Sunday, July 24, 2011


The humble telegram bows out

  • Sunday, July 24, 2011
  • Arunthathi Kanagaratnam
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  • The messenger will not come to your doorstep again and ring the bell to deliver a telegram. The days he brought good and bad news are over. Instead switch on your mobile phone and let it bring both tidings of great joy and misery.

    The Government's decision to scrap the telegraphic service did not cause a flutter of excitement because everybody anticipated it. A few decades ago post offices were extremely busy accepting, transmitting and delivering thousands of telegrams through a network of messengers across the country. However, in recent times the number of telegrams handled by post offices came down to a trickle of 50 a day.

    In the good old days telegrams were sent by government officials, parliamentarians, businessmen and the masses to contact people in remote areas. Even in the 1990s most employers informed applicants of success in securing jobs through a telegram. Hospitals and police stations used the telegraph service to inform relatives of deaths and accidents of their loved ones. Even provincial correspondents used the telegraph service to send reports to newspapers in Colombo.

    Primitive methods

    The telegraph service revolutionised communication methods used in the past. The telegram put an end to the primitive methods of sending messages through horse and boat riders. Sometimes the messengers were trained pigeons. This meant that communication had to depend on transportation.

    With the advent of the telegraph service people heaved a sigh of relief because they could now send their messages through wires to any part of the world. Businessmen depended heavily on the telegraph service to exchange timely and sometimes secret information. For the latter purpose they sometimes used a code language.

    The telegraph service also had a great impact on language. People gradually learnt to send messages using word economy. Sometimes verbs were dropped and adjectives and adverbs were completely eliminated. In short, a new lingo came into being . Some telegram texts ran in the following manner: "Father expired funeral Sunday"; "Congrats regret inability attend wedding" and "Deepest sympathies". The senders of telegrams took care not to use punctuation marks as each of them would be counted as one word.

    Morse code

    In the 1960s and 1970s telegrams were transmitted using the Morse code invented by the American Samuel F. B. Morse. At that time it was a fantastic revolution in communication technology. By using the Morse code a message could be flashed to a distant location at the speed of lightning. Some observers believed that God had personally wrought it.

    During the 1950s and 1960s the Central Telegraph Office (CTO) in the Colombo Fort was the hub of telegraphic communication. At first telegrams were transmitted using the Morse code. Later this was replaced by teleprinters and telex machines. When the inflow of telegrams became unmanageable, most of them were posted to distant post offices for delivery just like ordinary letters. As a result, people got fed up with the telegraph service.

    As most telegrams were originally written in English, a crop of 'Telegram writers' began to operate in the vicinity of rural post offices. They wrote telegrams for a fee and the sender did not know what he had written. This sometimes led to chaotic situations.

    However, facilities were made available to send telegrams in Sinhala and Tamil in later years.

    Service messages

    Despite the shortcomings of the telegraph service, it was something very close to the people. Job aspirants, relatives of patients warded in hospitals and distraught lovers waited eagerly for the messenger who brought good and bad news. Most postal employees enjoyed the privilege of sending telegrams, known as 'service messages', free.

    When there was a sudden shortage of cash or personnel, postmasters used to send service messages to the head office. When a postmaster suddenly fell ill, he would send a service message, "Sick send relief". One day, it so happened that a postmaster's wife fell ill and he sent a service message to the head office: "Wife ill send relief".

    Those at the head office had a hearty laugh!

    The humble telegram has bowed out and the mobile phone has taken its place. Only time would tell its lifespan in the face of rapid advances in communication technology.

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