On January 27, 2006, Western Union discontinued its 155 year-old telegraph service. Telegrams became a very important mode of communication through the 20th century and became the standard conveyor of good and bad news.
The very first telegram was sent by the inventor of the Morse Code, Samuel Morse. On May 26, 1844, he sent his partner Alfred Vail a telegram that read “WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT?” ushering in an era in which the telegram would rule the roost and completely displace the Pony Express. The telegram was sent from the Supreme Court chamber in the Capitol in Washington, D.C., to the B & O Railroad Depot in Baltimore, Maryland. The system of dots and dashes used in telegraph transmission, developed by Morse and Vail underwent much change and standardization to form the American Morse in 1844. This was soon internationally adopted and adapted to form the International Morse.
A number of American telegraph companies founded in 1851 eventually went on to merge to become Western Union Telegraph Company based in Englewood Village, Colorado. In 1861 the Western Union built its first transcontinental telegraph line.
Western Union launched its telegram service in 1861. Since then, telegrams have been bringing all sorts of announcements from happy tidings to terrible news the world over. By the 1920s and 1930s telegrams had gained immense popularity and were considered a standard form of communication. Many corporations adopted telegram as the mode of delivering official announcements. Most people preferred to send telegrams since sending a telegram cost less than a long-distance telephone call. People used the word “stop” instead of periods to signify the end of a sentence because punctuation cost was extra while the word “stop” was written without any additional cost.
Telegrams were used to announce some of the most momentous occurrences through modern history. In 1903, it was used to announce the first flight. In 1912, with the sinking of the Titanic, the SS Carpathia sent a telegram to the New York offices of the White Star Line. The telegram read “Deeply regret advise your Titanic sunk this morning fifteenth after collision iceberg resulting serious loss life further particulars later.” In 1914, telegrams were used to announce the start of World War I. During World War II, telegrams were dreaded and the sight of a Western Union telegram delivery brought fears since the US War Department used the service to notify families of military personnel about the death of their loved ones. The popularity of the Western Union evolved into the standardized Cablegrams
The slash in long distance calling rates, and the advent of technological innovations such as email and text messaging ended the days of telegram. In 1994, Western Union was acquired by First Financial Management Corporation which was in turn acquired by First Data Corporation. The company announced the end to its telegraphy service with this message on its website “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. If you have any questions or concerns, please contact a customer service representative.” According to the company only about 20,000 telegrams had been sent in its last year of telegraphy each at a cost of about $10. Most of these came from companies using telegraph services for formal notifications. The last few telegrams included birthday wishes, emergency notifications, and condolences.
The Western Union Telegraph Company is currently Western Union Holdings and is now a financial services provider that deals in electronic money transfers and fax services. Western Union has offices in over 100,000 locations across the globe.
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