Discovering the Past
The first telegram was sent in Britain, in June, 1826. The message went from Euston Town station to Camden Town station. It was sent by Robert Stephenson, the “father” of the railways. It said “Bravo.”
In fact the telegram was invented in America, by a man called Mr. Morse. But nobody was very interested in his invention and so two British inventors, William Forthergill Corke and Charles Wheatstone made the first system to be used.
For about ten years in Britain nobody thought the telegram was very important. It was used by the railways to tell stations when trains were coming. But nobody else used it. Then on 28th August 1844 two criminals, Oliver Martin and Fiddler Dick, took a train from London to Slough. The police in London cabled the police in Slough to tell them the criminals were on the train. The criminals were caught, the newspapers reported the story, and soon everybody began to send telegrams.
Meanwhile, in America, the telegram began to be used. Mr. Morse asked President Polk to try his invention. The President did. He sent the longest message ever – 50,000 words. It took 24 hours to send.
Since telegrams are paid by the word, every word costs money, and people always try and use as few words as possible. “Little words” like “a”, “an” and “the” disappear. So do all those auxiliary verbs that English students hate: do, does, are, is . . . So, a journalist who wanted to know how old the film star Cary Grant was, sent a telegram saying: “How old Cary Grant?”
Unfortunately, although the “little words” have gone, nobody knows exactly where they have gone from. So, the journalist received a reply from Cary Grant which said: “Old Cary Grant fine. How you?”
One of the biggest users of telegrams have always been the newspapers. And since newspapers, at least in Britain, are famous for trying not to spend money, they tried to use as few words as possible. Words like “no” were put in front of other words as “un-”. So “no money” became “unmoney”. The most famous of such messages is from an editor who called a journalist: “Why unnews?” The journalist cabled back: “Unnews. Good news.” (From the English proverb, “No news is good news.”) The editor wasn’t happy. He sent another telegram saying: “Unnews. Unjob.”
But perhaps the shortest telegram in the English language was from the Irish writer Oscar Wilde. He was living in Paris and he cabled his publisher in Britain to see how his new book was doing. The message read:
The publisher cabled back:
From the beginning, telegrams were used for messages of great historical importance: politicians and generals sent hundreds of them, Queen Victoria loved them, and the police in Britain have used them so often that they have a special telegram address: Handcuffs, London.
Perhaps one of the most famous historical telegrams is one sent by the head of the Navy on September 3rd, 1939. It read simply: “Winston is back.”
In Victorian England, one of the most important battles happened in South Africa – the siege of Mafeking. It was one of the first battles in which the telegram was used. Telegrams flew from Mafeking to London and from London to Mafeking. The first one read: “All well, Four Hours Bombardment. One dog killed.”
Things didn’t stay so easy. Lady Sarah Wilson sent a telegram from the city saying: “Breakfast: horse sausages. Lunch: minced mule. Well, Sarah.”
Some students read in the paper that the writer Rudyard Kipling was paid 50p a word. So they sent him 50p and asked for a word. He telegrammed back: “Thanks.”
By Natalya Predtechenskaya