Before mobile phones, before texts, before email or Twitter, urgent news was transmitted by telegram. But today’s new technology has done for the telegram and, on 14th July 2013, the world’s last-ever public service telegram will wing its way down the wires, in India.
It will be a nostalgic day for some, including me: my debut novel is entitled The Last Telegram, and relies on this form of communication for some of its highest dramatic moments. It is set in the early years of the Second World War, when receiving a telegram was a sure signal of bad news. I cannot imagine anything worse than hearing, as my heroine Lily did, that a loved one is: ‘Missing, presumed dead.’ It meant that she would have to wait months before knowing, definitively, that all hope was lost. And that she was unlikely even to have the consolation of finding a body to mourn over.
More recently we’ve come to associate telegrams with happier events such as weddings and birthdays. I still treasure a telegram sent (from Majorca) by my parents to celebrate my university degree results, which reads: MUCHOS CONGRATULATIONS YOUR EXCELLENT RESULT STOP. I remember the thrill it gave me, so much more exciting than a letter, arriving so fast (within a few hours!) and in that iconic ticker-tape typeface.
The first telegram ever sent, by Samuel Morse more than 144 years ago, is said to have read: ‘What hath God wrought?’ To us it hardly seems that dramatic, but until the advent of the telegram the fastest way of sending a message was by train and/or ship, so it was a huge step change in the speed of communications at the time. What would he have made, I wonder, of the deluge of emails and texts most of us manage each day? As we open up our inboxes we might sigh, ‘What, indeed, hath our deities wrought?’
The shortest telegram in the English language was from the Irish writer Oscar Wilde, then living in Paris, who cabled his publisher in Britain to see how his new book was doing. The message read: ‘?’ The publisher cabled back: ‘!’ In 1897 another author, the American Mark Twain, heard that his obituary had been published erroneously and famously sent the message: ‘The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated’.
Telegrams have played significant roles in history. The first successful air flight, by the Wright brothers, was announced by telegram from North Carolina in 1903. ‘Successful four flights Thursday morning’. Nine years later, one early morning in 1912, the Titanic sent its last wireless message. ‘SOS SOS CQD CQD Titanic. We are sinking fast. Passengers are being put into boats’. America was spurred to join the First World War after the interception of the Zimmermann Telegram. Sent on 17th January1917 urging the Mexicans to join the war as Germany’s ally against the USA, it was intercepted by the US security services (shades of today’s rumpus about GCHQ here!) and President Wilson, who had previously wanted to stay out of the war, then used the telegram to gain support for American intervention.
John F. Kennedy used to joke during his 1960 presidential campaign that he had just received a telegram from his father. ‘Dear Jack: Don’t buy one more vote than necessary. I’ll be damned if I’ll pay for a landslide.’
I also love the telegram reportedly sent by the artist Marc Chagall after the beautiful stained glass windows (above) that he created for the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem were damaged in the 6-day war of 1967. In reply to a telegram from the Israeli military leader Moshe Dayan expressing his regret for the damage, Chagall wrote: ‘You fix the war, I’ll fix the windows.’
One day, emails and text messages will themselves be superseded by the latest technology, but they will never hold the same place in our history as the telegram. All records of today’s most important missives will be lost in cyberspace.