Western Union Ends Telegraph Service STOP

You might call Western Union one of the first companies to ride the boom in information technology: back in April, 1856, Western Union launched a service exploiting a very hot communication technology: the telegraph. Western Union’s claim to fame was their ability to send a message from one end of the U.S. to the other in less than a day. In 1861, the company finished its first transcontinental telegraph line, and since then it’s been getting more and more difficult to find some peace and quiet.

Sadly, those heady days of the (dare I say it?) dot-dash-dot boom are now officially over: Western Union has shut down its telegraph service as of January 27, 2006.

Some might argue the telegraph is an outmoded form of communication, what with telephones, mobiles, satellite communications, SMS, text messages, blogs, Web sites, RSS, and (of course) email, there are many ways to cheaply (and quickly!) send messages across town and around the world. But those people have surely never opened their door to a courier bearing one of those trademark yellow Western Union envelopes, let alone sent a telegram. In the last few years, they cost about $10 to send, and, within the U.S. and many parts of the world, usually arrived within a day.

Telegrams reached their peak in popularity between World War I and World War II, when it was far cheaper to send a telegram to a distant place than try to make a long distance phone call through a byzantine series of operators and switches. During World War II, however, people came to dread the sight of a Western Union courier, since the War Department (now known as the Department of Defense) sent death notifications via Western Union.

Like today’s text messages and email conventions, telegrams evolved their own forms of social engineering. Back in the day, punctuation cost extra in telegrams but a four-character word was no additional charge, so senders would end sentences with the word STOP rather than a period. Way Gr8! Although telegram use declined in recent decades (only about 20,000 were sent in 2004), some businesses still used them for formal communication, and individuals sometimes couldn’t resist the allure. Western Union mostly phased out courier service beginning in the 1970s, but up until 2001 telegrams were occasionally hand-delivered from local offices. And, in a high-tech twist, in more recent years customers could send telegrams via the Western Union Web page.