Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Western Union Ends Telegram Service

On January 27 of this year Western Union stopped sending telegrams. According to their website Western Union "will discontinue all Telegram and Commercial Messaging services." I don't think it is an overstatement to say that this is an end of an era.

The telegraph was invented by Samuel Morse, who sent the first telegram on May 24, 1844. The invention was revolutionary in that it was the first means of communicating swiftly over large distances. Western Union itself was founded in 1851 as the Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company. In 1856, after acquiring other telegram companies, it became the Western Union Telegraph Company. By the War Between the States it had a coast to coast network of telegraph lines.

In the 145 years that Western Union dealt in telegrams, they had many firsts. In 1866 they introduced the world's first stock ticker. By 1871 they'd introduced money transfers. In 1914 they were responsible for the first consumer charge card (better known now as the credit card). Among other things, Western Union was among the first 11 companies to have their stocks tracked by the New York Stock Exchange upon that institution's introduction in 1884.

While the telegram has played an important role in American history, it has taken several blows from advances in technology. First the invention of the telephone, followed by long distance phone service, fax machines, and the internet, the need to send telegrams decreased dramatically for most people over the years.

Even though it is no longer in the telegram business, Western Union will survive. It will continue to offer its financial services, a business in which it has been for many, many years.

I must say that it is sad that Western Union will no longer be in the telegram business, but then I have to admit that I really don't see the need for telegrams any longer. Email, cell phones, faxes, there are just too many more efficient means of sending messages these days. In many ways, it is surprising that it took this long for Western Union to end its telegram service. It is simply another case of older techology being made obsolete by newer technology.

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