A 90-Year Old False Telegraph Office…?


No matter how fake an old document may be, its historic character is nevertheless undeniable: if it does not document the complete truth of its time, then at least it documents some of it. And where it does not, it documents its untruth, which in a sense is another form of historic truth…

The picture above is from Buster Keaton’s 1926 movie “The General”. The movie was inspired on an actual locomotive chase that happened in 1862. This sequence happens inside what would have been Keaton’s recreation, made over 90 years ago, of a telegraph office of the mid-1860s. The only  items I am able to recognize on the table are the straight key and the resonator box, which would have harboured the sounder. The three pieces hanging on the wall look like switches or arrestors and it is a mystery what they might have been doing there. This, together with the fact that no wires can be seen connected to the key  (see figure below), the position of the operator, which does not seem the healthiest or most recommended, and his actual transmission (“T-H-E-E”??) suggest that this office was not a real one and that it was likely staged for the movie. As the sequence proceeds the wire of the land-line is cut and the actor playing the operator reaches inside the resonator box in a clear gesture to indicate that the transmission has been interrupted (it is a silent movie). However, the movie never allocates any listening time… and why should it? – didn’t I say it? – it is a silent movie!.


What can one expect from a genial comedy based on a distorted, otherwise dramatic and tragic historic event, where every scene has been so cleverly staged to create an illusion of reality, while at the same time being very real itself? And in that context, who can deny its true “historic” character…?

The movie is in the public domain. Enjoy the chase: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uO0lKQ0OyR4