Western Union sent it’s last telegram January 27, 2006. In its day, a telegram was faster than Pony Express and cheaper than long distance telephone. The telegram introduced a language of its own, truncated, abbreviated, often without verbs, just the essentials. Delivering news of war, tragedy, wonderful successes and congratulatory messages. A telegram had importance, impact.
Think of a telegram as the predecessor to SMS and Twitter but printed out in a central office on a clacking mechanical printer and delivered in person in an envelope and sent via a technology that endured and evolved from a simple idea. Morse recognized the potential implications of the invention of the electromagnet. He pursued the idea of sending electrical signals realizing that he could use on and off to transmit a message and a new digital communications technology was born. Advances in technology spurred commercial successes and the growth of Western Union. Western Union strung cables across the country and sent messages via radio to ships at sea; it submerged cables under the Atlantic Ocean using its own fleet of ships. In 1869 it introduced the first successful stock ticker (invented by a then employee, Thomas Edison). Western Union introduced the first commercial satellite the Westar 1, in 1974; then EasyLink email in 1982.
The Western Union corporate website provides a brief history of the company. A milestone such as completing a coast to coast transmission line across North America is a fascinating history on its own, with teams of people setting poles and wires across uncharted wilderness. According to an account by Bob Pollard, a right of way negotiation with Russia led to a surprise offer to sell Alaska to the United States. Western Union explored the Alaskan territory and the United States concluded the purchase. With the acquisition, Western Union obtained an overland route as an alternative to undersea cables.
The United States was growing westward along with the telegraph and the railroads. As rail travel reduced transit time between distant places, considerable confusion arose because of the difference between local time and railroad time. Timekeeping was not standardized and Western Union took on an important role in synchronizing clocks. The Electrical Review Volume 42 number 4 describes in detail how the clocks were synchronized with electrical signals and relays and mentions that jewelers and ships relied on this service while other references mention the strict regulation of timekeeping on the nation’s rail lines.
According to NBC News, “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.”