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Western Union Sends Its Last Telegram

The era of the telegram, an icon of communication dating back 150 years, came to a quiet end last week. Western Union says it delivered its final telegram on Friday.

In truth, the telegram long ago succumbed to long distance telephones, faxes, e-mail and instant messaging. Even deliverers who sang them couldn't save telegrams from the dustbin of history. The fact that one final telegram was sent last Friday is a tribute not to the telegram's endurance, but to the glacial tediousness of extinction itself.

What will we remember of the telegram? Probably the prose style the economic of telegraphy engendered. Punctuation cost extra, so the word STOP substituted for a period. Otherwise, it was brevity in the extreme -- pronouns, verbs omitted.

The telegram made tabloid headline writers out of ordinary folks sending urgent messages. Sometimes those urgent messages contained the worst news, sometimes the best.

Tom Standage, author of The Victorian Internet, says telegrams were most popular in the 1920s and '30s, when they were cheaper than a long-distance call. But the telephone and e-mail eventually led to the extinction of the telegram.

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Robert Siegel
Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.