Perham Collection Creator Profile: Federal Telegraph Company

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 factory, Palo Alto, c. 1920 (Cyanotype, 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.

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 at Home in Palo Alto

In 1909, Doug Perham rented his Palo Alto cottage and garage at 913 Emerson to Cyril Elwell. Next to the cottage was his 75-foot tall radio antenna, built around 1908 for his radio experiments. The galvanized iron shed, on a concrete slab, was substantially expanded to provide “factory” space for fabrication, as seen in this 1913 photograph, taken by H. B. Van Etten. (Perham sold the property to Federal in 1912). A small cottage behind Perham’s house was added soon after, and served as a development lab.

Federal Telegraph thrived with US Navy contracts during World War I. Growing rapidly, in 1916 Federal moved to a new facility, a long corrugated iron building located between El Camino Real and Alma Street, not far from its original location.  At its peak in 1917, the company employed more than 300 engineers, technicians and other staff. Absorbed by International Telegraph and Telephone (IT&T) in the mid-1920s, the Federal facility was moved from Palo Alto to New Jersey as a cost-saving measure in 1931.

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