Reports of the Telegram’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

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Manjunath Kiran / AFP / Getty Images

Employees feed in telegram messages onto computers to be sent via telegraph at a telecommunications office in Bangalore, India, on June 13, 2013

The world’s last telegram will be sent today in India. You may have read that on the Huffington Post or in USA Today, or heard about it from the BBC. But it’s not true.

Shortly after media outlets announced the death of the telegram with a volley of “STOP” headlines, skeptical reporters found a number of telegraph services in other countries that had no intention of closing for business on July 14 just because some news outlets said there were no more telegrams to be sent. One executive told MSN News that his telegraph business was booming, and it remains perfectly possible to send and receive a telegram in India or elsewhere.

It seems reports of the telegram’s death have been greatly exaggerated — in fact, instead of bidding the telegraph a patronizing farewell and making wisecracks about extinct media, we should be hailing it as a dogged, miraculous survivor. After all, a number of communication innovations — phones or e-mail, not to mention texts, tweets, pokes and status updates — should have delivered the deathblow to the telegram long ago.

(MORE: In Praise of Telegrams, the Original Social Network)

In India, the telegram has owed its curious resilience to the two distinct advantages it has over rival technologies: it is already there, and it works, bearing messages rapidly across the country in places where telephone or Internet access is either nonexistent or erratic. For these reasons, it has retained a place in the country’s official life. India’s legendarily change-averse bureaucrats still use telegrams out of habit. Lawyers and courts use them to create written records in judicial proceedings. The army uses them occasionally to communicate with troops at remote stations. A handful of private customers use them too.

It’s a far cry, admittedly, from the 19th century and the telegram’s glory days. The excitement that attended the opening of the first trans-Atlantic cable in 1858 spilled into the streets of New York City. Tech geeks from the steampunk age formed a 4-mile long procession to Manhattan’s Union Square. Fireworks sparked an accidental blaze in City Hall. Shopkeepers sold “genuine” pieces of cable as souvenirs and a perfumer marketed a new fragrance, Atlantic Cable Bouquet, which was said to be distilled from “ocean spray and fragrant flowers.”

The explosive growth of cables secured the telegram’s place in the world. Even as Alexander Graham Bell introduced a rival technology, the telephone, just 30 years later, he performed a linguistic hat tip to the reigning technology by calling his new invention “the speaking telegraph.”

(MORE: Western Union Tries to Resuscitate the Singing Telegram)

Exciting as it was to hear a telegraph speak, people continued to choose telegrams as the cheaper and more accessible service. In the U.S. in the early 1900s, a phone call cost nearly eight times as much as a telegram. Another 60 years would pass before prices reached parity. In the meantime, the halting language of the telegram reached new heights of creative expression. Oscar Wilde was rumored to have sent the shortest telegram in history when he cabled his publisher from Paris. Curious to see how England’s reading public had received his new book, Wilde wrote, “?”— to which his publisher replied, “!”

The phone of course made inroads on the telegram’s popularity. In the 1930s, America’s trigger-fingered telegraphers handled more than 200 million messages a year. That fell to 179 million in 1950. By 2006 the number had dwindled to 21,000, at which point Western Union unceremoniously pulled the plug on its service. Most manufacturers stopped making telegraph equipment by the middle of the century, and today collectors jockey over a dwindling number of parts, like the much coveted Morse hand keys.

In India, however, the telegraph was thriving even in the mid-1980s, when the state-owned telecom company, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd. (BSNL), was sending 60 million telegrams annually. Its telegram division, operating at a huge loss, still sends 5,000 messages a day. Those diehard customers will acutely feel the loss of the telegram on July 14, when BSNL closes its telegraph division for good. But the rest of the world will still be able to send telegrams via a plethora of companies (try here or here). The costs are rather higher than those charged by BSNL, of course, and there is no walk-in service — you need to place an order by phone, e-mail or through a website. But, to use cablese, the telegram is headed FUTUREWARDS and not into history just yet. Fitting that its story should end with a dot dot dot.

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