Wednesday, January 19, 2011

When is a pie a scythe? Avoiding data charges in 1906

By: Erin Richardson, Curator

This year, The Farmers’ Museum, in partnership with the New York State Historical Association Research Library, will be launching a new collaborative collections database. Although still in a pilot phase, you can visit the database at  This project will allow researchers, enthusiasts, collectors and museum visitors to research objects in the Farmers’ Museum collection more thoroughly. Enough about the details of this project – more on that in a future post. What I really want to get to is a mysterious parts catalog I scanned as part of the project.

Background: Walter A Wood was a large scale manufacturer of Agricultural Equipment located in Hoosick Falls, NY – a small town between Albany and the Vermont border. Although his business began local, it was eventually an international operation. The NYSHA library has a large and comprehensive collection of catalogs, broadsides, parts lists and circulars for Wood’s company. The Farmers' Museum also has several pieces of Wood equipment in the collection.

In scanning one of the parts catalogs I discovered that each part had its own telegraph cipher. Perhaps I have been reading too many murder mystery novels, but my first thought about this cipher systems was related to German spies. I thought “Did the US government not want Germany to know where all of our grain was grown, so they directied these manufacturers to encode their ordering system?”

Here's a detail view:
(click to enlarge)
There are a number of problems with this conspiracy-theory, not the least of which are that the codes are printed in a readily available catalog and 1906 is too early to be worrying about German spies.

My next thought was “DATA PLAN”! This may seem like a non-sequitur.  However, if you have a cell phone, or have tried to upgrade your cell phone recently, you will notice that just about every phone is internet-ready and that you will have to pay for the cost of sending internet data over the cellular network to which you subscribe. It dawned on me that these telegraph cipher codes were a data cost-cutting measure for ordering your replacement parts via telegraph. Rather than sending this:

Scythe, complete, six feet

you could instruct your local telegrapher to send:


The cipher method reduces the cost of placing the order by 75%! 

Too bad pie is not included.

For a farmer who needed a replacement part during the middle of a harvest, ordering via telegraph could cut the delivery time down by days or weeks – and probably save a crop in the process.

Stay tuned for more on the Collections Access Initiative in future posts and some information about the Walter A Wood artifacts in the museum's collection.


Paul C. said...

I'm really sorry to pick nits because this is a GREAT post, but shouldn't sythe be spelled "scythe"?

Anonymous said...

Nice piece of detective work!
I went to high school in East Greenbush with a Walter Wood. I wonder if he was related to the firm in this blog?

blog team said...

Paul C- you are indeed correct! The change has been made. Thanks for keeping an eye out!

Anonymous said...

why wouldn't they just order the part using the part no. listed next to it?

Edward Vielmetti said...

Telegraph codes continued on into as late as the 1950s. My favorite is the ANARE code, used for radio communications to the Australian scientific camps in the Antarctic.

A sample here:

YAURN Snow is drifting through the station
YAUSP Deep snow drifts have accumulated in the lee of huts

and a poem "WYSSA"

Katy said...

@Anoymous -- the part number would count as additional words, since each digit was counted as a separate word. (Probably transmitted separately, to help avoid errors.)

E.g. using the part number A1620 counts as five "words", but pie only counts as one.

brookstone said...

Very nice collection on "When is a pie a scythe? Avoiding data charges in 1906". I like your blogs, please keep it up!

blog team said...

Thanks for all of the additional information about telegraphy! You all are a weath of information!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, guys. I mean:

andykeck said...

This was common across several professions, I suspect. I have an early 20th century Kluge printing press and a Linotype. The parts manual for the press has this system for sure, and I think the Intertype manual does as well, although I am less sure about that.

miz-geek said...

Reminds me of this joke -

Steven M. Bellovin said...

Telegraph code words were common in catalogs then. (For a longer discussion of codebooks, see However, there was a tariff war -- telegraph companies charged by the word, but what's a "word"? The ITU (or rather, its ancestor) would establish rules, and codebook makers would come up with new codebooks that took advantage of loopholes. For example, some codebooks used 3-letter codewords; you could glue 3 of those together into a single chargeable word. At one point, the rule was "a legal word in any of eight different languages", but how was a random telegraph operator supposed to know all of those languages? (William Friedman, whose name will be familiar to anyone who has studied the history of cryptography, was an advisor to the American delegation; he pointed out the follies of many proposed schemes.)

Mary Ellen said...

This is a delicious piece of detective work, Erin. I was at the Fire Museum of Maryland with 2 telegraph operators sending your messages across the building. They had worked for the Baltimore F.D. and the B & O Railroad.

Tony said...

When I was young I found a jokes book with a number of jokes about how 'parsimonious' Scotsmen were.

After some thought, a Scotsman sent a telegram of bad news about a young couple:


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