Western Union Sends Its Last Telegram

Wright brothers telegram i i

hide captionThe telegram the Wright brothers sent to their father informing him of their successful first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., Dec. 17, 1903.

Library of Congress
Wright brothers telegram

The telegram the Wright brothers sent to their father informing him of their successful first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., Dec. 17, 1903.

Library of Congress
'God' im Morse's message.

hide captionOn May 24, 1844, Samuel Morse sends the first electric-telegraph message: "What hath God wrought?"

Enlargement
Library of Congress

Lost and Found Sound

The era of the telegram, an icon of communication dating back 150 years, came to a quiet end last week. Western Union says it delivered its final telegram on Friday.

In truth, the telegram long ago succumbed to long distance telephones, faxes, e-mail and instant messaging. Even deliverers who sang them couldn't save telegrams from the dustbin of history. The fact that one final telegram was sent last Friday is a tribute not to the telegram's endurance, but to the glacial tediousness of extinction itself.

What will we remember of the telegram? Probably the prose style the economic of telegraphy engendered. Punctuation cost extra, so the word STOP substituted for a period. Otherwise, it was brevity in the extreme — pronouns, verbs omitted.

The telegram made tabloid headline writers out of ordinary folks sending urgent messages. Sometimes those urgent messages contained the worst news, sometimes the best.

Tom Standage, author of The Victorian Internet, says telegrams were most popular in the 1920s and '30s, when they were cheaper than a long-distance call. But the telephone and e-mail eventually led to the extinction of the telegram.

Postal telegraph messengers in Indianapolis, Ind., 1908.

hide captionPostal telegraph messengers in Indianapolis, Ind., 1908.

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