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Last Updated: Friday, 3 February 2006, 10:16 GMT
Last post for the telegram?
By Matthew Davis
BBC News, Washington

The age of e-mail, instant messaging and internet telephony has ended the 150-year-old era of the American telegram.

Western Union courier talks to a policeman
The telegram's heyday was in the 1920s and 30s

Last week, Western Union - which for a century and a half brought news of joy, sorrow and success in distinctive, hand-delivered, yellow envelopes - quietly ceased its service.

It was a difficult decision for a firm that was providing coast-to-coast transmissions as far back as the American Civil War - and which at one time had a fleet of 14,000 couriers operating on bicycle and on foot.

But the writing has been on the wall for the telegram for decades.

"The decision was a hard decision because we're fully aware of our heritage," said Victor Chayet, a spokesman for the company, whose main business is thriving.

"But it's the final transition from a communications company to a financial services company."

Momentous style

Samuel Morse, inventor of the Morse Code, dispatched what is widely regarded as the first telegram over an experimental line from Washington to Baltimore in May 1844.

Telegrams have heralded many famous moments

In the ensuing decades telegrams revolutionised long distance communication, reaching peak popularity in the 1920s and 30s, when they were cheaper than long distance telephone calls.

Most telegraph companies charged by the word, so people had good reason to be brief.

They would save money by using the word "stop" instead of full stops to end sentences, because punctuation was extra while the four letter word was free.

This led to the kind of pointed, momentous style most associated with telegrams, which have heralded some major historical events.

Success of the first flight in 1903 was conveyed by telegram, as was the start of the World War I.

In a infamous intervention, the captain of the Atlantic liner Montrose sent a telegram alerting police that the poisoner Dr Hawley Crippen was travelling on his ship.

Anachronism

Western Union built its first transcontinental telegraph line in 1861.

The Morse-Vail telegraph register
The Morse-Vail telegraph register received the first message in 1844

"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, told the Associated Press.

"For people who could barely understand it, here you had the magic of the electric force travelling by wire across the country."

In telegraphy's heyday the company maintained a fleet of thousands of messenger boys, operators, clerks and copyists.

It marketed its services heavily, and in 1933 introduced the singing telegram.

But where once millions of telegrams were sent each year, in 2005 Western Union delivered just 20,000. What was once cutting-edge technology, had become an anachronism.

"Recent generations didn't receive telegrams and didn't know you could send them," Mr Chayet said.

Telegram not dead. Stop

Western Union's decision to stop its service (it halted hand delivery in the 1970s) is not the end of the telegram in the US or elsewhere.

Ambrosine Nielsen from Jarrow in Tyne and Wear celebrates her 100th birthday in 2000
The Queen now sends cards instead of telegrams for 100th birthdays

But where it was once a practical necessity, the telegram now survives because its history and tradition make it an ideal way to create an impact.

Swiss-based Unitel Telegram Services runs telegram businesses in 44 countries, including the UK - where it took over from BT - and a few years ago unsuccessfully tried to acquire Western Union's telegram arm.

The company says it handles tens of thousands of telegrams around the world each month.

Half of these are sent by private individuals, typically for weddings and birthdays, the other half by businesses, often thanking important clients or making key announcements.

The text of Samuel Morse's first telegram to his partner Alfred Vail, was 'What hath God Wrought?'

The telegram is also still used by heads of state and diplomats and others seeking to give their communications added gravitas.

"Once it was very normal to get a telegram," UTS spokesman Rob Van Hoof told the BBC. "Today if you get a telegram it is something special, it makes an impact."

"Personally I believe it not only makes two people happy - the sender and the receiver - but it is nice to keep something old fashioned alive."

Set against the relentless advance of communications science, a niche market is the best the telegram can hope to sustain.

In the UK, the Queen once sent them to subjects celebrating their 100th birthdays.

Now, even she sends a card, eschewing the modern-day incarnation of a technology that has been described as the "Victorian internet".

The text of Samuel Morse's first telegram to his partner Alfred Vail, was "WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT?"

If only he knew...




SEE ALSO:
Net phoning starts to win friends
29 Sep 05 |  Technology
Telecoms face internet challenge
24 Aug 05 |  Business
Churchill's telegram secrets
18 Jun 02 |  Politics


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