A telegraph key and $150 links St. Louisan Derek Cohn to Steven Spielberg’s Oscar front-runner, Lincoln. The movie has received widespread critical acclaim and has been nominated for 12 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. And actor Daniel Day-Lewis has been collecting best actor awards, from the Critics Choice to the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild, for his portrayal of the nation’s 16th president.
During a search for authentic vintage telegraph equipment for the film, Spielberg’s staff contacted the National Samuel B. Morse Club for assistance, leading them to Cohn, a collector of telegraph keys. The 51-year-old Clayton resident was then invited to submit samples from his collection for possible use in the epic. “I sent them five pieces, and they had them for a month or so,” he says. “They came back in the mail, and I was paid a rental fee of $150.”
Then 1 1/2 years passed. In 2012, Cohn began to see promotions for the movie; and received a call three months ago from the film’s technical advisor, telling him that one of his pieces had made it into the movie. “Two scenes in the movie use telegraphy. My key is in one of those scenes,” Cohn explains. “I was jazzed when I received the call. I realized that all the collecting I have done for so many years has a purpose besides filling my basement. The historical reenactment in Lincoln was made accurate by use of authentic equipment.”
A 1979 alumnus of John Burroughs School, Cohn graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in communications. He is employed as an information technology project manager at Express Scripts, allowing him to hold a high-tech job during the day and enjoy his low-tech telegraphy hobby on nights and weekends.
His parents, Marilyn and Jay Cohn of Westwood, say their son became interested and skilled in Morse code at age 14, while pursuing the hobby of amateur (ham) radio. Cohn, whose amateur call sign is WBOTUA, decorated his room with QSL cards that hams send to each other to confirm a two-way radio communication. “One of my neighbors was studying for his ham radio license, and I would send him Morse Code and he would send it back to me. We joined the Jewish Community Center’s radio club and both passed the ham radio operators exam.” His mother adds, “Instead of doing his homework, he could often be found in a small storage room, sending and receiving messages from hams all over the world.”
In the mid-90s, Cohn began collecting telegraph keys, the general term for any switching device used primarily to send Morse Code. (At one time, the language of dots and dashes known as International Morse was about the only way the radio communications could be carried on, according to the Western Historic Radio Museum.) Cohn says that Bill Thilking, a virtual stranger, approached him years ago at a Chicago ham fest while Cohn was holding telegraph keys. The men began a conversation “that sparked my interest in collecting the landline telegraph equipment used in the Lincoln movie,” Cohn says.
Thilking then connected Cohn to the Morse Telegraph Club, where club member Ollie Blackburn trained Cohn to do Railroad Morse Code. Blackburn, who died in 2007 at age 106, was once a telegrapher for the Wabash Delmar Station in the University City Loop. “He was 92 at the time, and he took me on as his student,” Cohn recalls. “Once each week, he taught me the Railroad Code using clicks and clacks instead of beeps. Shortly after, while I was on a work assignment in Israel for three months, I had the time to practice each night in my hotel room. When I came back to St. Louis, I was not fast but I could have a conversation at slow speeds.”
Cohn maintains his skill practicing weekly with fellow enthusiasts as a member of the local Morse Telegraph Club, Ollie Blackburn chapter. “We have practiced every Saturday for the past 12 years at the former Wabash Station in downtown Ferguson, now home to a restaurant called the Whistle Stop.”
Today, Cohn owns more than 300 pieces of telegraph equipment . He says he uses about 1 percent of his collection when talking with other telegraphers. “That consists of one key, one sounder and one relay,” he explains.
Caring about others and wanting to make a difference in the world, Cohn and his wife, Sara, have served as volunteers for Stray Rescue of St. Louis since 2001. Although they have four dogs of their own, Cohn says there could be as many as eight dogs at their home. “I am a foster dad to many, and I also give hospice care to pets. I like to know that I have helped give them a good finish to their lives.”
Cohn also has made a difference in the lives of Lincoln moviegoers, who have helped the film gross more than $181 million at the box office. Because of his boyhood hobby, his love of telegraphy and collecting equipment, viewers of Lincoln have the opportunity to see an authentic Vibroplex telegraph key that might otherwise be keeping company with the stray dogs in his basement.