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What Hath Technology Wrought?

Technology shifts occur at breakneck speed these days. Then again, they always have. I thought of that recently with news that the last operating telegraph system in the world is shutting down operations.

The last telegram is scheduled to go July 14, 2013, in India. That’s nearly 150 years after Samuel Morse sent the first one.  A pretty good run for a communications technology.

Telegrams were once essential to communications. “Giant in the Shadows: The Life of Robert T. Lincoln” is the definitive biography of the only surviving son of Abraham Lincoln. In it author Jason Emerson writes eloquently about  how President Lincoln communicated about the horrors, successes and failures of Civil War battles via the telegraph. Emerson traces how Robert Todd Lincoln himself in 1900 tracked the assassination of President William McKinley via a series of telegrams. In an era when mail delivery truly was “snail mail,” the speed of a telegram must have seemed breathtaking.

In the 20th century when the telephone surpassed the telegraph for speed, Americans used the older technology for impact rather than immediacy. Often the first news of a marriage, a birth or death came by telegram, with the sender aiming for the impact of a typed, hand-delivered document confirming the news.

But as eight-tracks were replaced by cassettes,  and cassettes by CDs, and CDs by digital music, the telegram’s final death blow was the fax and later email. Telegraph service in the U.S. ceased seven years ago.

I have more than a passing acquaintance with telegraphy. Earlier in my career the company for which I worked, and later was a part-owner, contracted with the Western Union Company to take over operation of the telegraph company’s downtown public offices. These were large, centrally located offices where consumers could wire or receive money, send a message via Western Union’s telex system, or send a telegram. In fact, most communities of any consequence had a Western Union office.

We were a small company so as a manager I sometimes had to deliver telegrams or send telex messages. The telex messages were typed out on a teletypewriter called a “32,” since all alphanumeric combinations had to be made on a keyboard limited to 32 spring-loaded keys. The fastest keystrokers pounded out the messages with their two index fingers. The actual message input produced a thin paper tape with raised dots similar to Braille. These paper tapes were then reversed and fed back into the machine, which electronically reproduced and sent the message via dial-up phone lines.

By the early 1990s messaging like telegrams, telex and TWX (Teletype Writer Exchange) had largely been replaced by newer, less expensive technologies like the fax machine and eventually email. The precipitous drop in the cost of telecommunications, including telephone calls after the breakup of the old Bell network, priced Western Union out of the message business.

By the 1990s the advent of prepaid cards,  other payment schemes built on the trusted third-party concept pioneered by Western Union in the 1800s, and overnight delivery services killed much of the money transfer business. The assets of Western Union, including its name, were eventually acquired by First Data Corporation--itself a modern spin-off from American Express, which pioneered the large scale travelers checksystem in the 19th century.

Western Union has survived by reinventing itself with new products and services, like online money transfer, prepaid cards and online bill payment.

It’s easy to look back on technologies like telegraphy, money transfer, or travelers checks and think of them as quaint throwbacks to ages gone by. But technology isn’t like that. Every technology is a pilot program for the technology that eventually succeeds it. Payment technologies like online bill payment and presentment or prepaid cards owe some measure of their success to those brave 19th century pioneers who risked their lives stringing copper across a vast continent. And to telegraph operators and keypunchers that made the Western Union office as much a part of their community as the corner bank or the post office.