It always marked a turning point in those old movies from the ’30s and ’40s. Someone would receive a telegram, indicating that all was forgiven / someone had died / a couple had married / a ship had been lost at sea. In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1941 classic, Shadow of a Doubt, Teresa Wright’s family receives a telegram indicating that her Uncle Charlie would be paying them a surprise visit, little knowing the havoc he would unleash in their home and community.
On the last day of 2017, Belgium finally ended telegraph service, which had begun more than a century and a half earlier and was a fixture of daily life for so many people around the world. In so doing, it followed the earlier moves of Great Britain (1982), the United States (2006) and India (2013).
In 1837 the first electrical telegraph was developed separately by Sir William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone in Great Britain and Samuel Morse in the United States. Although there were a number of means of communicating via the new medium, Morse Code attained such heights of popularity that the opening of an RKO Radio motion picture included the sound of Morse Code. Even now it is the rare person who does not know that an SOS distress signal consists of three dots, followed by three dashes, followed by three more dots.
Machines and screens
By the early 1970s, when I was working for my father during the summers, I operated a telex machine, then the latest incarnation of telegraphy. Though my memories of this have faded with time, I recall typing text that would be translated into code on a length of paper tape, which I would then feed through the machine to transmit to the remote machine where it would be automatically translated back into text. During that terrible summer of 1974, when Turkey invaded my father’s native island of Cyprus and our relatives’ whereabouts were unknown, it took two weeks of anxious waiting until we received on this machine a brief message from my Uncle Angelos: “All are well.”
By the closing years of the century, we had entered a new world. Yes, we were still “faxing” documents to people, and there were still telegrams in some places, but the rise of the internet was already changing the way people communicated with each other across vast distances. In fact, my relationship with my wife began as an email correspondence that eventually developed into marriage.
Of course, Hollywood was quick to make the most of the new technology, as seen in such movies as You’ve Got Mail (1998), a comedy that explored the complications of an email romance between Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. But if email has effectively connected people separated by thousands of kilometres, the proliferation of smart phones seems inadvertently to have isolated people sitting next to each other in the same room. How the movies will deal with this remains to be seen, but the notion of two young people staring longingly into separate screens isn’t exactly charged with romantic potential.
Nevertheless, the world we inhabit nearly two decades into the 21st century would amaze our forebears, who had to wait for the occasional telegram to mark the important milestones in their lives such as birthdays, weddings, baptisms and funerals. On any day I am in almost constant contact with friends and relatives in all parts of the globe. I can keep track of a young cousin studying in Denmark, one of my oldest friends in Minnesota, second and third cousins I barely knew existed until a few years ago, and even elementary and high school classmates of whom I had lost track over the decades.
For this expanded sense of community we can rightly thank God, as long as it does not tempt us to ignore the people in our more immediate surroundings. IN THE MEANTIME, I WOULDN’T WASTE TOO MANY TEARS MOURNING THE END OF THE TELEGRAM – (STOP) –