The Age of Telegrams

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“What hath God wrought?” telegraphed Samuel Morse in 1844 from the Capitol in Washington, D.C. to Baltimore, opening a new era of communications in the United States.

Samuel_Morse_1840Morse first developed and patented his system in 1837, independent of and slightly after two British inventors created a system based on needles pointing to letters. However, Morse’s system used a code he developed with his assistant, Alfred Vail, and that language of dots and dashes dominated speedy communications around the world for nearly a century.

Later improvements in technology eliminated the need for operators who knew how to tap out and decipher code, replacing them with typewriter keyboards and teleprinters.

In movies, messengers carrying telegrams often signal bad news, but telegrams played many other roles in everyday life. Their appeal was in their speed, transmitting information over long distances far faster than a letter and more reliably (and cheaply) than early telephone services.

Businesses sent crucial updates, families announced births and weddings, and journalists relayed important stories to their newspapers. The one common element was a sense of urgency, of news that could not wait to travel by ship, train or postal van.

When I discovered a Western Union telegram in my parents’ papers, I wondered what important news it contained. Well…see for yoursef.

TelegramApparently, Dad was just as bad about writing letters to his sister Vera as he was later in life. She wired her big brother to say, in essence, “Call me collect!”

Of course, the advent of the Internet and email, not to mention fax machines, obviated the need for telegrams to conduct business or impart breaking news. However, to mark formal events like births and weddings — or as a retro means of communications — telegrams are still sent in several countries, including Belgium, Canada, France, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Switzerland, the UK and the US.

In 1999, officials sent a telegram from the World War II era liberty ship, the SS Jeremiah O’Brien, to President Clinton as the last commercial ship-to-shore US telegraph message by Globe Wireless. Its final leg of transmission to the White House was by email.

What did the message say? The same words Morse sent more than a century and a half earlier: “What hath God wrought?”

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If you would like to translate your own message into Morse code, try this handy website.