Today the Last Telegram; Tomorrow the Last Tweet

Time to mark a technological changing of the guard: Indians have sent their last telegrams. After today, a medium that knitted the subcontinent together in the days before broadband and mobile phones will be no more:

On July 14, the last for the Central Telegraph Office in the Indian capital, most of the telegrams carried nostalgic messages and good wishes for loved ones. By late Sunday, with just a few hours to go before the doors closed for good, 1,500 telegrams had been processed – compared to 10 to 20 on any other day.

An employee for 31 years, Jagdish Chand joked the telegraph service would never have incurred huge losses and be shut down had it seen crowds like this through the years.

Still, he said he is proud to be part of a communication mode that carried messages during India’s fight for independence and was a vital part of Indians’ day-to-day life.

In its day, the telegraph was transformative technology, altering everything from the business environment (the stock market-monitoring “ticker tape” was an automated telegraph receiver) to the conduct of war (the American Civil War was run by telegraph) to journalism (the telegraph made real-time news from across the world a possibility for the first time). Combined with contemporary technology like the railroad and the steamship, it connected us into the first truly global economy.

And like certain other digital (“dot-dash” = “zero-one”) communications media I can think of, the telegraph created a whole new cohort of information workers, hired for their much-needed skills rather than their connections. The the telegraph machine didn’t care whether its operator’s father was a beggar or a king! As described in The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers, the telegraph offered ambitious young men (and sometimes women) entry into a technological elite — a classic meritocracy. Guess where Thomas Edison got his start….

In the article quoted above, also note that Indian telegraph operator Jagdish Chand brought up its role in the Indian resistance movement against British rule…something that also should sound familiar to anyone who’s followed the power of online social channels in the Arab Spring revolts, the Occupy Movement, the Tea Party, and on and on.

But now the telegraph’s time has come — manually tapping out dots and dashes over a copper wire just won’t cut it in the era of text messages and video-on-demand. The need for simple and direct one-to-one communications media hasn’t disappeared, though, since our everyday tools from email to Twitter Direct Messages to online chat are at some level simply the telegraph’s descendents. Like it, one day they’ll send their last…and the communities of technologists they’ve created will have to move on, as their predecessors did. Remember, my friends, thou art mortal too.


Written by
Colin Delany
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