The last post: The telegram is dead. Stop

For more than 150 years, America's messages of joy, sorrow and success came in Western Union's yellow envelopes, hand-delivered by a courier. Andrew Buncombe mourns a historic method of communication
Click to follow
The Independent US

For more than 150 years, the most startling messages of grief, sorrow, excitement and revelation were hand-delivered in the company's yellow envelopes. Such was the import of the information contained in those buff envelopes that the mere sight of a Western Union telegram delivery man was often enough to send the pulses racing.

From the outbreak of war to the announcement of peace, from the sinking of the Titanic to news about a death, birth or marriage, the telegram was the preferred - if not only - means of sending important news quickly and accurately. Along the way, the telegram created a new and innovative form of communication, concise and heavily reliant on abbreviated phrases and punctuation in order to save cost. The best of them read like poetry.

But no longer. Western Union has revealed that its telegram service will. Stop.

In a quiet announcement, unnoticed for a week and delivered in a manner hardly befitting a company whose telegrams have revealed the most dramatic of news, Western Union said it had put an end to its service.

With no small irony, the company announced the news on the internet, the development of which has been partly responsible for the telegram's demise, saying on its website: "Effective January 27, 2006, Western Union will discontinue all Telegram and Commercial Messaging services. We regret any inconvenience this may cause you, and we thank you for your loyal patronage."

The company said the last 10 telegrams sent included birthday wishes, condolences on the death of a loved one and the notification of an emergency. They also included messages from several people trying to be the last telegram sender.

It is the end of an era. The company that was formed in 1855 to exploit the white-hot technology of the telegraph was the last firm in the US to offer telegram services. It may be that telegrams are still offered in a handful of countries around the world but the telegrams of Western Union - considered to be the Microsoft of its day - are no more. From now on the company will concentrate solely on offering financial services, such as money transfers.

"The decision was a hard decision because we're fully aware of our heritage," said spokesman Victor Chayet. "But it's the final transition from a communications company to a financial services company. The telegram was the last remaining bit of our telecommunications heritage and doesn't really fit with where we are moving forward, as a financial services company to the world."

In today's world when messages, pictures, film footage and more can be delivered around the world in real time, it is difficult to imagine the importance or the novelty of the electric telegraph, an invention whose emergence revolutionised the entire process of communication. Prior to the telegraph, for instance, the quickest way of sending a message from New York to California was by the famed Pony Express, whose delivery service took 10 days. By using the telegraph a message could be sent, received, transcribed and delivered in a matter of minutes.

Tom Standage, technology editor of The Economist magazine and author of The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's Online Pioneers, said the telegraph and the telegram was inextricably linked to the spread of business. In the US, Western Union's growth was also linked to the development railways, in which it was also heavily involved.

"At its height, in the late 19th century, Western Union's telegraph network was the nervous system of American business, just like the internet is today," he said. "Western Union had a Microsoft-style monopoly, which it insisted was in the public interest, since it ensured compatibility and standardisation.

"Imagine a news headline from 2150 that says Microsoft has just shipped its last copy of Windows - that's what this announcement is equivalent to."

The development of the telegraph dates to the beginning of the 19th Century and the first commercial machine was made available in Britain in 1837 by Sir Charles Wheatstone and Sir William Fothergill- Cooke. At the same time, a similar device was patented in the US by Samuel Morse, who, with a $30,000 grant from Congress, developed the now famous Morse code signalling system using "dots and dashes" with his assistant Alfred Vail.

After weeks of practice and rehearsal, the two men finally displayed their system in public on 24 May, 1844. Perhaps suspecting that his words would be saved for posterity, Morse chose a message with suitable gravitas for its first communication.

His message - sent from Washington to Baltimore - read: "What hath God Wrought?"

Things moved quickly. The first trans-continental telegraph cable was built by Western Union in 1861 - the Pony Express ended that very same year - and the first successful transatlantic cable was completed in July 1866, the cable running from Trinity Bay, in eastern Newfoundland to Valentia Island on the west coast of Ireland. The company also opened lines to Russia.

"At the time it was as incredible and astonishing as the computer when it first came out," Tom Noel, a history professor at the University of Colorado in Denver said. "For people who could barely understand it, here you had the magic of the electric force traveling by wire across the country."

Mixed up with all of that was that given their relative cost, telegrams were not used to send trivia but were rather reserved to announce the most dramatic and revelatory news. They were used to announce the first successful powered flight by the Wright brothers on the North Carolina coast in 1903 ("Success four flights Thursday morning") as well as the outbreak of the First World War.

Likewise, the interception of the famous "Zimmerman telegram" - sent by German's foreign minister to his ambassador in Mexico and urging him to try and unite Mexico with Japan against the US - led to the US declaring war on Germany in April 1917.

Another defining moment of popular history - the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912 - was also first recorded by telegram.

Bruce Ismay, an officer on the SS Carpathia which picked up some of the survivors from the disaster, cabled the barely believable news to the New York office of the White Star Line which operated the vessel. "Deeply regret advise your Titanic sunk this morning fifteenth after collision iceberg resulting serious loss life further particulars later. Bruce Ismay."

Throughout the telegram's history it is has been linked, too, with the business of journalism, as correspondents deep in foreign parts relied on it to communicate with their editors, and editors in turn used it to praise, chide or bully their reporters. Some of the telegrams sent from the head office to reporter in the field are now legendary.

One perhaps apocryphal tale tells of a post-war US editor dispatching a message to his Far East reporter demanding: "Is Japan turning Communist STOP Need 1000 wrds soonest". The reply to head office came back: " No, no 1000 times no."

Another, documented, telegram related to the US-organised coup in Guatemala in 1954 during which one resourceful woman reporter from London managed to hire a mule to carry her across the mountains to a remote rebel encampment where she obtained an exclusive interview. Shortly afterwards her colleague from a rival newspaper received the following message by telegram: "Get off ass Get on Donkey."

Probably the shortest telegram ever sent dates from the 19th century - attributed both to Victor Hugo and Oscar Wilde and thereby perhaps apocryphal - and sent from Paris to a literary agent in London. The writer sought news of the sales of his latest book and the agent replied that sales were doing very well. The message was simply "?" while the reply was an equally perfunctory, but equally informative "!".

During the Second World War, the sight of a Western Union courier became feared because the company was used by the War Department to notify families of the death of a loved one. The telegrams invariably began "The War Department and the President deeply regret to inform you..."

Telegraph aficionados yesterday lamented the end of the telegram and said it was another death blow to the Morse Code itself, which is no longer used by the military or the coastguard and is utilised only by amateur radio buffs.

"I have mixed emotions," said Roger Reinke, secretary and treasurer of the Morse Telegraph Club, an international group dedicated to the preservation of Morse's code. "I feel sad but at the same time I have to acknowledge what computers have enabled people to do in terms of communication.

"There is no question the advent of computer technology is as important today as the development of the telegraph was in 1844." In Britain, of course, where more than 80 million telegrams were sent in 1914, this means of communication was long linked to the sending of congratulations from the King or Queen to those celebrating their 100th birthdays. The practice was first introduced by King George V.

But though the telegram itself is all but dead, something of it remains. Mr Standage said it had in a sense been reborn by the phenomenon of text messaging which also requires a brief language.

"Best of all, if you have a Nokia phone, like I do, you can set it to announce incoming text messages with three short beeps, two long ones, and three short ones," he said. "That's Morse for 'SMS'.

So a 19th-century technology meets a 21st-century one. So, the telegram is dead - long live the telegram!" STOP.

Additional reporting by Kate Thomas