A Surprise Twist in the Mystery of the Lost Telegrams

Our missing messages finally arrived. Only they’re not really telegrams.

Dog with telegram, 1923 (Library of Congress)

There’s a famous story people like to tell about an alleged exchange, by telegram, between Victor Hugo and his publisher in 1862. Hugo apparently wanted to know whether his new book, Les Misérables, was selling well. Not wanting to spend too much on a correspondence at a time when telegram companies charged by the letter, the writer posed his question in a single character: ?

The publisher’s reply, signaling the book’s success, was equally concise: !

In a post-telegram era, brevity may still be a virtue, but it isn’t a necessity. Which is why, when my editor told me he’d finally received one of the telegrams I tried to send him late last year, my response was: !!!!!

We’d presumed it lost forever, but there it was, postmarked December 21, the day I’d ordered it, just like iTelegram had promised.

Then, yesterday, the second missing telegram arrived: !!!!!!!!!!!!!

This one, from TelegramStop, also appeared to have been sent, by Registered Post International, within a day of when I’d ordered it. So the telegrams arrived after all. Except, and this is a point I only made in passing the last time around, they aren’t really telegrams.

Both were sent by mail. I used the Internet to order them. iTelegram says on its website that its service is faster than airmail because it transmits a person’s message to a local delivery office, where the message is printed out then delivered. But the telegram, sent December 21, didn’t show up until February 1. I don’t know what took so long, or whether it was just lost in The Atlantic’s mailroom all that time. But I do know that sending an email or a text message would have been more reliable and cheaper. I mean, obviously.

Ross Andersen

The larger point, though, is that telegrams really don’t exist the way they once did. New technologies don’t just replace old ones, they obliterate them. The “telegrams” you can send today may eventually arrive, but they’re simulacra. Yellow paper and serif font may make something telegrammy, but it doesn’t make it a telegram. (The tougher question is: When does a telegram stop being a telegram? When it’s sent by Telex? When it’s ordered online? I’m not entirely sure.)

All this reminds me a bit of an experiment, about six years ago, by the beer makers at BrewDog. When I visited their headquarters, then in Fraserburgh, Scotland, one of the assistant brewers lamented the poor selection of IPAs in the United Kingdom at the time. “If you go to a bar and ask for an IPA, you’ll get something that’s 3.5 percent [ABV], with no hops in it at all, and that kind of annoyed us,” the brewer, Jack Cameron, told me. “So we made an old-school IPA. Traditional English hops, an old recipe that [the brewery’s co-founder] found, put it in an oak cask then took it out on a fishing boat for two months. It was the first IPA—aged in oak, at sea—in two centuries. The first genuine IPA for 200 years.”

I love this. It makes me want to sail the North Atlantic and make beer. But was the resultant beverage—aged on a modern mackerel trawler, finished and bottled using contemporary brewing technology—really an authentic IPA? That’s sort of not the point, is it? BrewDog isn’t selling a 200-year-old IPA, it’s selling the story of one—and specifically to people like me, who can’t help but be charmed.

Sort of the way that famous tale about Hugo’s telegram is sometimes attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald or to the king of misattributed quotes, Oscar Wilde. Actually, it seems none of them were responsible for the shortest correspondence in the history of telegraphy. Whether or not the legend is rooted in fact, there’s documentation to show it predates Les Misérables. A version of the story was published in the magazine Yankee Notions in 1854:

“The shortest correspondence on record is one between an American merchant in want of news and his London agent. The letter ran thus: ? And the answer thus: 0, Being the briefest possible intimation that there was nothing stirring.”

When someone’s selling you nostalgia, you never really receive the thing that’s promised. Even if it arrives.