Poulsen Wireless stock certificate

Federal Telegraph Company of Palo Alto

By 1909, the American Marconi Company had a virtual monopoly on wireless communications on the West Coast. That year, a small Palo Alto company, Poulsen Wireless Telephone and Telegraph Company (soon renamed Federal Telegraph Company), emerged as a dangerous competitor.

Recent Stanford graduate Cyril Elwell was determined to be a part of the West Coast wireless revolution. Elwell’s company introduced the first commercially successful system of continuous wave wireless telegraphy, a major improvement over the widely-used Marconi spark system.

Federal Telegraph Company employees in 1909, when the “factory” was still in Doug Perham’s enlarged corrugated metal shed behind his cottage at 913 Emerson. Doug Perham is standing at the back, second from right. (Perham Collection of Early Electronics)
Federal Telegraph Company employees in 1909, when the “factory” was still in Doug Perham’s enlarged corrugated metal shed behind his cottage at 913 Emerson. Doug Perham is standing at the back, second from right. (Perham Collection of Early Electronics)

Over the next ten years, Federal engineers led by Cyril Elwell and Leonard Fuller made significant improvements to Valdemar Poulsen’s original arc transmission technology, developing high frequency, high power, and highly efficient systems. The company’s ability to design and build ever larger transmitters, along with the superior performance of Poulsen transmitters over other systems then in use, made it a major player in long distance wireless communication. Winning important contracts with the US Navy, Federal grew to more than 300 employees by its peak year, 1917.

Charles Logwood
Charles Logwood, with headsets at the receiver, at the newly installed El Paso, Texas station, in 1910. Logwood, a talented, self-taught wireless operator and inventor, soon after developed a rotary “tikker” (telegraph key) that became standard operating equipment for rapid transmission. (Perham Collection of Early Electronics)

Ironically, the arc was made obsolete by vacuum tube technology developed in Federal’s own workshops by a team that included Lee de Forest. Federal’s other innovations included significant improvements to radio reception and loudspeakers, glass tube production, and important improvements to maritime navigation and communication.

Federal Telegraph Company’s engineering staff, Palo Alto, ca. 1917. Behind them is the first of six 500 kilowatt arcs built for the US Navy (it would be installed at Pearl Harbor). On the table is the original 100 watt arc brought from Denmark. Left to right: Leonard F. Fuller, chief engineer; Harold Elliott, Corwin C. Chapman, Kurt Bley, Ralph R. Beal, Adrian L. Anderson. (Perham Collection of Early Electronics)
Federal Telegraph Company’s engineering staff, Palo Alto, ca. 1917. Behind them is the first of six 500 kilowatt arcs built for the US Navy (it would be installed at Pearl Harbor). On the table is the original 100 watt arc brought from Denmark. Left to right: Leonard F. Fuller, chief engineer; Harold Elliott, Corwin C. Chapman, Kurt Bley, Ralph R. Beal, Adrian L. Anderson. (Perham Collection of Early Electronics)

Federal at Home in Palo Alto

A group of Federal Telegraph employees, including many recent Stanford graduates, with the company’s building behind, ca. 1924. (Perham Collection of Early Electronics)
A group of Federal Telegraph employees, including many recent Stanford graduates, with the company’s building behind, ca. 1924. (Perham Collection of Early Electronics)