Most of today’s banking business is conducted by sophisticated computer systems. In the early days of the Fed, its staff and its member banks were limited to typewritten, mimeographed, or handwritten letters; the occasional phone call; and the telegram.

From the first communications with the Reserve Bank Organization Committee, through the development of open market operations, and until at least the mid-1970s,[1] the Federal Reserve relied on telegrams to transmit business-critical and time-sensitive information.

Perusing the monthly reports of telegraph bills in the Fed’s mimeographed letters (1915-42)[2] can help researchers see the sheer volume of System communications, but understanding the content of the telegrams can take a little more work.

In the first few decades of the Fed, it was common practice for many industries to write telegrams in code. Encoding telegrams saved on per-word telegram charges and helped to protect confidentiality.[3] The papers of Benjamin Strong, first Governor of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, contain many examples of these encoded telegrams.[4]

The Fed used the American Bankers Association (ABA) codebooks, as well as regularly updated internal codes, which substituted short words for longer messages that were sometimes complex. A December 1920 memo sent to all Federal Reserve Banks[5] included this code:

 

Once the date, amount, and other values were filled in, that entire message could be included in a six- to ten-word telegram!

FRASER recently added a 1934 telegraphic code book issued by the FDIC to its bank examiners in 1934. This cipher code included specific codes for examiners closing insolvent or legally compromised banks:

 

 

Although many coded telegrams in our archival collections include translations (written by or for the original recipients), some remain to be decoded. We hope to someday have both ABA and internal Fed codebooks available on FRASER.

 

[1] See the 1973 telephone conference memo, https://fraser.stlouisfed.org/scribd/?item_id=23360&filepath=/files/docs/historical/FOMC/meetingdocuments/fomcmod19731010.pdf&start_page=2. Western Union’s 1988 reorganization prioritized money orders and wire transfers over telegrams and the use of the telegraph as a business machine essentially died off. See “History of the U.S. Telegraph Industry,” http://eh.net/encyclopedia/history-of-the-u-s-telegraph-industry/.

[2] Search “telegram,” “telegraph,” and “leased wire” to find the many relevant reports and letters in this collection.

[3] Bellovin, Steven M. “Compression, Correction, Confidentiality, and Comprehension: A Look at Telegraph Codes.” Columbia University, March 25, 2009, http://www.cs.columbia.edu/~CS4HS/talks/codebooks.pdf.

[4] See Strong, Benjamin. “Correspondence with the State Department: Members of the State Department in Europe. Papers of Benjamin Strong, Jr.” Federal Reserve Bank of New York, https://fraser.stlouisfed.org/scribd/?item_id=2320&filepath=/files/docs/historical/frbny/strong/strong_011_2_state_department_europe_1914-1927.pdf&start_page=4 (page 4 presents an example of a coded message, followed by the translation on page 5).

[5] See “Letter from Asst. to Governor re Code Words to Be Used in Rediscount Transactions, Number X-2078, Volume 13, page 1108,” https://fraser.stlouisfed.org/scribd/?item_id=511128&filepath=/files/docs/historical/redbooks/frsbog_mim_v13_1107.pdf.

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