The Telegram, 1844-2006

The Telegram, 1844-2006

Friday, February 3, 2006

For generations, Western Union's telegrams were the way news moved from one coast to the other, hand-delivered messages filled with staccato sentences that were usually missing punctuation.

They were part of Americana, important elements in movies such as "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "It's a Wonderful Life" and tools for delivering news -- often bad -- about loved ones who were serving their country overseas.

But now, overshadowed by instant and inexpensive forms of communication -- e-mail, cell phone and text messages among them -- the telegram has gone the way of carbon paper and mimeographs.

Founded in 1856, Western Union -- which now specializes in long-distance financial transactions -- used the cutting-edge technology of sending messages cross-country via telegraph wire. The first message, sent from Washington to Baltimore by inventor Samuel F.B. Morse in 1844, read: "What hath God wrought?"

Telegrams peaked in 1929 with 20 million messages sent. Last year, there were 20,000. The final one was sent last Friday.

Like the messages during the telegraph's earliest days, the last ones were filled with abbreviated congratulations and condolences, company spokesman Victor Chayet said yesterday.

In its final years, many of the senders delivered their words to Western Union by e-mail or phone. "I do recognize the irony," Chayet said.

Most recently, a telegram could be sent for a flat $10 -- a pricey alternative to a fast-moving e-mail. Then again, a telegram never contained spam.

-- Mike Musgrove

© 2006 The Washington Post Company