How many electricity curators does it take to collect a Korean War telegraph?

By Harold D. Wallace Jr.

North Korea is sometimes called The Hermit Kingdom due to the secretive nature of its government and its closed society. I never expected to find anything related to North Korea in the Electricity Collections but was recently surprised to find we have part of a telegraph apparatus used there. As I digitized collections records to make them available to researchers and the public online, I was doubly surprised to find that one of my curatorial predecessors donated the piece to another museum, only to have the object return unexpectedly to the Smithsonian some years later.

Part of a Soviet telegraph apparatus used in North Korea

Part of a Soviet telegraph apparatus used in North Korea. Object number EM*331777.

The story of this object's travels began in 1947 when it was manufactured in the Soviet Union. The maker's label gives the year and the serial number, 366. At some point in late 1949 or early 1950, it traveled to the People's Republic of China and then to North Korea.

During the Korean War, United Nations forces almost reached the Yalu River, the border between China and North Korea. The troops included the United States Army's 24th Infantry Division. On November 4, 1950, those troops captured a North Korean camp at Sinanju. This telegraph driving fork, found in the camp, was captured and sent back to the U.S. for analysis.

Label on part of a Soviet telegraph apparatus used in North Korea

The telegraph's serial number, 366, is visible on this label

Driving forks of this type were used like large tuning forks to send tones along telegraph lines. By tuning the transmitters and receivers to specific frequencies, several messages could be sent along a single line at the same time, one form of a practice called multiplexing. A message transmitted at a specific frequency would only activate the receiver tuned to that frequency. Experiments in sending tones along telegraph lines, then called harmonic telegraphy, were conducted in the 1860s and played into the invention of telephones by Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray. By the mid-20th century, Western Union and others used driving forks of this type routinely. So the fact that the Russians, Chinese, and North Koreans used this type of multiplexing could hardly have been surprising.

The Department of Defense learned what it could from the Russian driving fork and then sent the unit to the Smithsonian around 1952. Curator Kenneth Perry added it to the holdings of telegraph material in the Electricity Collections, which existed in the Smithsonian before the Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History) opened in 1964.

Several years later, Perry's successor, curator W. James King, decided that the driving fork would be more appropriate in a museum dedicated to telegraphy. Western Union, one of the most important companies in American business history, maintained a large collection of communications objects dating back to the origin of telegraphy. King sent the driving fork to the Western Union Museum and, there, the object was given Western Union catalog #43-09.

Another view of the object

Although Western Union had been a giant of American business for over a century, the development of telephones, radios, and other communication technologies slowly took a toll on the company's bottom line. In 1972, the company decided to close its museum as a cost-saving measure and called King's successor, curator Bernard S. Finn, to see if the Smithsonian would accept their museum's holdings. Finn and his colleagues ultimately acquired over 3,000 objects and Western Union's business records for the National Museum of History and Technology.

Among those 3,000 objects was the driving fork from North Korea that King had sent to Western Union. The Western Union Collection is very large and only recently has it been practical to compile a comprehensive listing of objects that included information on where Western Union obtained the various pieces. While building that detailed database, Finn's successor, yours truly, discovered King and the Smithsonian listed as a donor and learned about the long, strange trip this one telegraph has taken from The Hermit Kingdom to the Smithsonian.

This story highlights one of the unexpected parts of being curator of a collection here at the Smithsonian. As we celebrate the museum's 50th anniversary this year, it is interesting to reflect on the multigenerational collecting effort that reaches back over a century. Each curator brings their own expertise to the collaboration, building on what's been preserved here already. The reasons we collect and the items we choose to collect—or not—depend on the time and situation in which each of us operates. As to the North Korean telegraph driving fork, although some future Electricity curator may decide otherwise, for my part I have no plans to remove the piece from the collection. 

Harold D. Wallace is curator of the Electricity Collections. See more of our Western Union collections and archives and telegraphy collections. He has also blogged about a near electrical disaster and artist and inventor Samuel Finley Breese Morse