Technostalgia

What Hath God Wrought?

There’s one thing I’ve always wanted to do, and as of 2006 I’m not sure how to do it. Get your minds out of the gutter and brush up on your Morse code.

On January 27, 2006 Western Union sent its last telegram, and discontinued the service a few days later. Once the largest telegraph service in the world, it sold only 20,000 telegrams in 2005 compared to over 20 million in 1929. At its peak, it owned over a million miles of telegraph line and dominated the communications industry in North America.

Telegraphs started in ancient times through the use of smoke signals, light signals or arm signals. In the 18th century semaphore towers began popping up throughout Europe. These towers had an operator that used a set of “flags” mounted on top that would move to signal a message. They were much faster than post riders — transmitting up to 2 words per minute — but expensive. After Napoleon used them to his advantage to take over a big chunk of Europe, more governments saw the use and started investing in this early communications network.

Back in the day, you didn't just go to the train station to pick pockets.

Reliability and usability took a huge leap forward with the invention of the electric telegraph. Here in the US we know of Samuel Morse, who developed an electric telegraph system and a means of communicating across it. Morse’s most famous telegram was one sent from the US Capitol building to the Mt. Clare Depot in New Jersey quoting Numbers 23:23, “What hath God wrought?” About the same time, and independently, the electric telegraph was being developed in Europe by Sir William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone. It was put into use by the Great Western Railway in Britain and ran for 13 miles from Paddington station to West Drayton.

A 1980s British Telecom Puma teletype machine

Suddenly, the speed of sending a message overland increased immensely while the cost plummeted. It was now within reach of the middle class to send a message to family living in another city or even state. In the US, the telegraph came into existence right as railroads were at their peak, and telegraph lines were laid alongside railroad tracks. You could now reach anyone in North America with a message. In Canada, the two competing railroads — Canadian Pacific and Canadian National — ran competing services until merging them in 1967. It wasn’t long before telegraph lines crossed oceans and connected the world.

Soon wireless telegraphs would make it even easier to send messages, and as long as you had an antennae and a receiver you could get messages from all over the world to anywhere in the world, regardless of where the train tracks were. Ships began using these systems, famously transmitting S-O-S when in peril. Further advancements came in the form of teletype, then telex machines, that let you type in a message, dial a number for another telex machine, and transmit that message.

Once phone systems began their rise to prominence and then the internet took over our daily lives, the telegraph’s days were numbered. Other than some governments and novelty companies, the telegram is all but dead. No longer does a Western Union messenger knock on your door to deliver a telegram from your Aunt Mildred in Tacoma, WA. No longer do train depots double as communications centers. Soldiers have access to Skype while deployed across the globe, rather than relying on the military to get messages to their wives and girlfriends. I can now reach into my pocket and get out my mobile phone and send my wife a text. When I’m not in trouble, I’ll even call her so I can hear her voice.

Still, I wonder what it would be like to send or receive a telegram.

[Image Credits: Public Domain, SriMesh via Wikimedia Commons, and Kierant via Wikimedia Commons]

  • I think in order to get a radio amateur license, you have know a minimum amount of Morse code. So you could go to your neighborhood's friendly Radio Amateur and send a telegram…

    • Nope, they pulled the requirement out for shortwave. I remember reading about it when guys began putting mobile bases in their Jeeps…

  • I watched enough westerns as a youth to know that the telegraph operator always lives. The barkeep too. Mostly.

  • tonyola

    This bit of '60s psychedelic-pop cheese has been hopelessly burned into my brain. Now it's your turn.[youtube 8lN_KC_XnW4 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8lN_KC_XnW4 youtube]

  • OA5599

    I found a partially used pad of Western Union telegram paper once. I'm sure I still have it someplace, but I've moved three times since then and lost track of it.

    I should look for it. I'll start a business where people can email a message to me, I'll write it down on the paper, scan it as a PDF, and email the scan to anyplace in the world. I think I can corner the market, at least until I run out of that paper.

  • Was thinking about looking up morse recently to try to learn. Never got that far, but another class inspired me to build my ambidexterity and that didn't last long.

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