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
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.
Myth: Telegrams aren't popular anymore
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. 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
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
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
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
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!
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!