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Communication: An ode to telegram

August 04, 2013
Illustration by Ahmed Amin
Telegram: Illustration by Ahmed Amin

THERE is a nock on the door.

The heart races.

A woman runs to the door and bangs it open.

A polite, smiling postman fishes out the telegram from his bag and hands it out to her.

Frantically tearing off the envelope, she holds the telegram with trembling hands.

After a moment or so, she burst into tears of happiness, “He is alive! He is alive!” she says out loud.

Well have you seen this scene somewhere? A story twisting moment in most old Hollywood and Bollywood movies where a “telegram” changes the course of the story line. However, let me tell you that the “telegram” is not just a part of movies, in fact for a very long time it had been an integral means of connecting and communications for people the world over.

For over one and a half centuries the telegram had played a pivotal role in people’s lives before eventually being slowly and gradually superseded by inventions like the telephone and internet. Basically, telegram is a Greek word where tele means ‘distant’ and gramma means ‘letter’. Telegram is a written message that is sent over a distance using an electric device called “telegraph”. This process known as “telegraphy” consists of the long-distance transmission of messages without the physical exchange of an object bearing the message.

Telegram came into existence in the 1800s when the inventors succeeded in establishing commercially thriving telegraphy systems which could be used to deliver messages. According to the general belief, Samuel Morse is thought to be the person behind this invention, whereas the reality is that even before him many other inventors had already discovered the principles behind the telegraph. Nevertheless, it was Samuel Morse who first perceived the practical significance of those facts and took steps to make a practical invention that took him 12 long years of hard work.

Initially, telegrams needed a physical proximity between the sender and the receiver of the message. Then came the time of wires; but it was the advent of wireless telegraphy that marked a major leap in the world of communications and made it a lot easier for people to stay connected.

In olden times, apart from the uniqueness and the entertainment value attached with the invention, there were many other reasons behind the immense popularity of the use of this service. Messages of joy and sorrow, terrible news of a son at war on foreign shores, a job call or the news of the birth of a baby, all came through the antiquated telegraph services. Communication of personal messages, legal documentation, contract confirmation or cancellation, assurance of legally sound time-and-date records, protection of intellectual property were further reasons why telegrams became an indispensable part of lives back then.

However, this means of communication did not come cheap. Telegraph companies used to charge by the number of the words used in the telegram, thus brevity and conciseness were the characteristics of most telegrams. “Telegram style”, a way of shortened words used in telegrams, was evolved to make sure that maximum information is communicated through minimum possible words. Added to it, it was a regular practice to use words instead of symbols to mention punctuation, the most common one being writing STOP instead of a period (.) The shortest telegram in the English language was from a writer to his publisher to see how his new book was doing. He asked: “?” The publisher wired back: “!”

Today’s generation seems to have adopted this old way of communication in their daily lives but in a different form. The use of SMS or chatting on social networking sites is in a way the successor of “telegram style” communication. However, the concision back then owed to the cost or the charges for the service, whereas now it’s due to lack of time.

Looking back, one finds many instances and events in the world’s history where the telegram has played an integral role one way or the other.

Few of the many examples are:

• The Wright brothers announced the first successful flight in 1903 in the telegram given below: “Success four flights Thursday morning all against twenty one mile wind started from level with engine power alone average speed through air thirty one miles longest 57 seconds inform Press home Christmas.

• Telegram was key a tool in the announcement of the start of World War I.

• During the World War II, the postman was a dreaded man as it meant something bad had happened.

• American author Mark Twain, when learnt that his obituary had been published, sent a telegram from London in 1897 saying: “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”.

The telegram has a role in the history of the subcontinent too. The origin of the telegraph in India dates back to 1850. It also played a key role in suppressing 1857 war of independence. However, once a staple of communication across the world, the telegram has now gradually become obsolete with the rapidly evolving trends of the developed world. It has now phased out in many parts of the world. Nevertheless, despite its slow and gradual death at the hands of fast-paced means of communication, by the virtue of many people in underdeveloped areas of the world who have no other option then to rely on telegrams, this facility is still alive, though barely.