What do 18th-century letter-writers, early 20th-century business tycoons, and 21st-century teenagers glued to their smartphones have in common? The answer may surprise you.
While cataloging a portion of the vast Henry Ford Office records (some 1,600 cubic feet), I became very excited when I discovered what I thought was a secret code. I later learned (quite fortuitously from a colleague on Twitter) that these documents formed a part of something almost equally fascinating.
It turned out that what I had instead was a commercial telegraphic code. From the 19th through the mid-20th centuries, telegrams were integral to business and personal communications. Telegraph codes proliferated as a way to correspond economically and privately. Readily available code books such as the ABC Universal Commercial Electric Telegraph Code, not to mention many others, were published, with many businesses creating in-house codes. According to telegraphy historian-enthusiast John McVey, “Thousands of codes were published or issued privately, but they are largely forgotten now. They present a finely-grained window into their respective domains and their time. And they provide instances of sometimes stunning visual, technical, lexicographic and unwitting poetic achievement.”
“My” code was created by or for Ernest Liebold, who, as Henry Ford’s longtime personal and general secretary, managed Henry’s business, legal, and financial affairs. Liebold was responsible for keeping in close contact with representatives across the country, directing them on Ford business. We can’t tell whether he developed a customized code for Ford communications or modified an existing code. However, most of the telegrams I’ve run across so far are in plain English, so the code appears to have been seldom used. (Some of the telegrams are written tersely, in what we have come to think of as ‘telegraphic English,’ and others—particularly those signed by Ford himself—are quite lengthy and concern matters of strong personal importance to him, such as pacifism. But that is a story for another day.) Moreover, the code we have is incomplete—and not just because of missing pages. You can see here that Liebold or his office clerks never got around to finishing their telegraph code Rosetta Stone!
Ocme-Octe, “Communications Code” telegraph code used by Ford Motor Company, Subject and Name File, Box 7, Accession 62, Records Moved to Engineering Laboratory in 1919 series, Highland Park Office records subgroup, Henry Ford Office records, Benson Ford Research Center, The Henry Ford (THF64061-THF64069)
Abbreviations to save space have a long pedigree. Actor-blogger-technophile Stephen Fry makes the connection between 17th- and 18th-century abbreviations in letters, done to save time and precious space when paper was still a luxury item (a practice continuing into the 19th century—note the use of “yr,” “wd,” “shd,” and “&c,” throughout Thomas Carlyle’s letters) and today’s often-derided textspeak and netspeak. Moving forward to the present, a recent study indicates that said textspeak may not be hastening the demise of language and literacy quite as much as the doomsayers like to predict. Telegraphic codes fit quite nicely into this alphabetic panoply.
Here are some more samples of Liebold’s telegraph code and coded telegrams:
Code names for Henry and Clara Ford:
Bantibosi-Bantarosa, “Communications Code” telegram code used by Ford Motor Company, Subject and Name File, Box 7, Accession 62, Records Moved to Engineering Laboratory in 1919 series, Highland Park Office records subgroup, Henry Ford Office records, Benson Ford Research Center, The Henry Ford (THF64061-THF64069)
Guidelines for encoding proper names:
(I haven’t been able to figure out quite how to use the preceding two charts yet.)
Some more coded vocabulary:
Some more coded vocabulary (2):
Some more coded vocabulary (3):
Can you decipher some of this coded message?
Telegram from G. S. Anderson to E. G. Liebold, 2/26/1917, Telegrams, Box 40, Accession 2, Records Stored in 1919 series, Highland Park Office records subgroup, Henry Ford Office records, Benson Ford Research Center, The Henry Ford (THF64058)
Here’s one that the recipient translated for us:
Rebecca Bizonet is an archivist at the Benson Ford Research Center, The Henry Ford. In addition to processing and cataloging archival collections as part of the BFRC Processing Team, she provides reference assistance to visitors in the research center reading room and works with archivists at Ford Motor Company on research for the Ford Historical Resources Collaborative.