Thursday, February 02, 2006

Some things take longer to go away

Reading this story left me feeling strange -- not bad, just strange. It was reported that the last Western Union telegram was sent this week.

The company formed in April 1856 to exploit the hot technology of the telegraph to send cross-country messages in less than a day. It is now focusing its attention on money transfers and other financial services, and delivered its final telegram on Friday.

"The decision was a hard decision because we're fully aware of our heritage," Victor Chayet, a spokesman for the Greenwood Village-based company, said Wednesday. "But it's the final transition from a communications company to a financial services company."
Well, that's almost true -- The end of the original telegram service came in the early 1990's with the bankruptcy of Western Union Corporation's bankruptcy, and subsequent purchase by what became First Data. What ended Friday was a newer commercial message service floated by First Data using the Western Union brand.

I am just old enough to remember telegrams -- for example the pads of Western Union forms that were always around hotel lobbies (with the famous disclaimers on the back). The last real telegram that I remember was one my grandmother sent to us on Christmas when we were stationed in Germany. I've never sent one myself, that I remember. But the Morse's electric telegraph (there were others before, using different signaling technology, such as semaphores) created a boom much like the internet (there even is a rather good book on the topic, The Victorian Internet). Even more, within 20 years of its invention there was a network of telegraph lines on more than one continent, and a desire that these be tied together into a truly global network. That took a lot more work and time, with lots of failures along the way. The internet works largely over direct cable links, not satellites. We figured out how to lay those cables to connect telegraph networks.

In fact, one can really say that the telegram has not gone away, but the telegraph company has. The capability was created with the first telegraph to move text over a wire. That technology developed into teletype, telephones, telex, TWX, AUTODIN, and fairly directly to dial up networks and the internet itself. There is no need for a telegraph company if email is available -- the 21st century telegraph. Lots of other technologies are flashier, but email remains the fundamental "killer app" of the internet.

The last 10 telegrams?
Last week, the last 10 telegrams included birthday wishes, condolences on the death of a loved one, notification of an emergency, and several people trying to be the last to send a telegram.

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