Phrack Inc Volume Three, Issue 30, File 10 of 12 - Western Union Telex, TWX, and Tim
Volume Three, Issue 30, File #10 of 12
=== Western Union ===
=== Telex, TWX, and Time Service ===
=== by Phone Phanatic ===
=== September 17, 1989 ===
"Until a few years ago -- maybe ten -- it was very common to
see TWX and Telex machines in almost every business place."
There were only minor differences between Telex and TWX. The biggest
difference was that the former was always run by Western Union, while the
latter was run by the Bell System for a number of years. TWX literally meant
"(T)ype(W)riter e(x)change," and it was Bell's answer to competition from
Western Union. There were "three row" and "four row" machines, meaning the
number of keys on the keyboard and how they were laid out. The "three row"
machines were simply part of the regular phone network; that is, they could
dial out and talk to another TWX also connected on regular phone lines.
Eventually these were phased out in favor of "newer and more improved" machines
with additional keys, as well as a paper tape reader attachment which allowed
sending the same message repeatedly to many different machines. These "four
row" machines were not on the regular phone network, but were assigned their
own area codes (410-510-610-710-810-910) where they still remain today. The
only way a four row machine could call a three row machine or vice-versa was
through a gateway of sorts which translated some of the character set unique to
Western Union's network was called Telex and in addition to being able to
contact (by dial up) other similar machines, Telex could connect with TWX (and
vice-versa) as well as all the Western Union public offices around the country.
Until the late 1950's or early 1960's, every small town in America had a
Western Union office. Big cities like Chicago had perhaps a dozen of them, and
they used messengers to hand deliver telegrams around town. Telegrams could be
placed in person at any public office, or could be called in to the nearest
By arrangement with most telcos, the Western Union office in town nearly always
had the phone number 4321, later supplemented in automated exchanges with some
prefix XXX-4321. Telegrams could be charged to your home phone bill (this is
still the case in some communities) and from a coin phone, one did not ask for
4321, but rather, called the operator and asked for Western Union. This was
necessary since once the telegram had been given verbally to the wire clerk,
s/he in turn had to flash the hook and get your operator back on the line to
tell them "collect five dollars and twenty cents" or whatever the cost was.
Telegrams, like phone calls, could be sent collect or billed third party. If
you had an account with Western Union, i.e. a Telex machine in your office, you
could charge the calls there, but most likely you would simply send the
telegram from there in the first place.
Sometime in the early 1960's, Western Union filed suit against AT&T asking that
they turn over their TWX business to them. They cited an earlier court ruling,
circa 1950's, which said AT&T was prohibited from acquiring any more telephone
operating companies except under certain conditions. The Supreme Court agreed
with Western Union that "spoken messages" were the domain of Ma Bell, but
"written messages" were the domain of Western Union. So Bell was required to
divest itself of the TWX network, and Western Union has operated it since,
although a few years ago they began phasing out the phrase "TWX" in favor of
"Telex II"; their original device being "Telex I" of course. TWX still uses
ten digit dialing with 610 (Canada) or 710/910 (USA) being the leading three
digits. Apparently 410-510 have been abandoned; or at least they are used very
little, and Bellcore has assigned 510 to the San Francisco area starting in a
year or so. 410 still has some funny things on it, like the Western Union
"Infomaster," which is a computer that functions like a gateway between Telex,
TWX, EasyLink and some other stuff.
Today, the Western Union network is but a skeleton of its former self. Now
most of their messages are handled on dial up terminals connected to the public
phone network. It has been estimated the TWX/Telex business is about fifty
percent of what it was a decade ago, if that much.
Then there was the Time Service, a neat thing which Western Union offered for
over seventy years, until it was discontinued in the middle 1960's. The Time
Service provided an important function in the days before alternating current
was commonly available. For example, Chicago didn't have AC electricity until
about 1945. Prior to that we used DC, or direct current.
Well, to run an electric clock, you need 60 cycles AC current for obvious
reasons, so prior to the conversion from DC power to AC power, electric wall
clocks such as you see in every office were unheard of. How were people to
tell the time of day accurately? Enter the Western Union clock.
The Western Union, or "telegraph clock" was a spring driven wind up clock, but
with a difference. The clocks were "perpetually self-winding," manufactured by
the Self-Winding Clock Company of New York City. They had large batteries
inside them, known as "telephone cells" which had a life of about ten years
each. A mechanical contrivance in the clock would rotate as the clock spring
unwound, and once each hour would cause two metal clips to contact for about
ten seconds, which would pass juice to the little motor in the clock which in
turn re-wound the main spring. The principle was the same as the battery
operated clocks we see today. The battery does not actually run the clock --
direct current can't do that -- but it does power the tiny motor which re-winds
the spring which actually drives the clock.
