I Tried to Send a Telegram in 2016

It didn’t work.

A Western Union telegram photographed in 1923 (Library of Congress)

I’ve never received a telegram. This realization, when it occurred to me recently, made me feel inexplicably nostalgic.

There are, after all, plenty of technological rituals in which I’ve never participated. I haven’t taken a daguerreotype, or asked a switchboard operator to connect me to a phone number with letters in it, or fired up a Victrola for some sweet tunes on the ole phonograph.

I grew up in an era when cassette tapes, fax machines, and long-distance telephone calls gave way to CDs, emails, and cellphones—only to be supplanted by MP3s, chat platforms, and smartphones. I still write letters. I will neither confirm nor deny having gone through a vinyl phase.

But telegrams! I could have sent one. And I didn’t seek them out until it was too late. Western Union closed its telegraphy service a decade ago. (“The last 10 telegrams included birthday wishes, condolences on the death of a loved one, notification of an emergency, and several people trying to be the last to send a telegram,” the Associated Press reported of the closure in 2006.) These days, it’s nearly impossible—it may actually be impossible—to send one in the United States, even if you try.

I tried.

Sending a telegram in 2016 is not what it was in the 1850s, or even 1950s for that matter.

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.]

Next, I tried Telegram Stop. It cost $29.65 and promised delivery within four to eight business days. Eight business days passed. Still no telegram. It was, apparently, being sent to Washington from Melbourne, Australia. But Telegram Stop—which assured me it was “very concerned” about the “very disappointing” news of my telegram’s disappearance—didn’t know what happened. [Update: The second telegram arrived on February 4! I wrote about it here.]

“Telegram Stop relies on the services of Standard International Postal Networks for delivery,” the email I received read. “For unforeseen reasons the delivery via the USPS has been delayed.”

Which is funny, really, because it turns out—and I should have appreciated this sooner, I know—I wasn’t sending a telegram at all. I was, apparently, sending a letter that looked like a telegram, first over the Internet and then by the postal service. Which, because I had already received a digital preview of the telegram when I ordered it, I could have just emailed—or texted, or Facebook messaged, or, you know, published to the Internet in an article for The Atlantic.

Sorry you never received this telegram, Ross. (Adrienne LaFrance)

My message, naturally, features some old telegram humor. (The salutation is actually a telephone joke.) “What hath god wrought,” is what Morse transmitted over an experimental line from Washington to Baltimore in 1844, and what’s widely celebrated as the first telegraphic message in the U.S. These words were, according to numerous 19th-century accounts, suggested to Morse by Annie Ellsworth, the young daughter of the federal Patents commissioner. Annie got the idea from her mother. (The line originally comes from the Old Testament’s Book of Numbers.)

Here is, according to a Morse-code translation website, what the original message would have looked like in Morse code:

.-- .... .- - / .... .- - .... / --. --- -.. / .-- .-. --- ..- --. .... -

And here’s the original paper transmission—with the the message transcribed by hand, though difficult to read—kept by the Library of Congress:

Here’s a close-up:

One curious footnote: There are scattered accounts that argue there were earlier telegraphic messages sent by Morse. A 1923 New York Times article quotes a man who says, citing an anonymous source, that the real first message was sent near Washington Square Park, over a wire from one New York University classroom to another, and that it said, “Attention: The universe. by republics and kingdoms right wheel.”

Most of this, I must admit, seems foreign to me. (And not just because I have no idea what that alleged missive refers to, other than the fact that it appears in an 1823 edition of the Niles Register, a popular 19th-century news magazine, as part of an equally perplexing manuscript.) I’m realizing that the more I think about telegrams, the more I learn of them, the stranger they are to me.

I don’t know what a telegram sounded like when it arrived, or what the paper felt like in someone’s hands. My mind reels to imagine what it was like for journalists who filed their stories by telegraph. I can’t read Morse code without the help of an online translator. These are details you can read about, but never truly know without having experienced them—the way I can still hear the shriek of a dial-up modem in my mind when I stop to think about it, or the singsong of Nokia’s classic ringtone.

All of which is another way of saying: It doesn’t really matter whether I sent zero or one telegrams in my life. The tools that characterize a person’s time and place in technological history are the ones that a person actually uses, the technologies relied upon so heavily that they can feel like an extension of oneself. This is part of how technology can define a culture, and why sometimes you forget the thing you’re using is technology at all. Until, eventually, inevitably, the technology is all but forgotten.