Life Magazine

Life Magazine article on Lusitania. Click here to view scans.

Welcome to Get Lucy

Relive and learn more about the first time in history where an encrypted message was sent and received.


When then Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan called via the Transcontinental Telephone Line to congratulate the PPIE's Press Club on its April 3 inauguration, his voice was recorded using the Poulsen Telegraphone; another futuristic invention that appeared in the Palace of Liberal Arts. The Telegraphone was an extremely early incarnation of magnetic media (the technology used in tape recorders and computer disks) and could be used to archive telephone calls, serve as a dictating machine, or record music.

Journalist Hamilton Wright described the apparatus:
"As one talks into the receiver a thin steel wire is magnetized at the actual point of contact with the needle. The wire...runs between two small revolving drums, which will take down 75 minutes of continuous conversation."

Danish inventor Valdemar Poulsen had won a gold medal with an early Telegraphone at the Paris Exposition in 1900, and an updated model was shown at the PPIE.22 Legend implicates a German-deployed Telegraphone in a precipitating moment in the United States' eventual involvement in World War I; the sinking of the Lusitania. An amateur radio operator named Charles Apgar was experimenting at his wireless station in Westfield, New Jersey, when he was intriqued by noise transmitted from two stations and so he began to record unusual transmissions from the wireless station of German company Telefunken in Sayville, New York-transmissions that were recorded and decrypted, this is the story of how they were found to be military instructions including the order to a German U-boat to sink the Lusitania. The order was "Get Lucy." The US government seized the Telefunken stations on July 6, 1915, on the strength of Apgar's evidence; here is the background of that story.


Poulsen obtained patents on his Telegraphone in a number of nations, and even founded The American Telegraphone Company in 1903, with a manufacturing plant in Wheeling, West Virginia. Efforts to market the Telegraphone as a business office dictation machine met with little success, but a number of Telegraphones were marketed to railroads through Western Union Telegraph as recording devices for Morse telegraph messages. Correspondence in the Lemuelson Collection of Western Union at the Smithsonian Institution attests to use of Telegraphones on the P. and R. Railroad, the Northern Pacific railroad, the L. and N. and the D. and H. Railroads, One can surmise the Telegraphone drew AT&T's attention, as a version was offered that could answer an unattended telephone - even in 1903! American Telegraphone moved to Springfield, Massachusetts in 1910, then went into bankruptcy receivership in 1918, never to emerge; only to finally close in 1944 following Poulsen's 1942 death. Other interests, however, benefited and prevailed from Poulsen's original concepts, even during his firm's bankruptcy. Not the least was AT&T, which later began delving into magnetic recording in 1930. Bell Telephone Laboratories eventually initiated a major research effort in magnetic tape recording under the direction of Clarence N. Hickman. By 1931, prototypes designs were made for a steel tape telephone answering machine, a central-office message announcer, an endless loop voice-training machine and a portable, reel-to-reel recorder for general purpose sound recording. None were said to enter production except for the voice trainer, which failed in the marketplace. AT&T's official policy on telephone recording devices was that they would not be allowed on public telephone lines. (4)

Sayville picture from
The steel tape ramification of magnetic recording seems to have been of particular interest to AT&T although their interest in magnetic recording was declared not an AT&T business objective, one official stated that he personally saw steel tape playback units used in AT&T's overseas radio station for Miami at Fort Lauderdale, Florida. In that use; vertical steel tapes ran in a glass-enclosed cabinet about 6 feet high over flat brass rollers to endlessly play back the message heard by so many on HF radio over the years, "This is a test transmission from a station of The American Telephone and Telegraph Company. This station is located near Miami, Florida." Similar messages emanated from plants near New York and San Francisco for decades. ostensibly from those Telegraphone-like steel tapes. Obviously, by the 1960's, the later developments of Armour (since Marvin Camras' work in 1939), Brush and Ampex interests were mushrooming so as to overshadow any remembrance of the start Poulsen gave to the recording art. Along the way, there was a heinous incident in which Poulsen's contraption figured promintenly. At the Telefunken radio long wave radio stations (operating at 38 KC) built around 1910 at Tuckerton, New Jersey and Sayville, New York, Telegraphones were found useful for first recording Morse coded radio messages at normal speed, then speeding them up beyond the ability of any listener to decipher and transmitting them at high speed over the radio link so as to gain throughput on their expensive, gargantuan international radio links to Germany. Ostensibly this was due to the expense of transmitting messages over long distances and by collecting the slower Morse Coded messages, recording them at the standard speed (roughly 30-50 words per minute) and then speeding up the metal recording tape the messages could be transmitted at very high speeds to improve throughput. While simple and useful in nature; the nefarious part of this story is that the messages also could not be decoded by the casual eavesdropper listening in on these high powered stations as there was little to listen to in 1915 so a transmission of any kind was keenly monitored by every possible ham radio operator who built a radio set and was dialing all over hoping to hear any scrap of sound they possibly could. This was the dawn of radio after all! The sequence of events made the transmissions from Sayville and Tuckerton the worlds first encrypted military data messages and so they would remain until one fateful day in 1915.

