January 27, 2015

Two communication eras almost overlapped in 2006.

On January 27, 2006, Western Union ended its paper telegram service.

Two months later Jack Dorsey sent the first Twitter message.

Most folks know about Twitter’s history, but some might ask, “What was a telegram?”

Image-Telegram copy

“For more than 150 years, messages of joy, sorrow and success came in signature yellow envelopes hand-delivered by a courier. Now the Western Union telegram is officially a thing of the past.

The company formed in April 1856 to exploit the hot technology of the telegraph to send cross-country messages in less than a day.

….’At the time it was as incredible and astonishing as the computer when it first came out,’ said Tom Noel, a history professor at the University of Colorado at Denver. ‘For people who could barely understand it, here you had the magic of the electric force traveling by wire across the country.’

….Telegrams reached their peak popularity in the 1920s and 1930s when it was cheaper to send a telegram than to place a long-distance telephone call. People would save money by using the word ‘stop’ instead of periods to end sentences because punctuation was extra while the four character word was free.

….By last year, only 20,000 telegrams were sent at about $10 a message….’It definitely was an anachronism,’ Noel said. ‘It’s amazing it survived this long.’

— “Stop: Telegram era over, Western Union says”
Associated Press / NBC News, February 2, 2006

Telegrams were a reliable messaging service for journalists.

As you can see in the 1934 movie “It Happened One Night,” it was easy for a reporter (Clark Gable) to send a telegram.

Although not the only telegram service, Western Union was probably the best known. Other services continued after 2006.

For instance, India’s state-run service didn’t end until 2013.

Western Union tried to evolve as a communications company during the 20th century.

After World War II they even offered a service called “Deskfax,” where people could send their own messages.

The following video describes how you could send a telegram/fax message from Massachusetts to Louisiana.

Think of it as the Twitter of its day.

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