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Telegram serious, start immediately

- 163-year-old messenger of bad and good news faces death on July 15

New Delhi, June 12: The telegram is finally dead. Stop. After being comatose for years comma the plug has finally been pulled. Stop.

That is how the epitaph for the telegram might have read if it was sent over the wires in the conventional way using the peculiar system of dots and dashes that Samuel Morse invented back in 1844.

But the deathly news didn’t go out that way.

Instead, in the bumbling ways of the bureaucracy, it went out as a government circular sent without any fanfare — virtually burying the once robust system that was famous for its pithy communication of good and bad news using quirky punctuation.

The Indian guillotine will fall on the Calcutta-born, 163-year-old mode of communication on July 15 — giving end-game enthusiasts the opportunity to vie for the honour of sending out the last telegram.

The prosaic circular signalling the end of the telegram was sent out by Shameem Akhtar, senior general manager (telegraph services) at Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd’s corporate office in New Delhi. The circular said all telegraph offices under the management of BSNL would stop booking telegrams from July 15.

The circular also directed the telecom offices to maintain the logbooks, service messages and delivery slips only for six months from the date of the bookings. However, complaints, press reports and other messages from different consumer forums will be kept for a year.

“We have taken a decision to close the service after consultation with the department of posts (which once ran the service). They also said there were better options available,” said an official of BSNL that took over the operation in 1994.

The move was clearly coming. Two months ago, BSNL had withdrawn telegram services for overseas communication.

In a way it’s symbolic that the @ of the email, and the “grbld gibrsh” of the SMS have ruffed Morse’s dots and dashes.

India has decided to scrap the telegram about seven years after Western Union in the US put an end to its famous service in 2006. Curiously, Western Union, the company that was specifically formed in 1855 to exploit the white-hot technology of that era, made the announcement in the same understated manner that went unnoticed for a week.

BSNL has said the surplus telegraph staff members will be redeployed to handle mobile services, landline telephony and broadband services.

Officials said the 1980s were the golden years of the service in India as more than 100,000 telegrams per day were sent and received only in the Delhi main office. Now it’s barely 100,000 a day — nationally.

Biplab Das, general secretary of the BSNL Circle Union/Association Coordination Committee, said: “Bengal has a rich history in this mode of communication. Even now, about 50,000 to 1 lakh telegrams are sent annually. The numbers were close to 10 to 15 lakh about two decades ago.”

Telegraphy has a long history: it started with the use of smoke signals and then graduated to semaphore, the flag language that allowed messages to be relayed between ships or buildings that were far apart.

But all that changed when Samuel Morse sent what is thought to be the first telegram, on May 24, 1844. Morse sent a message from Washington to his assistant Alfred Vail in Baltimore that read: “What hath God wrought?”

Morse and Vail invented a system of short and long electrical pulses representing letters. A message in words was translated into a string of dots and dashes, sent down a cable, and translated back into words at the other end. The result was a telegram.

The telegram became popular for its speed and the ability to communicate momentous news with remarkable brevity. But you can’t beat Irish author Oscar Wilde for initiating what must rank as the shortest communication using the telegram. He was living in Paris and he cabled his publisher in Britain to ask how his new book was doing. The message read: “?” The publisher cabled back: “!”

The service came to India in 1850 when 24-year-old Irishman William Brooke O’ Shaughnessy, a surgeon by profession, was appointed by East India Company to lay down the country’s first telegraph line between Calcutta and Diamond Harbour, an important coastal point in the suburbs of the city.

The line allowed transmission of electric signals over long distances. Leveraging on the tactical advantage that the telegraph services could provide, the British East India Company decided to expand its reach to cover about 4,000 miles connecting important cities like Calcutta, Agra, Chennai and Bangalore by 1853.

Indians were quick to use the telegram and, over the years, a number of momentous pronouncements were made using the service.

In October 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru sent a lengthy (163-word) telegram to British Prime Minister Clement Attlee that has encapsulated India’s views on Kashmir.

The champions of the telegram — if there are any around — will surely hope that they could use the famous words of Mark Twain when he learnt that his obituary had been published in the US. He sent a telegram from London in 1897 saying: “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”