The Germans were highly suspicious of illegal munitions secretly being transported aboard passenger liners from the US to the UK and so they routinely commissioned spies to watch over the dockworkers at night as they loaded up the ships. When they felt that the agreements were being breached they declared open warfare on any ship they suspected of doing this. See the Notice at the top-right where they actually published alerts in newspapers warning potential passengers that ships were being targeted and this was an act of war in their view. According to accounts in the Life Magazine (see the link to the left) munitions were being secreted into the ship along with foodstuffs and provisions plus the usual cargo these huge ships transported and so preparations were begun to alert their submarines to be on the lookout for offending ships. It just so happened that by 1915 these Telegraphone-originated high speed transmissions, which were unintelligible due to the very high speed outside of the ability of ham radio operators to read them were being constantly transmitted by both Tuckerton and Sayville Telefunken alternator-equipped CW stations. This primitive radio era was usually characterized by noisy spark transmissions of ham radio Morse code (like the one sent by the Marconi transmitter aboard the Titanic only 3 years prior!) but the Sayville and Tuckerton alternators were clean signals made by very high speed spinning alternators (19,000 RPM or 19 Kilocycles) in frequency. The resulting 19 KC energy was then doubled in a unique ferrite frequency doubler causing the radio signal to go out at 38 KC. Every ham radio operator or idle eavesdropper experimenter eagerly listened to any signal from anywhere as there was little to hear in the era. The inventive use of the Telegraphone by the Germans to effectively "encode" or "encrypt" the messages made the radio signals sound like nothing but noise over the radio. This raised the curiosity of ham radio experimenter Charles Apgar whose ham radio call sign was 2MN issued by the U.S. Dep't of Commerce who was listening nearby in New Jersey when WW-1 was still a European war. Apgar wanted to record these noises for future listening so he fitted a wax phonograph cylinder recording machine (Edison or perhaps Columbia) with a speaker output from his receiver into the reproducer/ cutter head of the machine and began to store the sounds that he heard even though he could not understand the "noise". Later Apgar was playing back the unintelligible recordings of the US - German radio link transmitting to Nauen, Germany and accidently let the spring wind down on his wax cylinder player that was listening to the messages he had stored on the recording machine. The high speed Morse code Messages from Sayville accidently became readable. Decoding the Morse Code and listening to the critical wartime messages that were clearly prohibited under international neutrality law and realizing the gravity of the transmissions, he went hunting for a government department head to report the issue to. The new and inexperienced United States of America hardly knew what to do about a German-owned radio station on American soil. These stations were built on embassy property so were therefore protected and supposedly NOT politically sensitive; nonetheless sending the message on May 7, 1915 telling German submarine U-20 to "GET LUCY," ordering the sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania called by it's popular nickname LUCY. Apgar recorded, decoded and heard it but even though it was timely being reported, the U.S. Navy moved very slowly. They started by first putting Marine guards around the Telefunken properties, then placing naval officers as censors in the stations. A minor scandal erupted when it was discovered the wily Germans were wining and dining young naval officers to keep them off their censoring jobs while sending coded messages to and from Nauen and ultimately; Berlin. Apgar deciphered the famous command to Get Lucy but it was too late; the German U-Boat had sunk it off the coast of Ireland as they transmitted their famous "CQD" (Calling anyone; DISTRESS) and their wireless transmissions did save many but the US still was trying to stay neutral in the war even after this atrocity.

Please click on the link at the top of this page under "Resources" to see a full size PDF copy of the Antique Wireless" proceedings of 1990 where the entire story of Charles Apgar, Saybrook and Tuckerton is completely recapped. This includes one of the few known photos of Apgar at his receiving and recording apparatus.

A final straw was a copy of the infamous "Zimmerman letter," in which the German Foreign Minister encouraged Mexico to attack the United States in order to divert attention from the European war. Poulsen's Telegraphone was regularly used in all these transmissions. Upon intercepting the Zimmerman message, the US Navy seized the Sayville and Tuckerton plants of Telefunken transmitters ultimately expropriating them after the war. Finally, when GE and Westinghouse joint ventured the Radio Corporation of America, the stations were given to the new RCA as part of reparations for the war. Poulsen, who obviously knew of his machine's involvement in that action, may indeed have felt like our tragic hero, Doctor Frankenstein. Please look at the various accounts recapped here as to the Lusitania and how it came to be the supposedly clandestine munitions transport from New York to the UK in violation of the neutrality agreements. The Life Magazine discusses the background of this and you can view all of the high-resolution pages by clicking on the magazine link to the left. Long after the Lusitania had been sunk the insurance company held an auction and reportedly there were 2 prominent bidders; the UK and Gregg Bemis. Bemis won the auction much to the dismay of the UK and so they stimied his efforts to recover it all throughout his life until his passing recently. The author would call Bemis each year in late April or May to hear the most recent stories of how his organization were getting along with obtaining the full salvage rights to his ship and you can read more current events about it at this link: where the foundation and trust he created live on and work toward the eventual legal battle to be properly resolved. Bemis was a deep sea SCUBA mixed-gasses diver which is needed for the extreme depth that the ship is sunk. He dove many times to the ship and he never stopped working towards recovering artifacts from it.