Fact or fiction: Myths about telegrams

Telegrams - and how they work - have often been the subject of urban legends. Can you separate fact from fiction? Test your knowledge with these commonly-heard myths about telegrams.

Myth: The “last telegram in the world” was sent in July, 2013 in India

Status: False

The real story: In July 2013, the Christian Science Monitor ran a story that mistakenly concluded that when India's state-run telegram service closed that summer, it meant the end of telegrams not only in India, but everywhere. The fact is, telegram service is still widely available in most countries on earth - even in India. The Christian Science Monitor did publish a retraction for the obvious mistake, but by then the bogus story had been picked up and re-published by Fox News and USA Today, and eventually spread to several reputable news outlets - even though a simple web search would have easily busted this myth. To this day, some people still believe the urban legend that telegrams no longer exist. Wrong!

Myth: Telegrams aren't popular anymore

Status: False

The real story: World-wide, around 17 million telegrams are sent every year. Text messages and e-mails might be fine for a quick ‘hello’, but when it comes to urgent hand-delivered messages, the telegram is still the king of communication. Speaking of kings, it's no surprise that lots of the telegrams we handle are from royalty and government. And when someone receives a real telegram, they feel like royalty! That's why telegrams are always in fashion at weddings, celebrations, and for expressing gratitude, love or sympathy. Telegrams are also used for important legal notifications and contract cancellations. We retain copies of every telegram sent for seven years, so unlike a letter or electronic message, the contents of a telegram can be legally verified - even years after it was sent.

Myth: Morse invented the telegraph

Status: False

The real story: In May 1844, Samuel F.B. Morse successfully designed an electrical telegraph and used it to send the message “WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT” between Baltimore, Maryland and Washington D.C., effectively inaugurating telegram service in the United States. However, Morse had learned about telegraphy in Britain, where William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone had already developed a working electrical telegraph. Cooke and Wheatstone's five-needle telegraph circuit was established between Paddington and West Drayton in England in 1838 - some six years before Morse sent his famous message. Morse's design did prove to be a more elegant solution, so while not the first, in time it became the most popular.

Myth: Morse code is dead

Status: False

The real story: Speaking of Morse, the code that he developed with his associate Alfred Vail is still very much in use - although not in commercial telegrams. Even back in the 1930s, Morse telegram circuits were being replaced by faster and more efficient technologies such as the teletypewriter. By the 1980s, telex lines and packet-switched data networks had completely replaced the clack-clack of the old telegraph sounder and key. Still, Morse code is far from dead. Amateur radio hobbyists use Morse code to transmit messages on short-wave across the globe because it requires much less transmission power than voice does. Air navigation beacons and other radio systems use Morse code for station identifications. And people with a variety of disabilities are making use of Morse code as an assistive technology to communicate.

Myth: Telegrams used STOP in place of punctuation because punctuation cost extra

Status: False

The real story: Morse code originally had only capital letters and no punctuation. This generally was not much of a problem, but during the first world war when telegrams were widely used in the military, a misunderstood message could be disastrous. The custom arose of using the word STOP between sentences in military telegrams so that any ambiguous phrases would not be misinterpreted. The custom caught on with the public. Even after punctuation was introduced, people continued fashionably using STOP between sentences in telegrams even though they didn't have to.

Myth: Titanic survivors were charged $1 per word to send telegrams from their lifeboat. One man used his last dollar to send the word ‘Safe’ to his mother.

Status: Mostly false

The real story: This often-repeated “fun fact” has a big problem. The radiotelegraph on the Titanic was a massive spark-gap generator. The equipment took up several rooms and relied on four 400-foot long aerials. Obviously, it wouldn't fit on a lifeboat! This myth can be traced back to an interview with Titanic survivor Miss Elizabeth Dowdell, whose account was published in the Hudson Observer (20th of April 1912). She tells of Titanic survivors rescued by the passenger ship Carpathia. Some survivors sent radiograms from on board the Carpathia, but these were very expensive ($3.12 minimum, in 1912 money). Other survivors sent telegrams as soon as the Carpathia arrived in New York on the 18th of April. Miss Dowdell recalled “One man, a barber, had but $1.25 with him, and he handed over one dollar of this to send the word ‘safe’ to his mother.” This was upon arrival in New York when “[the] tug came alongside to take off any messages” from the Carpathia. The messages were written down on Marconi Company paper forms, and shuttled to the Marconi office in New York to be cabled. Neat story, but no one actually sent telegrams from the lifeboats!

Myth: Telegraphy was like a Victorian version of the Internet

Status: True

The real story: Telegraphy in the 1800s was the earliest form of electronic data communication. Telegraphers created a new language, one of strange abbreviations that only they, and perhaps some wire service journalists, understood. 73, for example, meant goodbye; 30 was the number placed at the end of a news story to signify the end. Telegraphers could send “instant messages” to each other, and in the days of teletypewriters, exchanged “ASCII art” long before the computer was invented! For more information, read the book The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage.

Have you got any telegram myths that you've heard or wondered about? Questions about telegrams or how they work? We'd love to hear from you. Contact us!

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