telegraphic codes and message practice
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A.B.C. Telegraphic Codes, seven editions 1873-1936

This page brings together all seven of the ABC code editions, plus the related A1 code, two of which are not available in digital versions at this time. The fourth and fifth editions were widely used, judging by the number now available in libraries and in the used book market — each of my three copies of the fourth edition is annotated/customized, in two of them quite heavily. This page gathers notes on all of those editions.

A summary of the various editions, emphasizing their growing length (in pages and in items) and the changing nature of their codewords, is presented below.

ednyearpagescodeword type, regimecodeword rangessections, page rangesno of entriesobservations
ABC 11873216Webster, including proper namesAbacot > Zigzag
Aalar > Timanthes
sentences   1-125
other   126-216
A substitution cipher (pp v-vii in this edition) appears in ABC2 and ABC3, and is removed in ABC4.
ABC 21874312Webster, including proper namesAaronical > Zounds
Aalar > Vulturtius
Zabdiel > Zytomiers
phrases   1-190
other   193-302
addenda   305-312
carefully revised and considerably enlarged
ABC 31876312Webster, max 10L
St Petersburg 1875
Aaronical > Zounds
Aalar > Vulturtius
Zabdiel > Zytomiers
phrases   1-190
other   193-302
addenda   305-312
differs from 1874 edition only in occasional changed codewords
ABC 41881480Webster (part 1)
Euro languages (part 2), max 10L
London 1879
Aaronical > Zigzag
Bugbear > Wryness
Ababilo > Tereniabin
Minutaglia > Zygomatic
I vocabulary   1-310
I addenda   313-332
II (stocks &c)   337-447
II addenda   451-480
large revision and expansion of previous editions
A118871240Euro languages, max 10L
London 1879
Abacanando > Zabucando
Alumbre > Truhaneria
Truhanesco > Verhungern
I vocabulary   1-702
II (stocks &c)   705-1184
II addenda   1187-1240
enormous expansion; superscript to each codeword indicates Euro language from which it is taken
Night Signal Code1894xi + 40lights, and flags
London 1894
signal numbers and lettersemergency signals x-xi
I vocabulary   1-25
II 29-40
some sections incomplete; prospectus
ABC 519011400Berne official vocabulary 1901Aavora > Zaboli
Afterwelt > Ruisset
Ruisvoren > Stygnes
I vocabulary   1-768
II (stocks &c)   771-1313
II addenda   1317-1400
now competing with Western Union, Liebers, et al codes; not large change from A1 (1887)
ABC 519151420
5th ed., improved by the addition of five-letter codewords opposite the full codewords and part III.
ABC 6192013865L (2L difference), anticipating Paris 1925, Cortina 1926ABAAB> ZYZYO
vocabulary   1-1369
supplement   1370-1386
terminal index   (146pp)

half code word(s)... having the appearance of real words (pronounceable)
ABC 719367475L (2L difference)AACAC > MEKUB
1 shipping/insurance   1-379
2 trade/gen phrases   381-727
supplement   728-747

The ABC codes bore the name of William Clauson-Thue (1834?37?-1907). His death noted in The London Gazette (May 31, 1907; pdf here), in a notice for claims/demands on his estate. There too is mentioned Florence Charlotte Elizabeth Clauson-Thue, presumably his daughter. F. C. E. Faulkner is listed as one of two proprietors in the sixth (1920) edition, and proprietor in the seventh (1936) edition.


1873 ABC Universal Commercial Electric Telegraphic CodegeneralLondon google   |

Specially adapted for the use of Financiers, Merchants, Shipowners, Brokers, Agents, &c — Simplicity, Economy & Secrecy

W. Clauson-Thue. London: Rock Terrace, Talfourd Road, Peckham, 1873
Bodleian copy (196.e.26)


1st (code) pages, ABC Telegraphic Code (1873) at left, second edition (1874) at right. Cropped and cleaned, but relative scale accurate. (Both from Google scans.)


1874 ABC Universal Commercial Electric Telegraphic Code, second editiongeneralLondon google

Specially adapted for the use of Financiers, Merchants, Shipowners, Brokers, Agents, &c — Multum in Parvo — Second Edition.

