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The Western Union Telegram Is No More

An Obsolete Technology

It made good business sense for Western Union to drop its telegram service on January 27 and concentrate on its financial services operations, which earned the company $4 billion last year. In 1929, during Western Union's busiest year, the company sent 200 million telegrams. In 2005, Western Union's worldwide service centers transmitted just 20,000 thousand.

"The telegram really has become an obsolete technology," says Amy Fischer, archivist for the First Data Corporation, which now owns Western Union. "Telegram use has diminished and has been replaced by lots of lots of other means of communications, from telephone and radio, to email and faxes."

Telegraph Transforms Communications

At the Historic Speedwell Museum in Morristown, New Jersey, where Samuel Morse and Alfred Vail first developed the telegraph in the late 1830s, collections specialist Diana Angione says people today often take instant global communications for granted, so it may be hard to imagine how wondrous telegraph technology once seemed. "So much so that people thought it was magic and they sort of laughed about it," she says.

"They didn't believe it was even possible. It was a surprise to people that they could actually see a message go from one person to another person far away without any other sound going on."

Archivist Amy Fischer says the telegraph was more than just a technical marvel. It changed the way people perceived their society, and their connectedness to the world around them.

"For the first time, rather than being able to communicate only at the speed someone could walk a message or ride a horse, people could communicate in real time," Fischer says, "meaning that their message could go across in minutes or even seconds sometimes. That was such a big change for people."

By 1861, when the Western Union's transcontinental telegraph link between the American West and the Eastern seaboard was completed, the technology altered the course of history.

Fischer notes, "For the first time, everyone who had gone to California during the Gold Rush and stayed could now communicate with their family and their business partners back on the East coast [and say] Oh my goodness! All of a sudden we really are one country!"

More Than Just a Way to Send Messages

The telegraph was more than just a way to send messages over a wire. It was what some call "The Victorian Internet."

Telegrams had a deep personal significance, sharing news -- good and bad -- between loved ones and family members. For Anna, a Western Union employee whose job it was to take telegram orders, it was the intimate nature of many telegrams that has her feeling regret over their demise.

"I feel very sad, like I've lost a friend," she says. "It was a connection to other people that I enjoyed. I got a little peek into what was going on in their lives. I loved it."

Sometimes a telegram was a way to connect people when there was no other way.

"Some people couldn't find a relative and the only thing they knew was an address," she says. "So we would help them locate a person by sending a telegram that would be delivered to the door. That way it would be left in the door."

There were glamorous traditions associated with telegrams. Often when a new play opened on Broadway, Anna took telegram orders from Bob Hope's office, offering the legendary entertainer's congratulations. Equally important to Anna were the telegrams sent by ordinary people at milestone moments in the lives of loved ones: when children would graduate or get married, when women had babies.

"That was a tradition to send them a telegram of congratulations and people would send them telegrams to the baby welcoming them to the world," the Western Union employee recalls.

"I had people call me and say 'when I got married my dad sent me a very special telegram and my husband is going to send that to my daughter.'"

And it was a tradition in a lot of churches when someone died, Anna says, "to send a telegram to the family. And they would quote from scripture. And they would give the family comfort. And they would keep this and look at it later. Well, there you go. Tradition. It means something!"

Nevertheless the First Data Corporation ended that tradition on January 27th when it sent its last Western Union telegram.