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Not the last telegram

There've been headlines about the last telegram being sent in India. This turns out to be massive journalistic failure: the actual story was about India's state telegraph firm failing. There are still private telegram firms (search for telegram service), and there are still state firms elsewhere like in Italy. So it's pretty much a non-story, perhaps fed by assumptions that "backwards" India had to be the last place still using them.

This does raise the question of why they're still around, and really, what does that even mean? 19th century Morse code operators probably went out decades ago, in favor of Telex, outside of ham radio and maybe some ship uses. But part of the telegram experience was someone coming around to your address with "TELEGRAM!" It's not a primitive phone-call, it's a high-speed short-message postal service, really. The competitor is e-mail... but the telegram deliverer can do things like guarantee someone got the message, or get a signature.

American Telegraph also claimed to be a (and the only) legally defined telegraph carrier in the US, with things like if you send a contract cancellation with them, it's legally effective from the moment you give to them, not when it's delivered.

Costs... First Class International is $1.10 for a letter; Priority (6-10 days) is $24; Express (3-5) is $45; Global Express Guaranteed (1-3 days) is $64. So for very short messages the telegram prices I was seeing (on the order of $25 for a message, and 50 cents a word) can be price-competitive given same-day or next-day delivery.

I don't know how much they're still using Telex internally; I can imagine a telegram-like delivery service that uses e-mail to send the message across borders, where the relevant marginal cost would be per page of printed message that the delivery person has to carry. I do wonder how much businesses these firms have, and if they have full time delivery people or part-time contractors. They do claim impressively global coverage, and that's from multiple firms.

Though there's also odd things. One firm offers "MailGrams" within the US, 4-8 days, $19 for 100 words, and I am struggling to figure out the point. I guess if international mail is in the $20+ range for 6-10 days then I guess using a telegram to get your message into the country, and US mail for final delivery, could still be a fast and cheap option.

Another firm is cheap, $8 base, but all they do is print out your telegram and mail it; all they're selling is the old-time look, I guess, which you could replicate with the right template.

Some history of telegram service: http://www.retro-gram.com/telegramhistory.html
And of course _The Victorian Internet_, which I haven't read yet.

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Damien Sullivan

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August 2018


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