The electric telegraph kick-started the world-changing electric communication age, which ultimately led to the telephone, satellite communication, email, even, arguably, the poop emoji. Now, after 171 years, that venerable old system is coming to an end in Belgium. Proximus, the state-owned company running Belgium's last telegram service, cuts the line tomorrow, reports James Crisp of, appropriately enough, The Telegraph.
The reason has to do with traffic. In the first 11 months of 2017, only 8,000 telegrams were sent, most by ten regular business users and a smattering of residential customers, according to a press release from Proximus. Once upon a time, telegraphs were the best way to communicate news—good and bad—quickly across great distances. Today, the medium's remaining users mostly consist of lawyers or bailiffs who require legal proof of a message's receipt. To give you an idea of how steep the decline has been in the last few decades, Proximus explains that in the early 1980s, it sent about 1.5 million telegrams per year. By 2010, that number had dropped to about 50,000.
The end of Belgian telegrams isn’t the end of the service across the world, but it’s getting close. Britain ditched telegrams in 1982, the United States sent its last in 2006 and India, which long-relied on telegrams for internal government communications, tossed its last message in the bin in 2013.
For those who grew up in a world without telegraphs, Kevin Connolly at the BBC explains just what made the antiquated system so ingenious. For one, Connolly writes, it was the first medium to allow message to be sent long distances almost instantaneously along electrical wires, usually via Morse Code. A sender at a machine on one side would send a message which was written down by a receiver at the other end. The Morse code was translated then a courier—usually a telegram boy on a bicycle, would hand deliver the message to the recipient.
Because senders had to pay for messages per word, the system created its own system of slang and unusual phrasings, much the way character limits on early text messaging led to our current texting language. In fact, Luke Spencer at Atlas Obscura writes that the language of telegraphy was so specialized there were books on how to write telegraphs succinctly.
Connolly reports that as telephones spread in the 20th century, telegrams died out as a communication method but did retain ceremonial and specialized functions. For instance, for weddings guests who could not attend would often send funny telegrams that were read at the ceremony. They were also used as birth announcements and during war, telegrams were often sent as an official announcement of a soldier’s death, often starting with the ominous words “I regret to inform you…”
Surprisingly, the Belgian telegram outlasted more modern communication methods. AOL Instant Messenger, for instance, was put to sleep earlier this month. Other electronic communication staples are on life support. The fax machine might as well be dead. And more than half of U.S. households now don’t have a landline (you know, the one that's connected by thousands of miles of telephone wires, which are those strange things along the road that birds like to sit on).
Crisp of the Telegraph reports that to mark the final dispatch in Belgium, five telegraph operators who currently send telegrams have planned a low-key celebration for the occasion. “It is a big part of our heritage,” as Haroun Fenoux, spokesperson for Proximus, tells him. “There is a sense of nostalgia. This is the end of a historical product, but it is time to finish.”