Communication has come a long way

2008-05-09 00:00

A few months ago when I was speaking to some 13-year-olds I mentioned the word “telegram”, and realised that some of them, in an age of e-mails, cellphones and text messages, might not know what that was.

Does anyone actually send telegrams nowadays? How old do you have to be to remember when you took a telegram form at the post office, wrote your message as briefly as possible, handed it in at the counter, and knew it would be delivered within a few hours?

Because you paid per word, many firms and individuals saved senders’ money by using registered single-word “telegraphic addresses”. Instead of writing “Shuter and Shooter, Church Street, Pietermaritzburg” and paying for six words, you could send a telegram to “Shushoo, Pietermaritzburg”, and pay for two.

Your message was typed out in the telegraph office and came through at the other end on a narrow strip of paper, like the ticker tape in a stockbroker’s office. The receiving office snipped it up into convenient lengths, pasted it on to a form, put it in an orange envelope and it was ready for delivery. If you lived in a city or town, a telegram would be brought to you by a telegraph messenger. If not, it was read out to you over the phone and the envelope would follow in due course by ordinary mail.

As late as the forties white children in South Africa could leave school at the end of Standard Six (now called Grade 8) after they had passed a public examination called the Primary School Certificate (PSC). Boys of 13 or 14 with their PSC could begin work in the Post Office as telegraph messengers, or “telegram boys” as they were generally called. They wore grey uniforms and could be seen speeding about the streets on government-issue bicycles delivering the orange envelopes, which they carried in small leather pouches on shoulder-straps. The Post Office at that time was entirely “government”, not semi-privatised as it is today.

In the thirties one of the men in charge of the telegraph messengers was Thomas Cragg, who knew what it was like to be a young working boy. At the age of 12 he had left his home in Devonport to join the Dublin Fusiliers as a drummer boy. He rose to the rank of band sergeant, became an accomplished cornet player, saw service in India, Aden and South Africa and retired from the army in Pietermaritzburg. Although he remained in touch with them by letter, he never saw his family again after leaving England as a boy. He died in Pietermaritzburg in 1954.

One of his telegraph messengers once wanted to go on a picnic to Table Mountain, but it was a day that the boy was on duty and permission was refused. He desperately wanted to go and said that he could arrange for another boy to stand in for him. Cragg reluctantly agreed.

At the picnic, the boy was clambering over rocks at the edge of a steep drop and fell to his death. This tragedy weighed heavily on Cragg’s mind, especially when the boy’s parents reproached him by saying that they wished he’d never allowed the lad to go.

In 1843 the United States Congress voted that Samuel Morse receive $30 000 for an experimental telegraph line between Washington DC and Baltimore and this was the beginning of a communications revolution. The Morse code translated the letters of the alphabet into long and short pulses, which sped along the connecting wires and conveyed a message almost instantaneously.

In a nice combination of old and new, when my cellphone receives a text message it beeps three longs, two shorts and three longs. It was preset for that and it was some time before I realised why it made that particular sound — it’s the Morse code for SMS.

In the 1890s Signor Marconi’s experiments and discoveries enabled telegraphy to do away with actual wires connecting sender and receiver — hence “wireless telegraphy” or “radio” as it came to be known. Telegraph wires were still used in most places for years after that, but the age of wireless had begun.

Stick-in-the-mud people still say: “There was a good programme on the wireless the other night.” And it seems quaintly old fashioned to those of us who grew up using the word “radio”.

Now the word “wireless” is again current, used to describe the latest Internet connectivity.

High-speed “written” communication has come a long way since a telegram boy on a bicycle screeched to a halt at your door and you signed for an orange envelope.

Join the conversation!

24.com encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.

24.com publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
0 comments
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

 
/News
Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.
 
English
Afrikaans
isiZulu

Hello 

Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.


Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.

Settings

Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.




Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.