The Last Telegram

Odd timing: I happened to be teaching the history of the telegraph in my Media and History course this week when Western Union announced that it has sent its last telegram.

Like my students, I was a little disappointed that Western Union declined to report the recipient of the telegram or its content, especially given Samuel Morse’s famous first telegraphed message, “What hath God wrought?” But the Tribune article does provide a nice historical overview of the telegraph, including its role in the news gathering process and the cultivation of “telegraphese,” which bears more than a passing resemblance to today’s text messaging.

Also in extremely old media news: cavers have identified cave drawings in a grotto in western France that may be over 25,000 years old, which would make them significantly older than those located in the caves of Lascaux.

Update: One of my media students passed along this MSNBC story on the end of the telegram, in which we learn a little about the content of the last ten telegrams, many of which consisted of birthday wishes, condolences, and several people trying to send the last telegram.


  1. AA Said,

    February 6, 2006 @ 7:52 pm

    Thanks for posting this! I might not have caught it for a good while otherwise. Telegraph history and I go way back (well, just one paper, but I’m pretty sure I’m about to start another on the 1st transatlantic cable in 1858 + its prompt failure) but I hadn’t heard that nice Oscar Wilde/publisher anecdote before.

    ? and ! indeed —

  2. Chuck Said,

    February 7, 2006 @ 12:59 am

    Yeah, the Wilde anecdote was nice. Sounds like you have a slightly longer relationship to telegraph history than I do. Interesting issue regarding transatlantic cable. I’d been led to believe that the first transatlantic cable didn’t exist until 1866 (but maybe my source was wrong?).

  3. AA Said,

    February 7, 2006 @ 9:31 am

    Well, that’s when the first successful cable was — but the actual first real attempt was earlier in ’58. The cable lasted long enough for a lot of “Can you read this?” messages, for Queen Victoria to send a message or two to President Buchanan and for a ton of journalistic “hurrah we’re uniting the world” fanfare, but was never fully open to the public (I don’t think) and failed after a month.

    Actually it’s kinda funny… you mentioned the disappointment that Western Union never shared the content of the last telegram — well, apparently the failure of the first ’58 cable was so quick and disappointing that people started decrying the whole thing as a big hoax, and so in response the officials released a transcript of every message that was sent over across the pond before it failed, to prove the cable’s existence. (I’m definitely going to try to get ahold of that transcript if I can).

    Ahh I love this stuff…

  4. Chuck Said,

    February 7, 2006 @ 11:22 am

    Intereting that they felt compelled to release the content of the early telegraph messages. I’ve just updated this entry to link to another article on “the last telegrams,” in whihc they hint at the content of some of the final messages.

    Of course, we also have attorney general Alberto Gonzales giving us a “lesson” in media studies, invoking the practice of intercepting telegraph messages during the Civil War (AG Gonzales doesn’t mention the fact that the relevant FISA law wasn’t passed until 1978, but that’s another story).

  5. Michael Parkinson Said,

    March 28, 2006 @ 11:22 pm

    In the Jan., I believe,issue of Discover magazine I read an essay comparing the invention of the telegraph with the internet. The writer, I no longer have the copy so I can’t name him,thought the telegraph the more monumental of the two because they had to invent everything. This got me thinking about Morse, then W-U pulled the plug. Now I had to head to the library to find a biography to learn more. If you are interested in this stuff “Lighting Man” The Accursed Life of Samuel Morse by Kenneth Silverman (ISBN 0-375-40128-8) is a must read. Parts of it will make you angry, other parts will break your heart, but you will fascinated the whole time and will learn things about Morse that you never imagined.

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