The History of
the Telegram

From the Jazz Age through the years following World War II, there was scarcely a Hollywood melodrama or screwball comedy whose story didn’t turn on the sudden arrival of a telegram.

The scene might vary from film to film but usually went something like this:

Doorbell rings.

Enter polite smartly dressed Western Union messenger who hands over an envelope, gets a coin or two in return, then exits.

Envelope is torn open by recipient, whose face is transformed by extreme emotion as he or she reads it.

Finally, a close up of the telegram itself lets the audience in on the news that provoked the smile, shriek, or sob, or sometimes even a full blown swoon.

In real life too, the sight of a messenger coming up the walk made hearts flutter and pulses quicken.

Telegraph Time Line

Since the beginning of time, man has experimented with ways of sending information over great distances. Smoke signals, fire towers, flags and talking drums were all used as early systems of communication. It was the development of electricity that enabled the modern telegraph to come into being.

1727 – In London, Stephen Gray transmits electricity 700 feet through a wire suspended in the air by silk threads

1753 – First practical suggestion for an electrical telegraph is made in Scotland

1774 – First functioning telegraph is demonstrated in Geneva, Switzerland

1793 – The word 'telegramme' is used with reference to sending and receiving messages by means of an optical communication system

1832 – Samuel Finley Breese Morse propounds the theory that information can be transmitted by opening and closing an electrical circuit

1836 – Morse builds his first functional telegraph instrument

1844 – Morse sends the first public telegraph message “What Hath God Wrought”

1851 – Over 50 separate telegraph companies in the United States

1852 – The word “Telegram” is first used in the Albany Evening Journal

1854 – Military telegraph is used for the first time during the Crimean War

1858 – Telegraph systems of Europe and North America are connected

1895 – Western Union transmitting 58 million messages annually

1920’s – Telegraphers stationed at boxing matches and baseball games

1930’s – Singing telegrams introduced in addition to Santagrams, Bunneygrams and Kiddiegrams

1940’s – Postal Telegraph and Western Union merge and telegram service suspended in the UK due to War

1945 to 1968 National and Maritime telegrams at their peak

2006 – Western Union delivers its last telegram

Concise. Compressed. Condensed.

This was the character of most telegrams but there were occasions when these qualities were taken to an extreme.

Did you know…
The two shortest wires on record concerned a rather long novel. Wondering how the sale of Les Miserables was going, Victor Hugo, in exile on the island of Guernsey, telegraphed his publisher:
To which the reply came back:

Copyright © by Linda Rosenkrantz
Reproduced with kind permission from Telegram! Modern History As Told Through More Than 400 Witty, Poignant, and Revealing Telegrams

Telegram! by Linda Rosenkrantz

The information found here has been taken from the book 'Telegram!' by Linda Rosenkrantz and is copyright of the author.

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