“On the twenty-fourth of May 1844, Professor Samuel F. B. Morse, seated amidst a hushed gathering of distinguished national leaders in the chambers of the United States Supreme Court in Washington, tapped out a message on a device of cogs and coiled wires:
WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT
Forty miles away, in Baltimore, Morse’s associate Alfred Vail received the electric signals and sent the message back. The invention they had demonstrated was destined to change the world. For thousands of years messages had been limited by the speed with which messengers could travel and the distance at which eyes could see signals such as flags or smoke. Neither Alexander the Great nor Benjamin Franklin (America’s first postmaster general) two thousand years later knew anything faster than a galloping horse. Now, instant long-distance communication became a practical reality.”
Excerpt From: Daniel Walker Howe. “What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848.” Oxford University Press, 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner
At the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), India’s state-owned telecom company, a message emerges from a dot matrix printer addressing a soldier’s Army unit in Delhi. “GRANDMOTHER SERIOUS. 15 DAYS LEAVE EXTENSION,” it reads. It’s one of about 5,000 such missives still being sent every day by telegram – a format favored for its “sense of urgency and authenticity,” explains a BSNL official.
That missive will come 144 years after Samuel Morse sent the first telegram in Washington, and seven years after Western Union shuttered its services in the United States. In India, telegraph services were introduced by William O’Shaughnessy, a British doctor and inventor who used a different code for the first time in 1850 to send a message.
At their peak in 1985, 60 million telegrams were being sent and received a year in India from 45,000 offices. Today, only 75 offices exist, though they are located in each of India’s 671 districts through franchises. And an industry that once employed 12,500 people, today has only 998 workers.
One of them is R.D. Ram, who has been working in the Delhi office for 38 years. “They will now move me to another department where I will feel like a fresher [beginner],” he complains.
Mr. Ram once learned the Morse code technology for telegraphy, but today oversees staff who type out and send telegrams over a Web software. He tries to put up a spirited defense of the obsolete technology in the age of the smartphone, arguing that mobile penetration is much lower than it is hyped to be. Mobile penetration is indeed a dismal 26 percent, but even in the remotest village, at least someone has a phone.