The last clarion call of the Titanic, an announcement of the first successful flight and America’s entry into World War One – on more than one occasion the telegram has been at the heart of history.
Now it has finally come to an end, in Belgium – one of the last countries to use the messaging service.
The final message was delivered on December 29, 171 years after the country’s first electric telegram was sent down a line laid alongside the railway linking Brussels and Antwerp.
“If you ask young people [about it], they don’t know what a telegram is,” says Jack Hamande, an executive board member at the Belgian Institute for Postal Services and Telecommunications (BIPT).
The decline of the telegram has been swift in a world saturated by telephone networks, the internet and instant messaging services such as Whatsapp, Viber, Facebook Messenger and even Telegram – an app named after its predecessor which launched in 2013.
As recently as the 1980s, more than 1.5 million telegrams were sent and received per year in Belgium.
But fewer than 9,000 were dispatched in the first 11 months of this year, marking a 20 percent decline from 2016.
And with fees rising to 16 euro ($19) for a 20-word message, the telegram has not been able to compete with today’s technology.
No longer a necessity
Proximus, a telecommunications company, managed the telegram service in Belgium, where the government has ruled that the network no longer constitutes a public service.
The telegram has been kept alive by the custom of a handful of business clients.
“It is mainly 10 customers using the telegram in Belgium today … in finance, judicial services and insurance,” says Hamande.
“Most of the current users of telegram will shift to registered mail … we see no reason to force the company to maintain this service.”
Whereas a perceived lack of speed stalled the telegram’s popularity in personal communications, developments in digital security have hastened the technology’s end in the business world.
The emergence of digitally registered mail, in particular, has meant the telegram no longer occupies a niche in terms of its legal validity in Belgium and elsewhere.
According to David Hay, head of heritage and archives at BT (formerly British Telecom), telegrams were traditionally “used as evidence because they were date stamped automatically”.
“Only in the past few years have things such as emails been accepted as legal evidence,” he says.
Varied history, mixed messages
Britain, where the telegram was invented in the 1830s, switched off its network more than a decade ago. Other countries followed suit since, such as the United States in 2006, and India in 2013.
“After decades of good, loyal service, it is time for the telegram to give way to new means of communication,” Proximus – Belgium’s largest mobile telecommunications company – announced on its website on December 12.
But in its heyday, the telegram spread across the world, shaping the way governments, businesses and people interacted.
“It was a global technology, in the 19th century and for the first part of the 20th century, it was the major telecommunications technology,” says BT’s Hay.
“It was wholly revolutionary, it reduced the time it took to send messages from one end of the world to the other from months to hours and later minutes.”
The technology transformed events from weddings to wars.
“Telegrams [were sent] to families of people who were missing or killed,” says Hay.
“If you saw a messenger coming up the garden path then invariably it was going to be bad news during wartime.”
It was also used for moments of celebration.
In Britain, people sent congratulatory notes to couples getting married and new parents.
“They [operators] introduced greetings telegrams, which were much more colourful, rather than the drab brown form that was used for standard telegrams,” says Hay.
“They were delivered in gold envelopes so that people would recognise they weren’t bad news.”
Today, in Belgium and elsewhere, the telegram is a relic.
“It had a much bigger impact on the world in terms of trade, governance and indeed society at the time than the internet has today,” says Hay.
“The Victorians were astonished by the technology … They called it the electric fluid, and the wonder of the age.”