Spoutin' Off: Telegrams slip into oblivion STOP

By Michael Rau

February 6, 2006

Brothers and sisters, we're gathered here today to pay tribute to a dear departed friend - a friend that was the progenitor of an ubiquitous part of our daily lives - a friend which shared with us our greatest joys and most sorrowful tragedies - a friend that literally changed the world, announced by the vocalization of these four little words: "What hath God wrought?" on May 24, 1844.

I'm speaking of a technology which recently slipped into the velvet-lined oblivion of history - the telegraph.

On January 27th, with no public announcement other than a brief note on their Web site, Western Union discontinued offering telegraph service. I find nothing sad about this, but owing to the telegraph's utterly astonishing repercussion on society, doesn't its demise deserve something more celebratory than a passing note?

We're surely jaded, having grown up with some form or another of instantaneous communication having always been a part of our daily lives. Try to imagine, if you can, what it must have been like in the mid-1800s to experience the change of going from sometimes months to minutes, to engage in two-way communication with someone in a distant location.

Sure - there have been many amazing advances in instant communications since then, but this was the beginning and changed civilization forever.

How would modern society even exist, much less function without instant communication - no telephones, no two-way radios, no Internet? Arguably, the industrial revolution wouldn't have even occurred without the telegraph.

The guys that came up with the electric telegraph, not to mention the telephone and the wireless radio, were the nerds of their day; visionary tinkerers who could never have comprehended the impact that their various inventions would have, but had an innate sense that what they were doing might be important.

Beyond the impact that the telegraph had on the evolution of society, think about the role of the telegram on our culture.

Although long-distance telephone service has existed almost as long as the telephone itself, until well into the 1960s and deployment of automatic switching equipment, long-distance calls were complicated to accomplish and expensive. By the time your call had reached across a few hundred miles, you might be using several separate circuits, and paying for time on each one.

Thus, telegrams remained the most common and popularly affordable method of near-instant long-distance communications for about a hundred years.

How many millions of telegrams do you suppose were sent over the course of that century? How many of these announced events of historical importance? How many grandparents learned of the birth of a new grandchild in this way? How many families learned of the death of a loved one in war with a telegram which opened with the words "The President of the United States regrets to inform you ..."?

If we're willing to stretch credibility a bit, you can say that telegrams were the precursor of digital binary data transmissions. Think of the dots and dashes used to assemble messages, and then consider that all digital transmissions actually consist of a very long string of zeros and ones.

Just as the telegraph operator at the receiving end would take the dots and dashes from a transmitted message and translate them into something readable, a computer takes the zeros and ones from a binary transmission and translates them into what you see on your monitor. Philosophically speaking, today's Internet is a natural evolution of the telegraph.

Perhaps no industry, and by extension their consumers, owes more to the invention of the telegraph than this one right here. Until then, the earliest time newspapers could relate accounts of "current" events across the continent or the world was in a matter of days after their occurrence. Telegraphs changed that time lag to hours, minutes, and eventually seconds.

Wire services such as The Associated Press and Reuters were created as gatherers and distributors of news.

They're called wire services because the telegraph was the method of transmission which made their services possible.

Fifty years ago, a reporter who was, for example, in Washington D.C. writing accounts of the local congressman, would take his copy to his bureau, if his newspaper had one, or to a wire service office with whom the newspaper was associated, and give it to a wire operator for transmission. The home office would have the story in minutes.

Even in middle age, I'm really too young for experience to provide me with a personal appreciation of the importance of the telegraph in the evolution of civilization, but as an aficionado of history, I'm awed by its impact. You should be, too.

So while obliviously enjoying the luxury of real-time communication, as we yack on our 3G cell phones, or chat on our high-speed Internet connections, or even luxuriate in learning about what's going on in the world from this paper over our morning cup of joe, let's take a moment to stop and reflect in memory and appreciation for the telegraph - a technology which time has passed by, but which literally changed the world.

Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, visit http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.

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