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Fastest communication in the West a faded memory.

Byline: Sid McKeen

COLUMN: WRY AND GINGER

Things move so fast these days that some of our oldest and best-known institutions go out of business forever and we don't even notice that it's happened.

Take the Western Union telegram. Mention Western Union to somebody today and don't be surprised to get this reaction: "Western Union? Oh yeah, that's a small college in Ohio, isn't it? I think they beat somebody in one of those bowl games over New Year's."

If you haven't sent or received a telegram recently, there's a pretty good reason: Western Union, once as big a deal in the communications business as the Postal Service or the telephone company, stopped sending telegrams a year ago this month. At the end, few people even knew there was such a service. Faxes, e-mail, cell phones and text-messaging had swept them into obscurity almost overnight.

In its day, the Western Union telegram was the classy way to make contact. More expensive but much more immediate than a letter, it was, in its heyday, cheaper than a long-distance telephone call. In 1929, the company moved 200 million telegrams and employed a vast army of messengers who delivered these cryptic greetings on foot and bicycle in large cities and small towns alike. By last year, that number was down to one ten-thousandth of that volume, a mere 20,000.

What was especially noteworthy about these telegraphed messages was their economy of language. Senders paid by the word, and there was a premium on messages containing more than 10 of them. Thus, a typical telegram was a little like a headline in a tabloid newspaper: short and to the point. "ARRIVED 6 DETROIT STOP OFF TOMORROW DENVER STOP CALL YOU FROM THERE."

The word "stop" stood for a period and was included without charge, unlike punctuation, which was counted as a word and avoided at all costs.

Some difference from today's e-mail, which moves even faster and costs nothing for the vast majority of senders. The result, of course, is wordy e-mail with almost no thought of brevity. Given the modern verbosity in communication, charging by the word would bankrupt most senders, given as they are to such messages as, "LIKE, YOU KNOW, HERE WE ARE IN MOTOWN, GOT HERE ABOUT 6 AND TOMORROW WE'RE HEADING OUT TO THE MILE-HIGH CITY AREA FOR, LIKE, SOME GOOD SKIING AND, YOU KNOW, FUN ON THE SLOPES. GIVE YA A BUZZ TOMORROW, MAN, AND LIKE, SLEEP TIGHT."

A few smiley faces and other emoticons thrown in, of course.

The "Victorian Internet" is what some call the Western Union message, with faint derision. I suppose so, but all you have to do is watch the old films on Turner Classic Movies to get some feel for how much this mode of communication affected those of us who grew up in the '30s, '40s and '50s. The other night, I watched Frank Capra's classic civics lesson, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." In the climactic scene in the U.S. Senate, Claude Rains has baskets full of telegrams brought into the chamber urging Jimmy Stewart to call off a one-man filibuster. I expect more than one viewer probably wondered what those telegrams were all about.

SO IT GOES STOP TIME MARCHES ON STOP WHAT WILL BE NEXT TO GO STOP YOU NEVER KNOW STOP.

Sid McKeen can be reached via e-mail at sidmck@earthlink.net.
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Title Annotation:INSIGHT
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jan 7, 2007
Words:566
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