The Last Telegram

July 8, 2013

Here at the BRI we love to write about technology that was once cutting-edge,
and has now become obsolete and vanished from the scene. But we
seldom get an opportunity to witness the actual departure.

Last TelegramIn less than a week, the last telegram will be sent. The telegraph was the world’s first mass communication tool. First developed in the 1840s, sending series of electric pulses in Morse code (different combinations of pulses that corresponded to letters of the alphabet) along long stretches of electrical wire made instant communication a reality. The first telegram, sent on May 24, 1844, read, “WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT?”

A hundred and fifty years later, with the development of cheap long-distance telephone service, the fax machine, e-mail, texting, cell phones, and other ways to instantly reach out to somebody, the telegram has grown increasingly irrelevant. Even Western Union, one of the first and definitely the longest-serving telegram company, doesn’t even use them anymore. (They stopped sending telegrams in 2006.) Western Union is primarily a money wiring service now.

The last place on earth where you could send a telegram is in India. (It’s called a taar there.) Telegrams became a popular way to send a message there in the 1970s and ‘80s. The industry peaked in 1985, with 60 million telegrams sent nationwide. But as cheap cell phones became the norm, telegrams became just as arcane in India as they were elsewhere. Last year, only about 2 million telegrams were sent – which, in a country of a billion people, isn’t a lot. (And most of those are sent by the government.) Meanwhile, BSNL, the country’s state-run telecom company, is losing $23 million a year on operating a telegraph service. So it has announced that on July 14, the service will be discontinued.

Essentially, on July 14, after nearly two centuries, the last telegram will be sent.