W. Clauson-Thue. London: Eden Fisher, 1874

Bodleian copy (196.e.35)

Excluding front matter, this is 312pp, versus 216pp in the first (1873) edition.

A Note to the Second Edition explains this to have been carefully revised and considerably enlarged by numerous additions adapted to suit the requirements of all branches of commercial interest... There is also an explanation of the requirement by telegraph administrations that words that can be found in Webster’s are charged at an ordinary (presumably advantageous) rate. It appears that codewords generated by a cipher table at pp viii-ix would not satisfy that requirement.


Third (code) pages, ABC Telegraphic Code, second edition (1874) at left, third edition (1876) at right. Cropped and cleaned, but relative scale accurate. (Both from Google scans.)

Red marks indicate codewords that have changed between the two editions, owing to new ITC rulings on acceptable words.


1876 The ABC Universal Commercial Electric Telegraphic Code (third dition)generalLondon: Eden Fisher google

Specially adapted for the use of Financiers, Merchants, Shipowners, Brokers, Agents, &c.Multum in Parvo. Third Edition.

Bodleian (196.e.41) copy

The third edition was undertaken to ensure that words in Extra-European messages not exceed ten letters, as stipulated by the Telegraphic Conference (St. Petersburg, 1875, which fixed the maximum length of words at 16 characters (10 characters in messages sent outside Europe — and thus likely to involve cable. The preface refers to a Supplement that had provided altered code words, but those alterations are incorporated in their proper places in this edition.


1881 ABC Universal Commercial Electric Telegraphic Code, fourth editiongeneralLondon: Eden Fisher google   |

The Google scan is of a Harvard copy of the American edition, American Code Publishing Co., 83 Nassau St. New York. (1899) (KE 3116)

The scan is of Nicholas Gessler’s copy of the Third Issue of the fourth edition, London, Eden Fisher & Co., 1881, and is from the DULTC collection. This copy contains typescript additions in back, and between pages 311 and 359 (names and locations of firms.) Such additions, typescript and penned, are not uncommon in this edition — both of my own two copies were augmented in these ways. The title page is stamped Robert Sheehy, San Francisco, Sep 14 1881; the copy also contains (pasted in?) a handwritten note from one Wilfred B Chapman to Sheehy, dated 22 July 1881, explaining use of code, and usage of switchwords from a code currently and use, and this ABC code, so that both might be used safely together.

Part I. Vocabulary 1-310; Addenda (Skeleton Code to Part 1) 313
Part II. (Stocks, Railways, numbers, quantities, etc.) 337 > end English and European dictionary and artificial codewords.

1 Aaronical / Abandon 25388 Zygomatic / blank

Its fourth edition is my own favorite of the ABC Code, it wouldn’t be until 1901 that a fifth edition appeared. Both copies in my collection were heavily annotated/augmented/repurposed.


1st (code) pages, ABC Telegraphic Code (1883) at left, and A1 Code (1888, Harvard copy) at right. Cropped and cleaned, but relative scale accurate.

An online encoding/decoding utility, based on the ABC Fourth, can be found here. The idea appears to be, to use the code more like a texting utility, for assembling a message piece by piece. Some earlier patents (ccl 380/56) would seem to have anticipated the idea —

US 1,570,1781926F. PrevostCode Machine 
US 1,598,4371926K. S. GuitermanCoding Device 
US 1,749,9331926H. R. BarnettApparatus for selective verbatim coding and decoding 

I doubt these devices went into production. Usage of the codes was as much an art as a rote look-up-and-click operation. Will need to spend more time with this.

At least one other automated utility is based on a telegraphic code — tweetcode based on the Anglo American Telegraphic Code (1886, 1891); its appearance may have followed Ben Schott’s op-ed article on that code.


1888 The A1 Universal Commercial Electric Telegraphic CodegeneralLondon: Eden Fisher none

...specially adapted for the use of financiers, merchants, shipowners, underwriters, engineers, brokers, agents, &c. / Multum in Parvo. Simplicity and Economy Palpable, Secrecy Absolute. By W. Clauson-Thue, F.R.G.S. Author of the A B C Telegraphic Code

No scan found as of 30 May 2012. My own copy is the [Am. Ed.] — New York : American Code Company / 83 Nassau Street. Price, $7.50, net. — surely a much later printing (1900-1920?). Have examined Harvard (Cabot) copy Eng 4348.88.3, which is the 1888 London edition; BL shelfmark General Reference Collection 1560/705.
xviii, 1240 p. 24 cm.

So how is the A1 Code distinct from the first four editions of the ABC Code? Does it point in the direction of the fifth edition (1901)?

The two most apparent differences between this code and earlier ABC codes are its size (25cm vs 22cm height for the 4th edition, 1240 vs 480 pages), and the use of superscript figures for every codeword, to indicate its language — 1, French, 2, German, 3, Italian, 4, Portuguese, 5 Spanish — thereby bringing the code into unchallengeable conformity with ITC rules. Phrase selections are emended, mainly enlarged but with some deletions.

I presume that the A1 Code was developed to keep pace with changing regulations about acceptable codewords, as well as competition with other codes.


1894 The ABC & A1 Universal International Night Signal CodenauticalLondon: Eden Fisher none
BL     8807.f.42.

...adapted for use between vessels at sea and/or stations on land, also for Naval and Military Purposes, by W. Clauson-Thue, F.R.G.S. author of the ABC and A1 Telegraphic Code.

London: Eden Fisher & Co., 50 Lombard Street, and 97 Fenchurch Street, 1894.
xi + 40 pages.

Have examined photocopy provided by the British Library, whose copy bears accession (date) mark 6 Fe 94.

This code is technically a signal code, but is included here because it is the work of W. Clauson-Thue. It is designed to be worked with three lights (red, white and green) set not less than six feet apart, but might also be adapted for day use by using the flags of the International (Commercial) Code of Signals. The three light signals are used, without representing figures, for 24 emergency signals as shown immediately below.

The code is structured as a conventional signal code: emergency signals for critical terms, followed by phrase and specialized vocabularies (involving more signals). The phrase vocabulary might have been selected from nautical content in the ABC 4th or the A1 codes.

night_signal_1894_px_450w699h.jpg night_signal_1894_pxi_450w713h.jpg
Emergency (light) signals, The ABC and A1 Night Signal Code (1894)  

Other sections of the code are detailed below.

pagespart categorytotal signals / used comments, examples
x-xi  emergency signals 24  
1-25I Vocabulary
25 pages, 50 lines (phrases) per page
4 letters (flags)
1250 signals and phrases
Nautical phrase vocabulary (see above).
29II Longitudes East and West of Greenwich 98 signals, 90 longitudes e.g., 3130 FBKC / 1 degree East
30  Latitudes North and South of Equator 96 signals, 99 latitudes e.g., 2385 FBRC / 1 degree North
31  Products and Commodities 100 signals, 100 commodities e.g., 2581 GCDR / Percussion caps
incomplete list (ends at India-rubber, Kentridge), suggesting the entire volume is a prospectus
32  Ports, &c. 100 signals, 100 ports 2734 HDBC / Aberdare through 2905 HDLQ / Zanzibar
33  Ship’s Gear and Parts 100 signals, 100 terms 2906 JHBC / After through 3087 JHLQ / Keel
another instance of incompletedness
34  Ship’s Machinery 50 signals, 50 terms 3089 KLFB / Air pump through 3270 KLPQ / Piston stroke
35  Shipowners and Navigation Companies 50 signals, 50 firms e.g., 3291 LMNW / China Merchants’ Steam Nav. Co., Shanghai
36  Yacht Clubs 50 signals, 50 clubs e.g., 3491 MHFK / Royal Jamaica Yacht Club, Kingston, Jamaica
37  Classification of Vessels 100 signals, 100 classifications e.g., 3598 NDLC / Bureau Veritas
38  Per centages 150 signals e.g., 3924 PKLS / 1 1/4
39  Packages 100 signals, 70 package terms e.g., 4017 RMNQ / 7 lbs. each
40  Spelling-out tables 100 signals, 100 spelling particles 4175 SPBC / A, 4176 SPBD / Ab through 4357 SPJN / Wol

night_signal_1894_p7_gain-grounded_450w709h.jpg night_signal_1894_p37_classification_of_vessels_450w700h.jpg
Pages 7 (from Vocabulary) and 37 (Classification of Vessels) — not spread — from The ABC and A1 Night Signal Code (1894)  

As is the convention with signal codes, no digit (or letter) is repeated in any of these signals.


1901 The ABC Universal Commercial Electric Telegraphic Code (Fifth Edition)generalLondon: Eden Fisher google

The ABC Universal Commercial Electric Telegraphic Code, specially adapted for the use of financiers, merchants, shipowners, underwriters, engineers, brokers, agents, &c.; suitable for everyone. Multum in Parvo. Simplicity and Economy Palpable, Secrecy Absolute.

London, 1901
original at Cabot Science Library, Harvard University
Eng 4349.01.8

i-xx, [2], 1-1400;
16cm (6.25 in) w x 23.5 cm (9.25 in) h


1st (code) pages, ABC Telegraphic Code, fifth edition (1901) at left, sixth edition (1920) at right. Cropped and cleaned, but relative scale accurate. (Both scans from copies in private collection.)


1915 The ABC universal commercial electric telegraph code, specially adapted for the use of financiers, merchants, shipowners, underwriters, engineers, brokers, agents, etc., etc., suitable for every one. Multum in parvo. Simplicity and economy palpable, secrecy absolute.
improved by the addition of five-letter codewords opposite the full codewords and part III.
generalNew York: American Code Company NDL

Will examine soon; copy at NDL.


1420 (i.e. 1706) p. fold. tab. 25 cm.


1920 A B C Universal Commercial Telegraphic Code, sixth editiongeneralLondon, New YorkHathi

Specially Adapted for the Use of Shipowners, Bankers, Merchants, Brokers, Underwriters, Solicitors, Engineers, Forwarding Agents, and Tourists, Etc., and as a General Code Suitable for Everyone: Multum in Parvo...

London: Eden Fisher & Co., Ltd.; New York: The Macmillan Company, American Code Company (stamp). 1920

original Princeton University HE 7673 C57
Was once available via Google Books, then (as of 6 March 2010) not; now (11 December 2010) available via HathiTrust Digital Library.

Five-letter (artificial codeword) edition, two-letter difference. Pages 1-1386 for entries 00000 ABAAB through 88849 IUZXL. Inline tables, rather than segregated as in previous editions of the ABC Code.

Terminal index separate pagination i-cxlii.
Two-letter Morse similarities listed cxlii-cxlvi.

from page vii,
The five-letter codewords used in the A B C Code, 6th Edition, are composed of groups of letters having the appearance of real words and are built on the principle of at least a two-letter difference in each five-letter codeword.

As a further safeguard against possible error, a great effort has been made to construct the codewords so as to counteract possible transmutations of the two-letter Morse groups, by the automatic check of a third letter and where this has not been possible, to eliminate such words from the Code. Consequently less than one per cent can have been left in the entire work. (See end of Code for the Morse Alphabet and the two-letter Morse Similarities.) In addition, every effort has been made to eliminate from the codewords five-letter words having a commercial meaning in the following languages : English, French, German, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian; as well as the five-letter names of the principal Ports and Places of the World.


1936 The Seventh Edition Five-Letter ABC Universal Commercial Telegraphic CodegeneralLondon: Sir Isaac Pitmannone

Edited by William Droege. Publishers: Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons Ltd. London.

Enormous book, 25cm x 32cm; i-xxviii; 1-747.

Five letter code, observing the two-letter difference principle with a minimum of two vowels in each five-letter codeword. Constructed in two parts:
Part I — Shipping and Insurance (pp 1-379);
Part II — Trade and General Phrases (pp 381-747).

These are preceded by an index of tables for Part I, and a separate index of tables for Part II. Pages vii-xxvii provide an Extended Index of Vocabulary. A standard Key to Codewords (mutilation table) is folded into the back.


first page, Part II — Trade and General Phrases(code) pages, ABC Code (seventh edition, 1936), cropped. The thick dark rule at top is 22cm in length.

stickers, found inside copy of ABC Code (seventh edition, 1936), at Yokohama National University Library, 3 August 2014  

3 August 2014