TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Western Union STOP Ends Telegram Service

Western Union STOP Ends Telegram Service

P. Solomon Banda (
Thu, 2 Feb 2006 02:22:28 -0600

Western Union -STOP- Ends Telegram Service
By P. SOLOMON BANDA, Associated Press Writer

For more than 150 years, messages of joy, sorrow and success came in
signature yellow envelopes hand delivered by a courier. Now the
Western Union telegram is officially a thing of the past.

The company formed in April 1856 to exploit the hot technology of the
telegraph to send cross-country messages in less than a day. It is now
focusing its attention on money transfers and other financial
services, and delivered its final telegram on Friday.

"The decision was a hard decision because we're fully aware of our
heritage," Victor Chayet, a spokesman for the Greenwood Village-based
company, said Wednesday. "But it's the final transition from a
communications company to a financial services company."

Several telegraph companies that eventually combined to become Western
Union were founded in 1851. Western Union built its first transconti-
nental telegraph line in 1861.

"At the time it was as incredible and astonishing as the computer when
it first came out," said Tom Noel, a history professor at the
University of Colorado at Denver. "For people who could barely
understand it, here you had the magic of the electric force traveling
by wire across the country."

In 1994, Western Union Financial Services was acquired by First
Financial Management Corp. which First Data Corp. bought for $7
billion the following year. Last week, First Data said it would spin
Western Union off as a separate company.

Telegrams reached their peak popularity in the 1920s and 1930s when it
was cheaper to send a telegram than to place a long distance telephone
call. People would save money by using the word "stop" instead of
periods to end sentences because punctuation was extra while the four
character word was free.

Telegrams were used to announce the first flight in 1903 and the start
of World War I. During World War II, the sight of a Western Union
courier was feared because the War Department, the precursor to the
Department of Defense, used the company to notify families of the
death of their loved ones serving in the military, Chayet said.

With long distance rates dropping and different technologies for
communicating evolving -- including the Internet - Western Union phased out
couriers in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

By last year, only 20,000 telegrams were sent at about $10 a message,
mostly from companies using the service for formal notifications,
Chayet said.

Last week, 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.

"Recent generations didn't receive telegrams and didn't know you could
send them," Chayet said.

Samuel Morse, inventor of the Morse Code, sent the first telegram from
Washington to Baltimore on May 26, 1844, to his partner Alfred Vail to
usher in the telegram era that displaced the Pony Express. It read

"If he only knew," Chayet said of the myriad of choices today, which
includes text message on cell phones, the Internet and virtually free
long-distance calling rates.

"It definitely was an anachronism," Noel said. "It's amazing it
survived this long."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press.

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[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: WUTCO sent a final 'telegram' to the
remaining 'mailgram' post offices and WUTCO agencies handling message
service early last Friday quoting the first message ever sent to
Alfred Vail (a relative of Ted Vail, AT&T's first chairman) "WHAT HATH
GOD WROUGHT?" with a final word "STOP" to bring an end to the century
and a half system for sending messages. It was quite a show while it
lasted. In another issue of the Digest later today, I am going to
reprint some old archival material about WUTCO, and discuss their
public business offices, clocks, and some other details. PAT]

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