[This blog post was written by Matthew Peek, Military Collection Archivist for the State Archives of North Carolina.]The Cape Lookout Life-Saving Station Teletype Rolls consist of more than 65 original brittle, rolled, brown paper teletype rolls that were found at the U.S. Coast Guard Cape Lookout Life-Saving Station boathouse on Harkers Island, North Carolina. The rolls were created between 1938 and 1945. In 1957, the U.S. Coast Guard sold the Cape Lookout Life-Saving Station boathouse to a family, who discovered these teletype rolls in the boathouse. The rolls had suffered from water, rat and mice chewing, and mold damage. The family donated them to the State Archives in 2010.
Teletypewriters or teletype machines are electro-mechanical typewriters that were used to send and receive typed messages over radio signals and telephone landlines among communication stations and ships. In World War II, the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard used these machines for military communication, monitoring potential enemy submarine communications and vessels in distress along the U.S. coastline. Finding this many original mostly intact teletype rolls from WWII is very rare. Usually, teletype operators tore off messages from the roll after a communication was received.
This section contains communications among teletype operators along the East Coast about an intercepted SOS distress call for a ship 78 miles off Montauk Point Lighthouse on Long Island, New York City, which was in a collision and required assistance. The teletype operators are trying to verify the legitimacy of the call, fearing it might be a fake distress call from a German submarine setting a trap. The operators share information about authorities forwarding the distress call to the appropriate authorities. This undated roll covers two days from 12:00 A.M. to 8:00 A.M.This roll section contains a phrase repeated throughout all of the teletype rolls: “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party.” This phrase is from a Patrick Henry quote. In 1867, the phrase was first proposed as a typing drill by instructor Charles E. Weller. The phrase was a typing test for speed and accuracy, which is why it appears in the teletype rolls during teletype operators’ testing their communication systems.
The Military Collection is working on an ambitious landmark 3 to 5 year project to preserve the informational content of the teletype rolls through in-house digitization. Digitization is challenging due to the rolls’ length: the shortest teletype roll is 1½ feet, and the longest is 54 feet. The paper the rolls were printed on is very acidic, and was never meant to last. Digitization is the only way to save the information, and will allow the Military Collection to read the rolls’ content. Once the rolls have been digitized in-house, the Military Collection Archivist will try to determine the best means to make them available to the public—either onsite at the State Archives or online. If you or someone you know worked with the radio communications or teletype machines in the 1940s or 1950s, and might be able to help identify the content of the rolls, please contact the Military Collection Archivist at the State Archives of North Carolina.
Credit line: Cape Lookout Teletype Rolls Collection, Acc. # 2015.4.43, Military Collection, State Archives of North Carolina
This blog post is one in two-week series of posts sharing the items used in the exhibit titled “The Family Traditions of Service: A Historical Tribute to Veterans.” This exhibit, on display from November 3 to November 13, 2015, at the Dare County Arts Council building in Manteo, N.C., is sponsored by the Friends of the Outer Banks History Center, the exhibit serves as a historical tribute to over 100 years of military service of North Carolina residents and their families, with particular emphasis on coastal North Carolina. The goal of the exhibit is to honor the role of North Carolina veterans and their families during peacetime and war. The items from this exhibit come from the holdings of the Military Collection at the State Archives of North Carolina and the Outer Banks History Center.