Friday, February 10, 2006

From Western Union STOP to Your Door STOP

With little fanfare, among the items buried in the recent news, was the announcement that the very last telegram from Western Union had already been sent, and that this once innovative technology was being discontinued in an age of universally accessible e-mail and text messaging. The telegram was an important communication medium for over a century and a half. The first telegram, which read "WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT?" was sent by inventor Samuel Morse in 1844.

The drama of the telegram and the way it drew attention to the communicative act just can't compete with the loudest "You've Got Mail" announcement or Eudora trill. And unlike Jacques Derrida's postcard, it came in an envelope, and so combined public delivery with a private message.

President Truman drafted a sketchy response to this telegram from Senator McCarthy, which is also preserved in the National Archives and Records Administration, but probably Truman decided that not to answer McCarthy was a much more damning reply.

Now former FEMA chief Michael "Brown Asserts He Alerted White House Quickly on Katrina" and is finally displaying the incriminating e-mails. Perhaps this is a reminder that electronic communications can be unilaterally ignored as well. Of course, Brown's sudden enthusiasm for evidentiary e-mail is particularly noteworthy, given his own embarrassing history of experiences with the medium.

For more on other "old" technologies, check out When Old Technologies Were New. Author Carolyn Marvin also writes about the history of free speech and civil religion.

Luckily, if you are feeling particularly nostalgic about this medium, you can still send friends a free "retrogram" via your computer, a fact which I discovered while researching the history of the telegram. STOP.



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