The Western Union clocks came in various sizes and shapes, ranging from the
smallest dials which were nine inches in diameter to the largest which were
about eighteen inches in diameter. Some had sweep second hands; others did
not. Some had a little red light bulb on the front which would flash. The
typical model was about sixteen inches, and was found in offices, schools,
transportation depots, radio station offices, and of course in the telegraph
The one thing all the clocks had in common was their brown metal case and
cream-colored face, with the insignia "Western Union" and their corporate logo
in those days which was a bolt of electricity, sort of like a letter "Z" laying
on its side. And in somewhat smaller print below, the words "Naval Observatory
The local clocks in an office or school or wherever were calibrated by a
"master clock" (actually a sub-master) on the premises. Once an hour on the
hour, the (sub) master clock would drop a metal contact for just a half second,
and send about nine volts DC up the line to all the local clocks. They in turn
had a "tolerance" of about two minutes on both sides of the hour so that the
current coming to them would yank the minute hand exactly upright onto the
twelve from either direction if the clock was fast or slow.
The sub-master clocks in each building were in turn serviced by the master
clock in town; usually this was the one in the telegraph office. Every hour on
the half hour, the master clock in the telegraph office would throw current to
the sub-masters, yanking them into synch as required. And as for the telegraph
offices themselves, they were serviced twice a day by -- you guessed it -- the
Naval Observatory Master clock in Our Nation's Capitol, by the same routine.
Someone there would press half a dozen buttons at the same time, using all
available fingers; current would flow to every telegraph office and synch all
the master clocks in every community. Western Union charged fifty cents per
month for the service, and tossed the clock in for free! Oh yes, there was an
installation charge of about two dollars when you first had service (i.e. a
The clocks were installed and maintained by the "clockman," a technician from
Western Union who spent his day going around hanging new clocks, taking them
out of service, changing batteries every few years for each clock, etc.
What a panic it was for them when "war time" (what we now call Daylight Savings
Time) came around each year! Wally, the guy who serviced all the clocks in
downtown Chicago had to start on *Thursday* before the Sunday official
changeover just to finish them all by *Tuesday* following. He would literally
rush in an office, use his screwdriver to open the case, twirl the hour hand
around one hour forward in the spring, (or eleven hours *forward* in the fall
since the hands could not be moved backward beyond the twelve going
counterclockwise), slam the case back on, screw it in, and move down the hall
to the next clock and repeat the process. He could finish several dozen clocks
per day, and usually the office assigned him a helper twice a year for these
He said they never bothered to line the minute hand up just right, because it
would have taken too long, and ".....anyway, as long as we got it within a
minute or so, it would synch itself the next time the master clock sent a
signal..." Working fast, it took a minute to a minute and a half to open the
case, twirl the minute hand, put the case back on, "stop and b.s. with the
receptionist for a couple seconds" and move along.
The master clock sent its signal over regular telco phone lines. Usually it
would terminate in the main office of whatever place it was, and the (sub)
master there would take over at that point.
Wally said it was very important to do a professional job of hanging the clock
to begin with. It had to be level, and the pendulum had to be just right,
otherwise the clock would gain or lose more time than could be accommodated in
the hourly synching process. He said it was a very rare clock that actually
was out by even a minute once an hour, let alone the two minutes of tolerance
built into the gear works.
"...Sometimes I would come to work on Monday morning, and find out
in the office that the clock line had gone open Friday evening. So
nobody all weekend got a signal. Usually I would go down a manhole
and find it open someplace where one of the Bell guys messed it up,
or took it off and never put it back on. To find out where it was
open, someone in the office would 'ring out' the line; I'd go around
downtown following the loop as we had it laid out, and keep listening
on my headset for it. When I found the break or the open, I would
tie it down again and the office would release the line; but then I
had to go to all the clocks *before* that point and restart them,
since the constant current from the office during the search had
usually caused them to stop."
But he said, time and again, the clocks were usually so well mounted and hung
that "...it was rare we would find one so far out of synch that we had to
adjust it manually. Usually the first signal to make it through once I
repaired the circuit would yank everyone in town to make up for whatever they
lost or gained over the weekend..."
In 1965, Western Union decided to discontinue the Time Service. In a nostalgic
letter to subscribers, they announced their decision to suspend operations at
the end of the current month, but said "for old time's sake" anyone who had a
clock was welcome to keep it and continue using it; there just would not be any
setting signals from the master clocks any longer.
Within a day or two of the official announcement, every Western Union clock in
the Chicago area headquarters building was gone. The executives snatched them
off the wall, and took them home for the day when they would have historical
value. All the clocks in the telegraph offices disappeared about the same
time, to be replaced with standard office-style electric wall clocks.
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank