Teletype collector holds on to memories

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 7, 2011

SALISBURY — On his farm in eastern Rowan County, Hugh Martin sometimes likes to “play” in what once was the old wash house and a place for canning.
He has filled it with work benches, tools and things such as a cookstove, used bicycles, manual typewriters and reminders of his military career — three teletype machines.
“It’s a junk house now, but it’s a man’s junk house,” he says.
In the Army and Air Force, Martin spent most of his days as a teletype mechanic, who made sure these “wired-up typewriters” kept clattering away with important, around-the-clock communications.
In a way, teletype machines bridged the communications era between telegraphs and computers. Martin likes to think of himself as a G.I. who lost his job to the computer age, and he knows there’s a whole generation of young Americans who don’t even know what a teletype was.
“Let me turn this one on,” he says, sitting down to a Model 33 teletype machine without a cover.
The machine resembles a glorified typewriter with a telephone dial. It was set up to send and receive, much like today’s fax machines. The teletype operator could type messages on the keyboard, which also would punch a tape on the side for retransmissions.
Martin, who kept these machines lubricated and repaired, only typed on them as part of his maintenance duties. He was not a teletype operator.
“I’m getting a little rusty,” he complains, punching out a test message. “I can’t type like I used to.”
Martin has rigged up this particular model to punch holes into a “tape” of white ribbon. With the cover off and all the inner workings exposed, he points to “the little old wheel” inside this Model 33 that’s doing all the typing.
“If it was electromechanical, I could fix it,” Martin says.
On the other side of the junk house he has two different Model 28s. They could send and receive 100 words a minute.
“See, I’m talking to that one over there,” he says, hitting the uppercase “D” on a Model 28 along the wall to tell the Model 33 where the message was coming from.
“I went to school on this machine out at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma.”
For sentimental reasons, Martin bought his teletype machines long after his military career was over. He purchased two from a guy off Stokes Ferry Road and the other from a shop in Salisbury.
He still has the Air Force tool box he carried when working on the teletype machines.
Martin picks up an all-steel expansion clutch from the toolbox and describes how it was so much better than a friction clutch. “That was a beautiful, beautiful innovation,” he says.
He also holds up a spring gauge. “The spring tension on them was dadgum important,” Martin explains.
He then removes a tuning fork from a sleeve. Martin learned how to use its sound for adjusting motors to the correct speed.
Most older people relate teletypes to the sturdy metal-plated machines along the walls of a newsroom, spewing out breaking news from wire services such as the Associated Press or United Press International. But teletype machines played vital communication roles in other areas such as the military, financial industry and law enforcement.
As it was developed in the early 20th century, the teletype machine was essentially the innovation toward a printing telegraph machine. By 1935, the most durable cast-metal model — Model 15 — was introduced, and it played an important part in military communications during World War II.
Later models became more streamlined and faster, eventually interfacing with computers until being phased out. The Teletype Corp. went out of business by 1990, but teletype machines found a new life among the deaf for communication purposes and remain in use today.
Hugh Martin grew up in Marion and remembers seeing his first news teletype machine while on a field trip in high school. Before enlisting in the Army in 1954, he worked briefly in Hickory where he was rewinding electric motors.
The Army trained Martin first in ground power equipment, running and maintaining generators. After eight months, he went to Germany, reported to the 7774 Signal Service Battalion and learned there was no need for a “power man” at his location.
He then received his first training on teletype machines and was assigned to a torn-tape relay station in Mannheim, Germany, one of the largest teletype communication centers in Europe.
“Now I had a new career field,” he says.
He finished out his three years in the Army, and soon after his discharge, joined the Air Force, working in the teletype/crypto field for 13 more years. He realized that the teletype’s days were numbered and decided to go for training on computers used by the Strategic Air Command.
“The Air Force loved to have you dual-qualified,” he says. “… I went from low-tech to high-tech in one year.”
Martin retired from the Air Force in 1974, having logged 17.5 years in that branch of the service and more than 20 years total.
When people have asked him over the years what war he was in, Martin answers, “I was in the Cold War.”
He spent 11 years overseas, and his military travels took him to the Panama Canal zone, the Philippines, twice to Germany, French Morocco, South Carolina, Georgia, Texas, Virginia, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Washington, D.C., and California. He ended his Air Force career at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida.
Martin met his wife, Judith, at Andrews Air Force Base, where she was a teletype operator. “She broke them, and I fixed them,” he says.
In some of his assignments, Martin worked as the only teletype mechanic, such as his “remote tour” to the Philippines, which required top-secret security clearance. In other locations, where rooms were filled with teletypes, he was one of dozens of mechanics.
“I enjoyed it all,” he says. “I had two remote tours behind me before I got married.”
When he was on leave, Martin often visited his oldest sister, Eloise Morgan, who lived in the Liberty community of Rowan County.
“You know, Rowan County ain’t too bad a place,” Martin says. “I like Rowan County, and I like the people in Rowan County.”
Their military careers behind them, Hugh and Judith settled in Rowan, buying the Clarence Eller farm off Poole Road in 1978. Meanwhile, Martin had been among the first employees hired at the General Electric plant off Old Concord Road, and he built a second career at GE as a tester and inspector before retiring in 1991.
Over the years, the Martins bought additional tracts of land around their farm, accumulating roughly 110 acres — 90 acres of which constitute a tree farm of loblolly pines.
Hugh and Judith Martin’s son, Mark, is an Air Force veteran and a certified arborist working for the city of Salisbury. Judith Martin retired from the VA Medical Center in 1999, and while the Martins still have their farm off Poole Road, they live in a Hidden Creek townhouse in Salisbury.
Hugh Martin says there are at least eight people in Hidden Creek who are retired military. “It looks like base housing up here,” he laughs, but the couple enjoy the convenience of their new location, while still being able to have their garden down on the farm.
Besides the old brick house, the farm has a grainery, corn crib and barn nearby and, of course, the “junk house” with Martin’s teletype machines.
In his military days, Martin knew most about the Models 15, 19 and 28 teletypes, and he considered the M-28s among the best-engineered.
“The faster they run the more apt they were to break down,” he recalls.
In moments of reflection, Martin can’t help but wonder how many teletype operators and mechanics in civilian life also realized their days were numbered as the computer age moved in like a freight train.
“Ain’t no one remembers these,” Martin shrugs, looking over his teletypes, “and they used to have rooms full of them.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@