Western Union Sends Its Last Telegram After 150 years, the era of the telegram came to a quiet end last week. Romanticized in film and song, the hand-delivered paper messages were made useless by telephones and e-mail.
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Western Union Sends Its Last Telegram

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Western Union Sends Its Last Telegram

Western Union Sends Its Last Telegram

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Reports of the death of the telegram are greatly understated. Western Union says it has sent out its last telegram. The company says it went out last Friday. But in truth the telegram long ago succumbed to radio, long distance telephones, faxes, FedEx, e-mail. Even deliverers who sang them couldn't save telegrams from the dustbin of history. The fact that one final telegram was sent out last Friday is a tribute not to the telegram's endurance, but to the glacial tediousness of the process of extinction.

What will we remember of the telegram? Possibly the prose style that the economics 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.

(Soundbite of vintage recording)

Unidentified Man: Dale, a telegram for you.

Unidentified Woman: Read it to me, please.

Unidentified Man: Come ahead. Stop. Stop being a sap. Stop. You can even bring Alberto. Stop. My husband is stopping at your hotel. Stop. When do you start? Stop. Ah, I cannot understand who wrote this.

Unidentified Woman #1: Sounds like Gertrude Stein.

SIEGEL: Tom Standage wrote a book about telegraphy called THE VICTORIAN INTERNET. Tom Standage, it sounds a bit like what we see in text messages on cell phones nowadays.

Mr. TOM STANDAGE (Author): Yes, I think they are the true heirs of the telegram. When you send a message from one cell phone to another, which is something it has to be said, that it's much more popular in other parts of the world and not within the United States, but when you do that, you're given this very, very tiny screen and a very small amount of text. You can have 160 letters, and so, once again, we see people coming up with ingenious ways to squeeze more text into a short message, and billions of these messages are being sent everyday. So in some ways, the telegram is dead, but long live the telegram.

SIEGEL: What was the birth of the telegram like for the 19th century?

Mr. STANDAGE: Well, you could argue that the telegram goes back further than that, actually. The telegraph was originally a French technology from the late 18th century, and it was called the telegraph, and it was invented by Claude Chappe, and it was actually a mechanical device, rather like a semaphore tower, and that could send messages.

But, of course, people think about the first telegram as Samuel Morse sending the message What Hath God Wrought along the first electrical telegraph line in America, and that was in the 1840s. So that's really where most people place the beginning of this medium.

And it then became very, very popular during the 19th century and the early 20th century, particularly before long distance telephony was possible, and it was much cheaper to send a telegram than it was to make a long distance call, and so that made it very, very popular in the '20s and the '30s.

SIEGEL: Of course, for young people growing up in a wireless world, it's hard to remember that you had to create a lot of infrastructure to send a message by telegram.

Mr. STANDAGE: Yes, you had to run all these wires all over the place. That said, though, you didn't actually need to have wires running into your house to be on the network. The whole point was that there would be a delivery boy who would do the last mile and then come and knock on the door and give you the message. And the thing about something like the Internet is that, of course, you do actually have to fork out for the computer to be part of the network. So in some ways, you could argue that the telegram was a more democratic medium.

SIEGEL: When do you think the telegram really saw the writing on the wall, albeit in vary abbreviated text?

Mr. STANDAGE: I think the appearance of the telephone was probably the beginning of the end. Although, actually, the popularity of telegrams increased after that, ultimately, it was the telephone that finished it off. It's very unusual that communications technologies become extinct. Everyone said that TV would kill radio. Every now and then something comes along and it's going to kill what came before. The telegraph and the telegram is one of the very few examples of a form of communication that really has gone extinct, and it was really the telephone, what done it.

SIEGEL: Tom Standage, thanks a lot for talking with us.

Mr. STANDAGE: Thank you.


BLOCK: You can read some notable telegrams from Senator Joseph McCarthy, Orville Wright, George Burns and others at our website NPR.org.

(Soundbite of movie It's a Wonderful Life)

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