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.
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.)