Friday, April 17, 2020

Sending a Telegram - Today!

By Davalynn Spencer

Last December, technological power went out in our neck of the words – rather, a large chunk of southern Colorado. No cell phone service, internet, cable, etc.

So everyone went to the market.

It was a little crazy but interesting to see people gravitate to a “central” location in town.

That’s what folks used to do. Market day was a big deal. That’s when you exchanged news with others, found out how they were getting on, and shared the latest gossip.

The last cell-phone call I received that fateful morning was from my dear friend in Kentucky who was on her way to the hospital. She’d been ill and her husband decided the ER was in order. Good call on his part.

But that was the last I heard from her.

I could not call, text, or email, and I nearly panicked.

Over the next several days (when power resurrected), I spoke to her husband and children, but I couldn’t get to her. Yes, I could have mailed a letter, a get-well card, but it wasn’t the immediate communique I’d become so accustomed to.

And then it hit me – I could send her a telegram.

Did people still do that in these technologically advanced times?

Yes, I was happy to learn. They do.

Based on research for several of my novels in which telegrams are highly important, I knew a telegram had to be hand-delivered to the named, intended recipient. A few exceptions existed, I learned. As in my case, the telegram was delivered to the hospital and not directly to my friend, though she did receive it.

I also learned that the sender still pays according to word count. Just as tweets on Twitter are limited by character count today, a telegram’s length is limited by the money you want to spend. Proportionately speaking, it’s still expensive, possibly even abrasive, given the ease with which we text and email for free.

However, it was the only choice I had, so I paid.

It was worth it.

The word telegraphy was crafted from the ancient Greek words tele (at a distance) and graphein (to write). As electrical access stretched across the United States in the 19th century, so did telegraph wires.

The envelope for a Western Union Telegraph, c. 1861 (Photo: Library of Congress)
A name nearly synonymous to telegraph is Western Union, established in 1851 as the New York and Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company.

Ten years later, the first transcontinental telegraph line was completed in what is today Wyoming as a link to California, thereby connecting it to eastern networks. As the dots and dashes of Morse code stretched coast to coast, this “instant messaging” of the day signaled the demise of the short-lived Pony Express.

In 1863, telegraph lines linked Denver to the east, and it cost $9.10 to send a ten-word telegram to New York.

Some thirty years prior, American portrait artist, Professor Samuel Morse, in the late 1830s concocted a code of electrical dots and dashes used on a single wire for transmitting messages.

The first telegram. Professor Samuel Morse sending the dispatch
as dictated by Miss Annie Ellsworth, "What God hath wrought."May 24, 1844. Library of Congress

The early code used only numbers which were later “decoded” after being received via indentations on paper tape. Fellow American Alfred Vale expanded the code in 1840 to include letters.

Morse code soon became a language more easily heard than “read,” and the paper tape became unnecessary. Today’s International Morse Code was refined by Friedrich Clemens Gerke in 1848, in addition to other modifications, and was established internationally in 1865.

Morse’s original code remained the American Morse code and railroad code.

American Morse Code, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
The simple language consists of electrical pulses and the silence between them. It is easily transmitted, received, and interpreted by those who have studied and memorized the code and have been trained in its use. It has also been developed for languages other than English. However one internationally known message that is commonly recognized is the call for help: SOS, made up of three dots, three dashes, three dots.
Morse Key, cir. 1900, Wikimedia Commons | Hp.Baumeler

According to the company that sent my telegram, today’s telegrams are most often used for cancelling contracts, sending expressions of sympathy and bereavement, acknowledging celebrations such as weddings, and for communicating via the Military Postal Service.

They are sent domestically, overseas, to ships at sea, and to government representatives. And, I am happy to report, to friends recuperating in city hospitals. 

Today's telegram is ordered online and delivered on paper by a courier to the recipient's door in a sealed envelope.

You may ask, is it really a telegram if the means of transmission is the Internet and not a key as pictured above?

Samuel Morse would argue that it is not.

But for me, it was like stepping back in time to one of my stories and sending a very important message to a very import person, instantly. 

No ponies required.


Davalynn Spencer

Davalynn Spencer can’t stop #lovingthecowboy. As the wife and mother of professional rodeo bullfighters, she writes romance for those who enjoy a Western tale with a rugged hero, both historical and contemporary. She holds the Will Rogers Gold Medallion for Inspirational Western Fiction, teaches writing workshops, and plays the keyboard on her church worship team. When she’s not writing, teaching, or playing, she’s wrangling Blue the Cowdog and mouse detectors Annie and Oakley. Learn more about Davalynn and her books at Sign up for her newsletter and receive a free historical novella.


  1. Your friend must have been very pleased to receive your note, delivered in such a spectacular way. Thanks for posting. I hope your friend recovered.

  2. Great post Davalyn. The luddite in me loves it when an old school method comes to the rescue. : )