Thursday, March 09, 2006

No more telegraphs

I found this story about Western Union:

After 150 years, telegrams fade into history
Thursday, March 09, 2006
J'Nell Pate

As of January 27, 2006 Western Union no longer sends telegrams. Given the convenience of telephones, emails and faxes, it is no wonder that folks don’t send telegrams anymore. Back in the 1920s and 1930s telegrams were cheaper than making a long distance telephone call, so people sent a lot of telegrams.Even the military used them. I’ve been doing research at the Regional National Archives in Fort Worth on the three airfields located in Fort Worth in World War I. In their files are many telegrams sending daily reports to Washington and for other purposes. Use of the word “STOP” in a telegram was frequent because punctuation cost more than to insert the word.Thus after 150 years a familiar service stopped. Western Union still will exist, for years ago, they became primarily a financial institution to transfer money. They are the largest money transfer system in the world, functioning in 195 countries.

Let’s look at some history. Although it wasn’t called Western Union, Samuel Morse sent the world’s first “telegram” on May 24, 1844 to his partner Alfred Vail by tapping out the words, “What hath God wrought?” The message traveled over wires from Washington to Baltimore. Soon, for the first time in history, people would be able to communicate rapidly over great distances – as soon as those wires were strung.In 1851 a group of New York businessman headed by Hiram Sibley created The New York and Mississippi telegraph Company, a forerunner to Western Union. (Sibley was sort of the Bill Gates of his day.) In 1856 officials changed the name to Western Union Telegraph Company after uniting several smaller companies.

The first transcontinental telegraph line was completed in 1861, providing rapid communication during the Civil War. Obviously, the Pony Express, which had been the fastest communication between the East and California, no longer was necessary. Just as the Indians harassed the Pony Express riders who crossed the plains, they tore down or burned a few poles and telegraph wires as well. U.S. troops had to try to protect the telegraph just as they had the Pony Express riders.

Beginning in April 1856, the company took advantage of the technology of the telegraph to send messages of greetings or news – good or bad – across long or short distances. The messages came in yellow enveloped hand-delivered by a courier. (The company gradually phased out couriers in the late 1960s and early 1970s.)

If one dates from the early beginnings of Hiram Sibley in 1851, the company has been around for 155 years. With the name Western Union, they lack only a couple of months of being in existence for 150 years of telegrams.

Victor Chayet, spokesman for the company which today is based in Greenwood Village, Colorado, said in announcing the end of paper telegrams, “The decision was a hard decision because we’re fully aware of our heritage. But it’s the final transition from a communications company to a financial services company.” Their money transfer service is nothing new; it began in 1871.

Only 20,000 telegrams were sent in 2005 at an average of $10.each. Mostly the telegrams were from businesses that wanted a formal way to notify recipients. Chayet remarked, “If he only knew,” referring to Samuel Morse and the present world of communications choices that his invention of the telegraph initiated.

Historian Thomas Noel of the University of Colorado said, “It’s amazing it [the telegram] survived this long.”

I’m not sure I ever received a telegram. I remember sending telegrams to both of Texas’ Senators in the later 1970s saying no to the Panama Canal giveaway.What is so neat about telegrams is that an early emphasis was on stringing wires all across the Great Plains to California. The company was “Western” union, after all.

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