The telegram

by Andrada Costoiu

Photo: The envelope for a Western Union Telegraph, c. 1861 (Photo: Library of Congress)

I never sent one. I was born in the Internet era, so for me, the email was and is the standard. Though, sometimes I do like to send the occasional written letter, because there is nothing like it.
Maybe I am old fashioned that way, because I can’t trade the feeling of having a physical book in my hands for the Kindle. I still like the libraries and the smell of books, and one thing that has stayed with me throughout the years is the memory of the University of Chicago’s library, where I have spent a lot of time when I was a graduate student.
But this post is not about books, it’s about the old way people used to send each other information: The Telegram.

The postman fishing out a telegram from his satchel is an abiding image that many of us just saw in movies, isn’t it? I would think is not used anymore today, but…..strangely enough, when I did a bit of research I have found out that in some countries this kind of service is still available.

In the US,  there is the Itelegram: https://www.itelegram.com, in Spain there is SEUR, in Italy there is Poste Italiane, in Germany Deutsche Post. In some countries like India, UK, France, this service doesn’t exist anymore.
People still use telegrams for canceling contracts and sending legal notifications, because the message is retained for 7 years in the files and can be legally verified. 

Why am I writing about it? Because I think it’s part of our history. I know the telegraph maybe out of date or seem obsolete, but it represents a really important time period in human history, when humanity was advancing itself ….just as we do today.
Because I am imagining how it felt to have a long distance relationship back in the days when you had no Whattsapp, Facetime and other technologies. Because telegrams made and changed history, and I will give an example about one that changed America’s participation in WW2.

Do you know the heartbreaking story behind the most popular version of the telegraph?

Photo:Samuel Morse, c. 1840 (Photo: Public Domain/WikiCommons)

Born in Massachusetts in 1791, Samuel Morse studied mathematics and philosophy at Yale. But he was also an artist, a painter. A good painter, although in February 1825 at age 34, when he was invited to Washington D.C to pursue what could have been his big break, he was older than his heroes had been when they created their masterpieces. Here he was commissioned to paint Marquis de Lafayette, who was returning as a hero to the country he helped make free.
Morse’s wife, Lucretia remained in their family home in New Haven, Connecticut, expecting their third child.

While working on his painting in DC, Morse got a letter from his father: “My heart is in pain and deeply sorrowful, while I announce to you the sudden and unexpected death of your dear and deservedly loved wife.” 
Lucretia had died a few days earlier of heart attack while recovering from childbirth. He rushed back to his family, but by the time he got back his wife was already buried. 

SLOW communication. 

So this heart broken man has embarked in creating a technology that might have given him a chance to share a final few moments with Lucretia, or at least to attend her funeral. He wanted others to not have to go through same pain and sorrow. His endeavor took many years and many hurdles, but on May 24, 1844, he sent the first message, from the floor of US Supreme Court that said “ WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT.”

OK! But, we should also say that Morse had learned about telegraphy in Britain, where William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone had already developed a working electrical telegraph, in 1838 – some six years before Morse sent his famous message. Morse’s design did prove to be a more elegant solution, so while not the first, in time it became the most popular.

William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone’s electric telegraph from 1837, which is now held in the London Science Museum
(Photo: Geni/WikiCommons CC BY-SA 4.0

Telegrams were expensive

Yes, they were very expensive!

In 1860, for example, a ten-word telegram sent from New York to New Orleans cost $2.70 (about $65 in 2012 currency). When the transcontinental telegraph opened, the cost was $7.40 for ten words (about $210), while a ten word transatlantic message to England cost $100 (about $2,600). Source: https://newatlas.com/last-telegraph-message/28314/

Stories by Titanic survivors, rescued by the passenger ship Carpathia, say that some of them sent radiograms from on board the Carpathia, but these were very expensive. Other survivors sent telegrams as soon as the Carpathia arrived in New York on the 18th of April. One survivor, Mrs. Dowdell recalled “One man, a barber, had but $1.25 with him, and he handed over one dollar of this to send the word ‘safe’ to his mother.”

Telegraphy – a Victorian version of the Internet

Telegraphy in the 1800s was the earliest form of electronic data communication. Telegraphers created a new language, one of strange abbreviations that only they, understood. 73, for example, meant goodbye; 30 was the number placed at the end of a news story to signify the end. 
Just like we today, we have LOL….emojiis and all kinds of other abbreviations. 

If you want to read more about how it all started, there is a book, which I know of : The Victorian Internet by Tom Standee. I personally did not read it yet. 

By the way, the first transatlantic telegram happened 14 years after Morse’s first message, when Queen Victoria sent a message of congratulations to the American president James Buchanan.

The Zimmerman telegram and WWI

Cryptic version of the Zimmermann telegram

This is the telegram that brought America into the First World War!


Up until 6 April 1917, US remained neutral. Then it joined the Allies, and this is the course of events that lead to it.

Although wireless (radio) was used to send messages in the First World War, the principal means of diplomatic communication was via telegrams sent on undersea cables. In 1914 the Allies cut many German cables, forcing them to communicate via the cables of other powers. German communications were routed through the neutral US Embassy in Berlin, via their cable across the Atlantic. Yet this cable actually passed through the UK and could be tapped by the British intelligence services(source for this information : The official website for BBC History Magazine, History Extra)

British had broken the codes they were using, and so any messages could be read. On 17 January 1917, British intelligence intercepted the Zimmermann telegram. The Zimmermann message was passed to the British code-breaking unit in ‘Room 40’ and it took several weeks to decode. The  message was encouraging Mexicans to invade the southern US with the aim of re-conquering those states that were formerly part of Mexico: Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico and Germany would support this effort with money and arms.

President Wilson was shown the Zimmermann message on 24 February, and released it to the press on 1 March. The wave of anti-German and anti-Mexican feeling grew in the US.

The US entered first World War on April 6th, 1917.

So, yes, these are few interesting facts and stories that I thought to share with you! I hope that you enjoyed it, and that you have learned something new by reading this today!

7 thoughts on “The telegram

  1. There’s the famous story of Dr Crippen – you should look that one up! He escaped Britain by ship for the USA, wanted for murder, a telegram was sent so he was arrested on arrival – great story to read! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Nostalgia feeling while reading your blog. I am always fascinated about the stories of human progress and how technology transformed humans. You have nicely written it.

    Like

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