01 February 2006 by Published in: General musings No comments yet

The following statement now appears on the web site of Western Union: “Effective January 27, 2006, Western Union will discontinue all Telegram and Commercial Messaging services. We regret any inconvenience this may cause you, and we thank you for your loyal patronage. ” This means that there is no company left in the United States that offers telegram services.

The telegram, of course, has become obsolete. The downhill slide began with the deregulation of long distance telephone services–cheap long distance meant that people slowed down their use of telegrams. Then, the advent of cell phones, the Internet, and e-mail all combined to make telegrams completely obsolete. There really is no reason to use telegrams any more, and Western Union made a logical and reasonable business decision that I cannot really criticize.

At the same time, the advent of the telegram was a major technological leap forward. During the Civil War, the telegram provided the primary means of communication between armies in the field and the national command authority back in Washington and Richmond. The speed of telegraph communication–nearly instantaneous–made it possible for information to flow quickly and easily and for commanders to keep their respective presidents abreast of situations as they played out. I spend a lot of time working in the Official Records, and I know that a large percentage of the correspondence that is included in the OR was transmitted by telegraph and not by mail or by courier. From a technological standpoint, the telegraph was a quantum leap forward that played a significant role in the progression of the Civil War.

However, technology inevitably marches on. Next came the telephone, which was even more instantaneous because it did not require a telegraph operator to translate. Then came wireless radios, which untethered commanders in the field wanting to communicate with anyone. And now we have satellite communications and wireless Internet. The demise of the telegram was, therefore, inevitable.

That, however, does not mean that the end of an era isn’t noteworthy or worthy of commemorating. January 27, 2006 marked the end of an era, the severing of another tie with our past.

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