Today is the anniversary of the first telegram sent on May 24, 1844 from the Capitol in Washington to Baltimore. The famous first message tapped out on morse code was "What hath God wrought?" a reference from the Old Testament, specifically Numbers 23:23.
Credit for inventing the electric telegraph and the code used for sending telegrams goes to American Samuel F. B. Morse (1791-1872). On a trip to Europe, Morse had seen the semaphoric telegraph set up by Claude Chappe in 1791. The Chappe system was made up of a network of 120 towers that could relay a message from Paris to the Mediterranean in less than an hour – that’s faster than any messenger can travel on horseback. Morse’s dream was to relay message via sound instead of sight, and his success revolutionized communication: for the first time two people could communicate instantly over long distances without seeing each other (1, 2).
Before the advent of inexpensive telephone service, telegrams were the primary way of relaying both good news and bad news. To get a sense of how telegrams worked, we’ll use a modern analogy: Imagine that in order to send email you had to go to a third party (called Western Union) and pay by the word for each word in your message. Punctuation cost more than words; as a result, the word "stop" was used at the end of a sentence instead of a period.
The advent of the information Age made telegrams an anachronism, but strangely they were not discontinued until after the beginning of the new millennium. Western Union discontinued its telegraph service on January 27, 2006.
Today’s Challenge: Historic Telegrams Stop
When Western Union discontinued its service, the New York Times did a retrospective on famous and infamous telegrams taken from the book Telegram! by Linda Rosendrantz. See if you can match up the description of each telegram with the correct message.
1. This message was sent by humorist Robert Benchley to his editor Harold Ross. It was his first visit to a major Italian city?
2. This message was sent by Mark Twain to his publisher.
3. This probably mythical telegraph was supposedly sent in 1897 by William Randolph Hearst to one of his photographers covering the Spanish-American War.
4. This telegram was sent by Edward Teller after the first hydrogen bomb detonation.
5. This telegram was sent by Mark Twain in 1897. Twain was traveling in Europe and heard that his obituary had been published in an American newspaper.
6. Oscar Wilde purportedly sent this telegram to his publisher, asking about sales of his new novel. The publisher responded with equally brief reply: "!"
7. Arthur Conan Doyle purportedly sent this telegram to a dozen prominent men, all of whom packed up and left town immediately.
8. This telegram was drafted but never sent in 1950 by President Harry Truman to Senator Joseph McCarthy after the senator claimed to "have in my possession the names of 57 communists who are in the state department at present."
A. FLEE AT ONCE — ALL IS DISCOVERED.
B. IT SHOWS CONCLUSIVELY THAT YOU ARE NOT EVEN FIT TO HAVE A HAND IN THE OPERATION OF THE GOVERNMENT OF THE UNITED STATES. I AM VERY SURE THAT THE PEOPLE OF WISCONSIN ARE EXTREMELY SORRY THAT THEY ARE REPRESENTED BY A PERSON WHO HAS AS LITTLE SENSE OF RESPONSIBILITY AS YOU HAVE.
C. THE REPORTS OF MY DEATH ARE GREATLY EXAGGERATED.
D. NO CAN DO 2 PAGES TWO DAYS. CAN DO 30 PAGES 2 DAYS. NEED 30 DAYS TO DO 2 PAGES.
E. IT'S A BOY
G. YOU FURNISH THE PICTURES, AND I'LL FURNISH THE WAR.
H. STREETS FULL OF WATER. PLEASE ADVISE.
Quote of the Day: Genius is no more than childhood recaptured at will. --Charles Baudelaire
1. H 2. D 3. G 4. E. 5. C 6. F 7. A 8. B
1 – Baron, Naomi S. From Alphabet to Email: How Written English Evolved and Where It’s Heading. London: Routledge, 2000.
2 – Yenne, Bill. 100 Events that Shaped World History. San Francisco: Bluewood Books, 1993.
3 – Roberts, Sam "Dot-Dot-Dot, Dash-Dash-Dash, No More. New York Times. 12 Feb. 2006. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/12/weekinreview/12word.html?ex=1297400400&en=880efbcdfb77da7e&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss