Monday, February 13, 2006

Communication Milestone Passed

I am sure many of you know that a communications milestone was passed last week. The last actual telegram was sent and received.

(Samuel B. Morse, the inventor of the telegraph, sent the first telegram from Washington to Baltimore on May 24, 1844. He wrote: "What hath God wrought." Some reports say that an earlier telegram was sent in Britain in 1826 - "Bravo," it said. However, the technology didn't catch on for almost 20 more years. )

Years ago, when not every house had a telephone, and cellphones were science fiction, important family news usually came in telegrams. Sometimes good news such as the birth of a baby was announced in this way, sometimes special congratulations were given importance by being sent this way; but more often it was bad news, like a death in the family, that was received by telegram. Most people of modest means assumed that the receipt of a telegram
required one to prepare to receive unwelcome news. For many years, telegrams bearing the ominous word "Greetings" called many young men into military service.

Telegrams tended to be very brief. After all, the sender was paying by the word. Words like “no” were put in front of other words as “un-”. So “no money” became “unmoney”. The most famous of such messages is from an editor who telegraphed a journalist: Why unnews? The journalist cabled back (playing upon the proverb "No news is good news."): Unnews. Good news. The editor was not happy. He sent another telegram saying:
Unnews. Unjob.

Here are other known (some possibly fictitious) telegrams recorded in the history of Western Union.

A reporter who was writing a piece on Cary Grant needed to know how old the actor was and sent this telegram to the actor : How old Cary Grant? To which Grant replied: Old Cary Grant fine. How you?

Humorist Robert Benchley, when he arrived for the first time in Venice, cabled New Yorker editor Harol Ross: Streets full of water. Please advise.

Some students read in the paper that the writer Rudyard Kipling was paid 50 British pounds per word for his writing. So they sent him 50 pounds and asked for a word. He sent this telegram back: Thanks.

President Kennedy, when he was runing for the presidency, jokingly quoted an imaginary telegram from his father: Dear Jack, don't buy one more vote than necessary. I'll be damned if I pay for a landslide.

Mark Twain received a telegram from a publisher: Need 2-page story two days. Twain replied: No can do 2 pages 2 days. Can do 30 pages 2 days. Need 30 days to do 2 pages. Conscientious writers understand this one.

Another archived telegram has been sometimes attributed to Victor Hugo, sometimes to Oscar Wilde. The author supposedly messaged his editor wanting to find out how sales of his latest book were going. The entire message was: ?
To which the editor replied: !

My appreciation to The Chicago Tribune for background information and to Roy Sorrells for additional examples.

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