THE TELEGRAM. R.I.P.

She spotted me walking towards the cottage door. A look of terror came to her face.  As a telegram delivery boy, I’d seen that look many times before – people seldom sent frivolous telegrams.  The door, the kind commonly found in Irish cottages at the time, had the top open to let the air in and the bottom closed to keep the egg supply outside. She looked like she was trying to rush towards me, yet the fear made her hold herself back. Finally she reached the door and, after wiping her wet hands on a tea towel, she took the envelope from me.  She fumbled with it for a bit. The panic had travelled from her face to her hands.

As she fumbled, she looked to me for a clue whether it was good or bad news but I couldn’t help. Finally, she managed to get the telegram out and she read it several times, breathing heavily and mumbling to herself. After a few moments, tears began to roll down her cheeks and she fell hard to her knees. I was a bit worried about her knees; she was a large lady. After what seemed like an age, she looked skywards and clasped her hands in prayer and a semi-smile broke out on her face. By then, I’d guessed the news wasn’t as bad as she’d feared. Message delivered, I turned to walk back down the path.

The Telegram. Truly key messages.

The Telegram. Truly key messages.

The world’s last telegram has just been sent in India, a 19th century technology rendered redundant in the digital age. As a teenager, I had delivered telegrams in semi-rural Ireland. A key perk of the role was a bicycle as a company vehicle. A career delivering key messages, initially as a journalist and then in communications, became inevitable after that.

Telegrams, arguably the first form of data communications, were charged for by the word, causing users to perfect short messages long before Twitter re-trained us to be brief.  The majority carried news of illness and death, or births and money transfers. Telegrams carried weight. The attack on Pearl Harbour was announced by telegram, as was Mark Twain’s suggestion that reports of his death were exaggerated. News of the Wright Brother’s first successful flight in North Carolina was also conveyed by telegram.

With instantaneous communicators in almost every pocket, the business of the telegram, first based on Morse code and more recently using electronic devices, had grown unsustainable, another victim of the digital revolution like the typewriter, the hand written holiday postcard and the bank book.

For all the benefits, the social progress and the economic wellbeing that digital technology has brought us, I can’t help feeling that we’re losing something along the way.  Important messages have lost much of their importance, lost in a blizzard of email, social media postings and digital missives, modern day needles in the giant haystack that is the digital economy. We have become a little de-sensitized, numb to the noise as we’re carried along on the digital waves.

The important seems less important, somehow, and more difficult to find. The important, both good and bad, has been replaced with a race to do more, say more and view more. It typically adds up to less.

Maybe we need to find ways to reclaim the personal news that’s truly important. The telegram (1844 – 2013).  Rest in Peace.

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  • Alan Burkitt-Gray

    My late mother-in-law used to look almost as alarmed and disturbed when the phone (out near the front door, on a low table) rang. For her, the phone was just a different form of telegram. People rang only if they had bad news.