Wednesday, 10 December 2014 02:00

Crowns of the Wire - Glass Telegraph Insulators

Written by Lorne VanSinclair for the Orillia Packet & Times

125 early insulatorsIn the past, people only collected things of value; art and jewellery for example. Now we are more inclined to also collect things that have inherent beauty and because of what they represent. That’s why things that once were thrown away can now have value; over time we’ve come to realize they represent an important part of our history.

Glass insulators are a prime example. Walk along any current or abandoned railway line and you’re sure to find some; discarded relics, no longer of any use. Most of what you’ll find has no historical value but if you dedicate yourself to an in-depth search, you can discover a vital part of railroad and telecommunications history. One insulator collectors’ magazine calls itself Crowns of the Wire, and that description certainly fits.

We all know that railroads spread the Industrial Revolution; they opened up this country, and many others. We have a strong nostalgic connection to railroads, the steam engines, luxurious cars and the steel rails but we often forget the railroads weren’t built on steel and steam alone.

Railroad cars were originally built to haul ore out of mines. By 1825 they were adapted for long distance using steam engines use but it was telecommunications that made railroads work. In the 1830s Samuel Morse, William Wheatstone and others developed communications systems using electricity and wires. At this point the crude systems used code, not sound but that’s all they needed – it was the original text messaging.  Station Masters could now tell the central office, and each other, when trains were arriving, and leaving, schedules could be arranged and altered on the fly.

While we celebrate the railroad lines, the wires that ran alongside those lines were crucial and they were supported by glass insulators. Those insulators were used along all kinds of transportation corridors, but railroads penetrated more deeply into the wilderness and they provide us with the best source of historical insulators today.

The first Morse telegraph line in North America was installed in 1844 between Baltimore and Washington D.C. Glass was already used to insulate lightning rods so it was a natural choice for pole insulators which helped keep the weak electrical signals in the telegraph wires from leaking. The current was supplied by batteries and they also sat on glass insulators called battery beds, which have recently become more collectable.

Many designs were tried and at first, the pole insulators were glued to wooden pins to keep them in place. Glass doesn’t glue well so the insulators kept popping off in wind storms. In 1865 a man named Louis Cauvet patented the idea of threading both the insulator and the wooden pin so they stayed in place much better. That was pretty well the last major design change. Different shapes evolved as insulators became used for telephone wires and low-power electricity distribution. Porcelain insulators were also used and they are collected, but to a much lesser extent simply because they don’t display as well.

125 blue 303-310The early, threadless insulators fetch the most money from collectors today, anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars for very rare examples. Among the later insulators, ones that are marked with the railroad or telegraph company’s name are the most desirable. In all cases colour makes a big difference, having a few bubbles in the glass also makes them more attractive. Glass is naturally clear or slightly aqua so unmarked, clear insulators are considered generic and have no collector value. 

It is a difficult process to colour glass, manufacturers do it to make their household products more appealing but you might wonder why they would bother to colour an industrial commodity. Sometimes colours were used to help linemen differentiate among different lines used on the same poles but more often, there was no reason. Colours in glass come from metal oxides and as most insulator manufacturers made other glass products too, some batches could be mixed in pots contaminated with oxides from previous products. To save money old bits of broken glass were often mixed in with new batches and because the colour was of no importance, anything could be thrown in. That makes collecting the rare colours even more fun because there is no pattern; there’s still new ones out there waiting to be discovered.

One company, Hemingray Glass Company of Indiana, did purposely create colourful insulators up until the 1930s and it was by far the largest and most successful manufacturer in North America. It was also one of the few companies to give its insulators style numbers, making it a collector favourite.

With the huge range of shapes, sizes and colours from dozens of unconnected manufacturers it would be impossible to catalogue them all except for the work of dedicated collectors. They came up with a system called Consolidated Design, or CD numbers to identify every possible kind of pole and battery rest insulator shape. The system has been universally adopted by collectors; they’ll sit around and talk about finding some CD 108s and trading them for a rare CD 190. Nobody else has a clue what they are talking about.

For the less dedicated the shapes have descriptive names such as beehive, Mickey Mouse and gingerbread man which are much more obvious.

125 GNR-2Markings are also important to collectors. When railroad and telegraph companies commissioned large numbers of insulators, they got to brand them, and that’s where the history really comes in.

It has been said that the early railroad industry was much like the early days of the Internet. The new technology unleashed limitless possibilities and money-making potential; investors and governments funded hundreds of new companies, or start-ups that laid thousands of miles of tracks to connect communities everywhere. Excessive optimism led to poor business judgment. Whenever the economy slowed down, as it did in 1873, many of these small, unprofitable companies went bankrupt, similar to the so-called dot-com bust in 2003. However the infrastructure they built was still in place and most of it was bought up by other companies who continued building and merging into ever-larger networks.

Today the North American railroad industry is comprised of a few very large corporations, but it was built by hundreds of smaller ones. Names like the Great Northern Railway, The Kettle Valley Railway or The Oshawa Railway have largely been forgotten by the public but many are embossed on old glass insulators buried alongside the railroad lines they built.

Tens of thousands of insulators were cast aside many years ago but ever since the 1960s collectors have been digging them up, cleaning them off and cataloguing them. Now these crowns of the wire shine in brightly lit display cases all over the world.