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An Era Ends As the Telegraph Passes
After 145 years one of the last remaining vestiges of the
finally came to an end on January 27, 2006, when Western Union sent
its final telegram. A sad day, I think, as one more history filled era
is forever finished. And why should this be sad, you might ask. We
must move forward, technology is changing, dots and dashes have long
been replaced by ones and zeros. Be that as it may, this writer thinks
it is sad in the same way it can be heartbreaking to say goodbye to a
loyal employee who has retired after decades of service.
Without fanfare, the
telegrams were "just gone” – no retirement party, no chance to bid our
sad farewell, no last chance to send one more singing telegram at the
last minute before the news was announced by the press. Nothing
- but a small announcement on Western Union’s website prior to the
ending. Today, their website says not a word about this death of
an American tradition - not even a notation in the company’s Historic
Still, why is it sad? I’ve never even sent nor received a telegram in my more than 40 years. Most young people of today probably don’t even know what the term
"telegram” means. But, for me, a self-described "old soul,” it
is poignant in the same way that some buildings make you yearn to know
of their history and the people that it once housed within its walls.
It’s sad that the telegram didn’t get a retirement party, or a
funeral, or even a wake!
It’s sad in the
nostalgic way that it so often is when the world moves forward,
leaving behind those very same institutions that brought us where we
are today. After all, it was the telegraph that put the
out of business; the railroad that eliminated the
Trails; the automobile that has all but made railroad
passenger service a thing of the past.
Think of it - for
almost a century and a half, messages of joy, sorrow and success came
in those hand-delivered yellow envelopes. The telegraph changed
the world when its first message was sent on May 24, 1844 proclaiming
"What hath God wrought!” With those first words sent by
telegraph inventor Samuel Morse, communication sped through the land
in a way never known before.
However, getting the public to believe the
idea after Morse invented the telegraph in 1831, was a difficult road
to hoe. In the beginning, the telegraph was considered little
more than a curiosity, with most people unable to believe that the
idea was even possible. While a professor of arts
and design at New
York University in 1835, Samuel Morse proved that signals could be
transmitted by wire and produce written codes on a strip of paper. The next year, Morse modified the device to write dots and dashes. However, the public remained skeptical.
In 1837, Morse applied
for government assistance to develop the telegraph; however, the nation
suffered an economic disaster known as the Panic of 1837 and nothing was
done with the application. In the meantime, Morse began to give
public demonstrations of his device, finally gaining some credibility.
Finally, when the
nation had begun to recover economically, Morse again asked Congress for
an appropriation to help build a telegraph line from
Baltimore, forty miles away. This time, the legislators were "sold”
on the idea and on February 23, 1843, they granted Morse $30,000 to build
Samuel Morse first invented the telegraph in
More than a year later, the first message was sent on May 24, 1844 and the
country was convinced. In a partnership with several other men,
Morse began the building of more and more lines, expanding the
availability of the new-fangled invention.
But, still it was slow
going. The government rejected the idea of purchasing Morse’s
invention, so expansion fell solely upon private enterprise. By 1856,
thirty or forty rival companies, working on different patents of the
telegraph covered the most populated areas of the eastern part of the
Into this melee walked a
The New York and Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company. Formed in 1851, the company had been in the process of buying several of
their rival companies and in 1856 they changed their named to the Western
Union telegraph Company, signifying the union of "western" telegraph lines
with eastern lines into one system. Five years later, in 1861, Western
Union completed the first transcontinental telegraph line, effectively
putting the Pony Express out of business. During the
Civil War, the
coast-to-coast communication system played a vital role.
In the meantime, other
technology had advanced rapidly, including the telephone. However,
long distance was an expensive service and telegrams peaked during the
1920s and ‘30s when it was much cheaper to send a telegram than to place a
long distance telephone call.
During the next decade,
the Western Union courier became a feared sight, as during World War II,
the War department used Western Union to notify families of deaths and
injuries of armed forces personnel.
But as technology
continued to evolve, the success of the telegram was not to last. As
long distance rates began to drop, Western Union phased out its couriers
in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Then came faxes, email, and even
cheaper long distance rates. The telegram was doomed. By 2005,
only about 20,000 telegrams were sent worldwide.
Though the telegram is
gone forever, Western Union continues to thrive, as over the years it has
diversified into financial services.
of America, updated March, 2010.
Telegraph operator printing telegram, 1908
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