Random Musing: Poetry of Necessity

Was just thinking on the nature of short messages, like Twitter’s 140-character limit. Facebook used to limit status updates to 160 characters, but increased it a couple of years ago to 420 — still not a lot.

This made me think about the old telegram. You know, those yellow-papered, stencil-worded, nearly cryptic hand-delivered messages one would see in old films from the 30’s and 40’s in particular. There was always a lot of drama surrounding the receipt of a telegram. A breathless delivery boy arrives, announcing with a firm exclamation point: Telegram!

Christmas Telegram from Woodrow Wilson

Christmas Telegram from Woodrow Wilson

With a slight hesitation, glancing at his companions first, our hero takes the folded paper from the uniformed lad, and the tension mounts as he unfolds the paper. His eyes can be seen, scanning the few, impact-filled words. The reaction on his face tells all! Dreadful news, or triumph? Often, the story’s major plot twist, set-back, or final resolution is triggered by such a message.

Telegram from Walt Disney to Brother Roy

Telegram from Walt Disney to brother Roy, after losing rights to an early animated character. The idea for Mickey Mouse was formulated on the train trip from which this telegram originated.

And, much like now, people would use their then-form of instant messaging to troll a friend. When John Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize, he received this congratulatory telegram from author John O’Hara: “Congratulations. I can think of only one other author I’d rather see get it.”

And, much like our own texting and other “instant messaging” methods, telegrams had their own special language, loaded with abbreviations. The reason: Telegrams were expensive. Around the time of World War I (1917), the cost in the United States was a penny per word. At http://www.dollartimes.com/calculators/inflation.htm, you can calculate that money could buy in 1917 about 18.6 times what it bought in 2010. Chances are, the real buying power was much higher, especially as official inflation numbers now exclude both energy and food costs.

But let’s round it to 20 cents — each word costs $0.20, or 5 words for $1.00. I don’t know about you, but I’d be using the longest words I could think of. “Gone fishing” would become “Sojourning Piscatorially”. And still, that would be 40 cents! Walt’s telegram, above, would have cost the equivalent of $4.20.  In comparison, the same email is about… free. Or factor an email into all the other communications you use via the internet, against your monthly internet cost, and it is a minuscule expense – very likely a fraction of a penny.

Western Union is the company I identify with telegrams. There were many companies, but Western Union was the telegram company in my mind. I wondered about the modern status of the telegram, in an era when I can pick up my phone, or use Google Voice on my computer, and just type in a short, nearly costless message, to have it appear almost anywhere in the world, within seconds, in the phone of my intended recipient, complete with an announcement in sound and/or buzzing, at the discretion of said recipient.

I was a bit saddened, but hardly surprised then, to see that Western Union had discontinued telegram service in 2006. Well, actually I was a bit surprised that the service had survived so deeply into our era of personal instant messaging. Here is the very last Western Union telegram ever sent, January 26, 2006:

The Last Western Union Telegram

The Last Western Union Telegram

Not good news, I’m afraid, but then, what to expect from the final breath of a 150 year-old beast?

Still, there was something more personal and magical about the old telegram, with its use of “STOP” instead of a period (i.e. a “full stop”). I wonder what the story is behind that? Perhaps the period itself did not have a way to be sent by the oldest electronic messaging system (Morse code or similar), and so it was spelled out, and became custom. Or maybe it allowed them to collect one more penny per sentence. I don’t know, but it gave them a feel and rhythm unique to that kind of communication – a poetry of necessity.

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