction with the instruction and overall success in the industry. W.J. Allen, a twenty-two-year-old operator from Toronto, declared that the Dominion School had “given me a larger earning power than I ever had before.”[5] S.C. Boyles, an operator for the CPR, said “I was night operator and receiving a salary of $65.00 a month, which with overtime, would amount to $83.00 per month. I think this is a very good start, considering that I never knew the first thing about railroading before coming to your school, also coming off a farm.”[6] According to another graduate working as a CPR telegraph operator, “I just pulled $125.00 last month. Our new schedule pays me $73.00 per month, $3.10 for each Sunday, and 30 cents per day extra for the hour. So my average salary is $93.20 every month. That isn’t so bad for a young man just starting out.”[7]

Telegraph schools were particularly attractive for women because it was rare for women to become telegraphers through apprenticeships.[8] Women usually began work as telegraphers by learning it in school or by holding a clerical position at a telegraph office and learning telegraphy in their spare time. Male telegraphers believed that the increase of telegraph schools caused an increase in women telegraphers. Men believed that this increase in women operators would devalue their skills and decrease their wages due to telegraph schools flooding the labour market with less skilled and less compensated women operators.[9] However, telegraph schools likely educated more men than women. The DSTR letters from graduates were almost all from men. Only one letter was from a woman who claimed that after passing the course she was able to “take a position as a commercial telegrapher.”[10] This photograph of a DSTR classroom (Figure 1) also gives an impression of student gender composition, of which only three appear to be women. Although the numbers of women who attended schools were most likely exaggerated by male telegraphers, the ability for women to attend these schools made their entry into the industry much easier.

Figure 1: The Dominion School of Telegraphy and Railroading, 1917. The photo shows students in the Senior Department of the school alongside the miniature railroad and telegraph stations. There are three women telegraphers with their backs to the camera sitting at the closest row of desks.

These anecdotes reveal that some young men and women thought their education helped propel them to a class of work that provided the financial stability required of a respectable living. However, these positive anecdotes were furnished by the school itself and they would not present a negative image in their advertisements. Taking this bias into account, there was still a noticeable difference in quality between telegraph schools of the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. The DSTR possessed model railroads with attached telegraph stations to help train students (Figure 1). It also possessed three instructors with a long history of working in the telegraph and railroad industries. This was a more impressive staff and learning environment than the one Kanuck visited in 1886. What these two examples illustrate more broadly is the shift in technical education in Canada from an apprenticeship model to more formalized and specialized schooling that began in the early twentieth century.


[1] Gabler, 132 and 175. “Plug” was a derisive term used to refer to unskilled and incompetent telegraphers often used interchangeably with the term “ham.”

[2] Ibid, 116.

[3] Ibid, 113.

[4] Kanuck, “Letters to the Editor,” The Electric Age (1886), 212.

[5] W.J. Allen to Dominion School of Telegraphy and Railroading, in Dominion School of Telegraphy and Railroading (Toronto: 1917) 8.

[6] S.C. Boyles to Dominion School of Telegraphy and Railroading, in Dominion School of Telegraphy and Railroading (Toronto: 1917) 10.

[7] D.S. Cooper to Dominion School of Telegraphy and Railroading, in Dominion School of Telegraphy and Railroading (Toronto: 1917) 6.

[8] Gabler, 99.

[9] Ibid, 132.

[10] Lola Galbraith to Dominion School of Telegraphy and Railroading, in Dominion School of Telegraphy and Railroading (Toronto: 1917) 19.

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