What is a Telegram?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 27 May 2020
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A telegram is a communication sent over a telegraph. Typically, a telegraph operator receives the communication, and then writes it out for the recipient. Telegrams can also be transmitted over the phone. Before the widespread use of phones and the Internet for communication, telegrams were the best way to convey information in a hurry; today, telegrams are quite rare in most parts of the world, and people in the West can sometimes actually have trouble finding a company which can send and receive telegrams.

Telegrams started to be used in the 1800s, when inventors developed commercially successful telegraphy systems which could be used to relay messages. Originally, telegraphy could only be sent over wires, with wireless telegraphy debuting in 1895, making rapid communication even easier. However, telegraphy represented a very crude method of communication, with users utilizing a coded alphabet to communicate with each other.

Telegraphy involves the transmission of electrical signals, which can be entered with a telegraph key on one end of the line, and then read with a corresponding key, or with the use of headphones which can be worn by the operator. Most telegraph operators around the world used Morse Code, an alphabet consisting of series of dots and dashes, to send messages.

When someone arrives at a telegraph office to send a telegram, they write the message out as they wish it to be transmitted. Because the process can be time-consuming, most people use a very specific written style which relies heavily on abbreviations and skipped words, rather than writing out full messages. Punctuation must also be written out in a telegram, with the most famous example of written punctuation being "STOP" for a period, and details are usually kept to a minimum.

The telegraph operator transmits the message to the telegraph office closest to the recipient, and the receiving operator writes the message out so that it can be read by the recipient. Many telegraph companies offered delivery service historically, with a telegraph company employee dropping the telegram off at the home or business of the recipient, although people could also pick up messages in telegraph offices.

Since telegrams were historically used for critical information which needed to be conveyed quickly, the arrival of a telegram could signal an emergency. Many militaries used telegrams to notify families of deaths or wounds in combat, which made the telegraph boy a dreaded figure in wartime, but telegrams could also bring good news, like the birth of a baby.

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Post 10

They now have iTelegram for the iPhone to send out telegrams on paper from a phone.

Post 8

Telegrams are also used a lot in Agatha Christie books, especially in "The Secret Adversary" out of all the Agatha Christie books I have read so far.

Post 3

@vogueknit17, that's a big difference too- I can remember getting the first computer in my house- I was about 6 or 7, maybe, but it was still a big deal. Kids today are born with awesome computer systems in their houses, it's not even a novelty anymore.

Post 2

@FernValley, I especially like their use in stories like Sherlock Holmes. Holmes could telegraph London from any small and rural village and tell Watson exactly what he needed to know, and he could do it in time to get the police down before the criminal escaped. I also find it fascinating how well it worked, but I guess it would be a little too much for kids who were born after computers were in every house.

Post 1

I teach English to high school students, and it is really amusing when we read things like short stories with telegrams in them to see how foreign the concept is today.

When I explained the concept of telegraphs and telegraph wires to one class, it occurred to me that really, they're an amazing concept. Even though the alphabet makes it slow, it means that over a century before text messages, people could send one another "text" messages. However, the inspiration of it all was totally lost on my kids, with their cell phones and iPods and general modernity.

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