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.

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