The telegram largely met its worldwide demise on 15 July 2013, when India, the last country to use the telegram on a wide scale, stopped sending them.
For more than a century and a half, telegrams brought urgent messages: bad news, congratulations at weddings, and announcements of new babies. Telegraph operators transmitted messages over wires by Morse code; these were then printed out and hand-delivered by a messenger, often on a bicycle.
It’s widely believed that Samuel Morse sent the first telegram via the white-hot technology of the electro-magnetic telegraph on 24 May 1844, to his colleague Alfred Vail, using his system of dots and dashes. Perhaps suspecting that his words would be saved for posterity, his message, winging its way from the US Supreme Court in Washington to Baltimore, read: “What Hath God Wrought?”
What God hath wrought was the equivalent of text messages. Telegrams allowed rapid communication, for the first time, across great distances. Instant messages, if you like, but brought to your front door by the Telegram Delivery Boy (never girl; not appropriate). It was cheaper to send a telegram than to place a long distance telephone call, once telephones arrived.
Telegrams were charged for by the word, so people saved money by being brisk, almost Hemingwayesque in their prose. Bruce Ismay, an officer on the SS Carpathia, the ship which picked up some of the survivors from the disaster, sent a telegram to the New York office of the White Star Line saying: “Deeply regret advise your Titanic sunk this morning fifteenth after collision iceberg resulting serious loss life further particulars later.”
People also developed codes: the telegram equivalent of ICYMI and YOLO. The terse COQUARUM conveyed the bitter disappointment of “engagement broken off“.
During the first world war, when telegrams were widely used in the military, a misunderstood message could spell disaster. So instead of using punctuation, military telegraph senders used the word STOP between sentences. The custom caught on STOP People used the word even when they didn’t have to STOP
BT brought the British version to a close in 1982. Sadly, centenarians who were looking forward to their telegram from Buckingham Palace congratulating them on turning 100, now have to make do with a card.
The US service closed in 2006.
The textspeak of the telegram has become almost obsolete in our age of email, faxes, and mobile phones, and, er… texts, although you can still send one.
Plus ca change… Telegrams drove the Pony Express out of business. The horse-based delivery service from New York to California took 10 days. You could send, receive, transcribe and deliver a telegram in a matter of minutes.
Then even minutes became too slow.
Fun telegram fact
A reporter was writing a piece on Cary Grant and wanted to know his age, so sent him a telegram: “How old Cary Grant?”
Grant replied: “Old Cary Grant fine, how you?”