Telegrams Give Way to Email

Late last month the last telegram was sent–the very last telegram.

For those of you who are too young to have experienced the telegram, it is was a quaint typed message sent by telegraph lines (through Morse code) and delivered to one’s home by a human messenger. It existed before the telephone and, of course, before email, instant messaging, and text messaging. And now it’s extinct.

People who sent telegrams paid by the word, and punctuation cost extra. Therefore, rather than a period (full stop) at the end of a sentence, the word stop appeared. This word led to many telegram jokes, with lines like this one:

YOU SAID YOU LOVE ME STOP DON’T STOP

One of the few telegrams I ever received was many years ago, from my then-boyfriend who was away traveling in Europe. When I received the telegram, I was looking forward to his return. The message said only:

BE HOME SATURDAY 5 PM STOP WILL CALL STOP

I was pleased to know that he would be home so soon, and I carefully prepared for his return. I planned to pick him up as soon as he phoned from the airport in Boston, Massachusetts.

When he phoned at 5 p.m., I asked, "Where shall I pick you up?" and he responded, "What do you mean?" When I then asked, "Where are you?" he said, "In England." 

I couldn’t understand why he had written me that he would be home when, in fact, he was in England. But then I reread the telegram. "Be home," it said. And I realized he was telling me to be home.

Now that I think back on this message, I realize that telegrams really were the precursor of the modern email message: often misunderstood!

In an excellent National Public Radio (NPR) broadcast, I learned that the telegram is the only modern-day communication technology that has become extinct. After all, we still talk on the telephone, listen to the radio, watch TV, attend movies, and type letters and memos despite our ability to get thumb cramps sending text messages.

For some reason, I’m a bit wistful about the disappearance of the telegram, even though I haven’t received one in decades. Do you think we will ever feel that way about email?

Lynn
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Other search spellings: telegramme, emial