What it was, in the beginning, was astonishing. The telegraph meant that human communication could, for the first time ever, travel faster than humans could carry a message from one place to the next. A wire was faster than a pony or a boat. It was, for all practical purposes, instantaneous. “There is nothing now left for invention to achieve but to discover news before it takes place,” one New-York Herald reporter declared of the telegraph’s achievement in 1844.
As in the grand history of technological curmudgeonry, not everyone was dazzled. The New York Times, in 1858, called the telegraph “trivial and paltry,” also “superficial, sudden, unsifted, too fast for the truth.” The writer and cultural critic Matthew Arnold referred to the transatlantic telegraph in 1903 as, “that great rope, with a Philistine at each end of it talking in-utilities!”
By then, the telegraph was both well-established and taken for granted. The earliest electric telegraph systems involved numbered needles on a board that, when a transmission came in, pointed to corresponding letters of the alphabet. One such device, along Britain’s Great Western Railway, became the first commercial telegraph in the world in 1838.
The telegraph that set the standard in the United States was an electric device that Samuel Morse was developing around the same time; a system that transmitted electric signals that were then interpreted and handwritten by a human receiver. By the 1850s, a system that automatically printed telegrams was introduced, but humans were still required to help send the message in the first place. In the 1930s, that part of the process became automated, too.
Today, you go online if you want to send one, which, sure, is where you go for basically anything you want to do in 2016.
First I tried iTelegram. It cost $18.95 and was supposed to take three to five business days to deliver a message to my editor, Ross, in The Atlantic’s newsroom in Washington, D.C. The company says on its website that it operates some of the old networks, like Western Union’s, that used to be major players in the telegram game. It plays up the novelty aspect, suggesting a telegram as a good keepsake on someone’s wedding day, for instance. It also leans on the nostalgia factor. “The smart way to send an important message since 1844.” Worldwide delivery guaranteed!
Three weeks passed, and my telegram still had not arrived. My Slack messages (the modern equivalent of a telegram, I suppose) to Ross had gone from: “Keep your eyes peeled for a telegram!” to “Did you ever get my telegram?” to “still no sign of the telegram!?” to “telegrams, not that impressive, actually.”
I requested a refund. [Update: The telegram arrived! It was postmarked December 21, the day I ordered it, but didn’t show up in Ross’s mailbox until February 1. It’s not clear what happened in the interim, but iTelegram blames the delay on The Atlantic’s mailroom.]