Until I learned there would be no more, that in fact there had been no telegrams in the U.S. for seven years, I had no idea how attached I was to telegrams, or the idea of telegrams, or the possibility of telegrams.
This past Sunday the last telegrams were sent in India, the last stronghold of telegrams; they announced births and deaths and offered congratulations. And then the Indian telegraph shut down for good.
Western Union, based in Colorado, ceased sending telegrams back in 2006 and I am chagrined that I never noted its passing. I would like to rectify that.
One of the more cumbersome (and hence delightful) methods of long distance communication I learned about was an electrochemical telegraph devised by Samuel Thomas von Sömmering in 1809. The process involved physically laying as many as 35 wires from one place to another, and submerging each end of the wires in a glass vial of acid, next to a card indicating which letter or number it represents. The transmitter applied eclectic current to his end of the wire, which caused the wire at the receiver’s end to release hydrogen bubbles. Then all you do is match up the bubbles to the letters and voilà, a message: Does your wife like aubergines?
But back to telegrams: Most of us consider Samuel Morse the progenitor of those filmy pieces of paper with words pasted onto them. In 1837 Morse patented an electrical telegraph capable of sending long and short signals (dits and dahs) across several miles of wire. That eponymous code was still considered a useful thing to learn when I was a kid; an uncle of ours once promised that he would give $5 to whichever of we cousins first learned Morse code one summer, and no, I was not the grand prize winner. But I am sure that in one of the Nancy Drew mysteries our heroine, trapped inside the trunk of a car by a wicked villain, was able to pound out the Morse code to signal her plight, and was rescued. Or maybe it was another plucky heroine.
Then came Tesla and Marconi and wireless telegraphy, and the terse but potent messages in what we recognize as telegraphese. In their brevity telegrams can be compared to Tweets, with their 140-character limit. Brevity was important because telegraph companies charged by the word and the beauty of that is the burden of making every word earn its keep. Though I was surprised to learn that the word STOP was free, while punctuation of any kind cost extra, hence the punctuation-less messages with their frequent STOPS.
Like our email and telephone communications (viz. Snowden’s NSA leakage) telegrams were easily intercepted and not exactly secure. So codes were developed, like the one used in this telegram of 1920 I discovered in the parental basement, dating to the days when my grandfather was a cotton merchant in Boston traveling often to Europe. And this one upon which someone, presumably a secretary, has kindly typed the translation. Also in the dusty piles of papers was a key to the code. There is much to wonder about: had my grandfather memorized this list of randomized letters? Did he carry the key secreted on his person, in some hidden pocket or the false bottom of his valise? Just how cutthroat was the cotton business in the 1920’s such that these precautions were deemed necessary?
Also in a cabinet in the parental basement, in a pile mercifully left un-nibbled by the mice, was a stack of congratulatory telegrams sent on the occasion of my parents’ betrothal. Many of them were sent from friends in Cairo to my mother, then a student at Smith, care of the home of her husband to be, the home she still lives in. The best thing about these telegrams is that on each one my beloved grandmother wrote the name and address of the sender, presumably so that my mother could send a proper thank you note. Just to see my Bonne-Maman’s unmistakable Belgian convent script fills me with longing.For the time I am holding these perishable pieces of old paper, she is entirely present: lovely, kind and toujours well-organized.
And now, all relics.