India, the last place in which telegrams are routinely sent, is to withdraw its telegraphy service on 14 July 2013. From 15 July, BSNL which operates the telegram services in India will discontinue the 163-year-old service. The telegraph service started in 1851 when the British East India Company built a 30-mile (48km) electric telegraph line from the city of Calcutta to its suburb of Diamond Harbour, primarily for official use. Over the next few years, telegraph lines were expanded to cover the entire country as a way of linking up the vast reaches of the subcontinent for its trade and administration. The service was opened for public use in 1855. It was later on extensively used for India’s freedom movement, also.
The world’s first ever telegram was sent by Samuel F.B. Morse, inventor of the Morse Code, from Washington to Baltimore on 26 May 1844, to his partner Alfred Vail to usher in the telegram era that displaced the Pony Express. It read:
WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT?
In India, telegraph services were introduced by William O’Shaughnessy, a British doctor and inventor who used a different code in 1850 to send a message.
Before the invention of the telephone, the telegram was the first system that allowed the more-or-less instant transmission of electronic messages over long distances. It was the text-messaging service of its age, an invention as awe-inspiring in its time as electricity, flight and the moving image. For the 19th and 20th centuries, its short messages, worked into Morse code and out into language again, then delivered by postmen, connected human beings in faraway places.
The electronic impulses from the sender’s machine — Morse code became the commonest system — were translated into text at the receiving end, first by human operator and then eventually by machine. The printed text was then delivered to the ultimate recipient — post offices all over the world employed armies of telegram boys on bicycles. The technology created a certain style of writing — just like text messaging. And because telegrams were expensive — you paid per word — there was always pressure to come up with phrases that literally displayed economy of language.
Oscar Wilde is believed to have sent the shortest ever telegram in history, asking his publisher how his new book was doing. The message read simply: “?” The reply was equally concise: “!”
When American author Mark Twain heard that his obituary had been published, he sent a telegram from London in 1897 saying: “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”.
The first successful flight, by the Wright brothers, was announced by telegram from North Carolina in 1903. “Successful four flights Thursday morning.”
John F. Kennedy used to joke during his 1960 presidential campaign that he had just received a telegram from his father. “Dear Jack: Don’t buy one more vote than necessary. I’ll be damned if I pay for a landslide.”
The arrival of a telegram could make the heart skip a beat or the stomachs tighten. As a child growing up in New Delhi in the 1970s, I always felt a sense of foreboding every time a knock on the door announced the arrival of a telegram. My parents would be visibly worried as telegrams usually brought bad news, like the death of a relative.
After joining Punjab National Bank as Management Trainee in 1985, we were sent to various parts of India for training. We then used to communicate to our family often through telegrams. It was brief and fast, but communicate the whole message. Text messages can never convey that air of urgency and excitement. We also miss the compression that the cost of sending a telegram necessitated. Some of them make Twitter look verbose. I also liked the way the message was printed on a thin strip of paper that was then pasted on a larger sheet to be delivered to the addressee.
While working in bank, I have sent and received many urgent messages and encrypted telegrams for financial transactions and some of them with test keys for authenticity of authorised message. Even we used to wire our key figures to Regional Office after closing of each half-year. We used to have code books and formulas to manually generate the test key and then that was suffixed to the codified message for sending via telegram. On receiving the tested and encrypted telegrams, we used to decipher the codes, test keys and match with contents to apply the message. This is the reason that quick funds transfers are known as wire transfers or TT (Telegraphic Transfers) and these terms still continue!
Arguably one of the oldest victims of the digital age, telegrams were the fastest and most reliable communication method from the 19th century until the end of the 20th century. More than the Internet and email, it is the mobile phone that has led to the demise of the original character-constrained mode of communication. I have not sent a telegram since a long time but the thought of the service, although past its shelf life, makes me nostalgic. Yes, I feel nostalgia for its passing, taking down with it an entire matrix of technology, language and feeling that kept a door open to many Indian pasts. It’s end of an era. In Britain, telegrams came to an end in 1982 and Western Union continued telegraphy service in the US until 2006. It’s amazing that it survived so long!
But even as the telegram died out, it remained a part of popular culture.
Telegrams has the unique characteristic of typed capital letters and an abrupt “STOP” to mark the end of a sentence, and the sequence “NNNN” is an end of message indicator. ZCZC is the start of the message indicator.
15 July 2013
Hundreds of people thronged the 75 telegraph offices remaining in the country to send their last telegrams to friends or family as a keepsake. BSNL had to cancel holidays for staff at the offices to handle the rush.
The telegram counter closed at 11.45pm last night and the last message was booked at the counter of Central Telegraph Office (CTO) Janpath, New Delhi by one Ashwani Mishra, who sent messages to Rahul Gandhi and director general of DD news SM Khan.
P.S.: With telegrams becoming history, how will we communicate during times of Alien attack!