Telegrams: the end of an era

Here’s a copy of a story printed in today’s Globe and Mail

Western Union sends its final telegram
Kingston company hopes to fill void as industry pioneer calls it quits

WASHINGTON – Word came, ironically enough, in an announcement over Western Union’s website.

Last Friday, 162 years after Samuel Morse sent out his first message over a telegraph line, the legendary U.S. company quietly ended its telegram service in the United States, citing a decline in business that began in the 1920s and hasn’t let up since. “We regret any inconvenience this may cause you and we thank you for your loyal patronage,” the company said.

In the peak year of 1929, when Western Union still operated what has been called “the nervous system of American business,” the company handled 200 million telegrams.

Last year, faced with competition from phone calls, faxes, e-mails and cellphone text messages, it handled barely 20,000. Most of its multibillion-dollar business now comes from money transfers.

But for Colin Stone and his wife Willow Kinvera are hoping Western Union’s loss will turn into their gain.

They run Canada’s only telegram service from their home in Kingston.

In 1999, AT&T Canada, which had inherited the Canadian telegram business that once belonged to CNCP Telecommunications, decided to close it down for the same reason as Western Union. Canadians nostalgic for telegrams had to go south of the border to Western Union or another operator to send out their missives.

Mr. Stone, a onetime computer consultant and marketing specialist whose hobby was collecting historical telegrams and telegraph equipment, saw an opening. “I felt it was a needed service for some people,” he said.

So Mr. Stone, who’s 37, set up Telegrams Canada, which now handles a couple of hundred telegrams a month. It’s a far cry from the millions of telegrams that used to be sent out annually by CNCP, but he says business is growing.

While for most customers, using a telegram has only novelty value, for others, Mr. Stone says, it’s a necessity.

“If you have relatives overseas and there’s been a death in the family, they need to know. There are many places where people don’t even have a phone.”

Ms. Kinvera says that Italy is the company’s biggest destination, particularly during the spring wedding season when congratulatory telegrams are de rigueur. Condolences are also big business.

The world’s first telegram and its four-word message, “What hath God wrought,” was sent on May 24, 1844, from Washington to Baltimore. Western Union emerged in 1851 as the New York & Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Co., changing its name to Western Union in 1861, when at the height of the Civil War, it created the first coast-to-coast telegraph service.

As it prospered, the company introduced a stock ticker, money transfers and international services. By the 1920s, it had 10 cables under the Atlantic Ocean with a fleet of ships designed to service them.

Tom Standage, author of The Victorian Internet, which chronicles the growth of telegraph technology, said that by the late 19th century, Western Union held a Microsoft-like monopoly over the business.

“Imagine a news headline from 2150 that says Microsoft has just shipped its last copy of Windows – that’s what this announcement is equivalent to,” Mr. Standage said in an e-mail interview from London, where he is technology editor of The Economist magazine.

An indication of the vast influence of Western Union came in testimony before a congressional committee by William Orton, president of the company in 1870, who said it was an excellent indicator of the state of the U.S. economy.

“The fact is, the telegraph lives upon commerce,” he said. “If you will sit down with me at my office for 20 minutes, I will show you what the condition of business is at any given time in any locality in the United States. This last year, the grain business in the West has been very dull; as a consequence, the receipts from telegrams from that section have fallen off 25 per cent.”

Mr. Standage noted that while the telegram business has largely passed into history, it has been reborn in a sense in the form of text messages sent by cellphone.

"Like telegrams, they force people to write messages that are brief and to the point, and have spawned a vocabulary of strange, space-saving abbreviations, such as “c u l8r,” he noted.

And in parts of the world, the owner of a cellphone has turned into a latter-day telegraph operator. “In the poorest parts of Africa, illiterate people can go to a village text-message interpreter, who sends a message on their behalf via a mobile phone, and then pays them a visit when a reply arrives,” he said

Video killed the radio star STOP Video killed the radio star STOP

This is probably the most prophetic lyrics ever written. I wonder what led the Buggles to write that.

Oh-a-aho oh!