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Monday, June 27, 2022

Death of the telegram

But we still have the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885. It must be replaced, instead of piecemeal amendments

Written by Bibek Debroy |
April 27, 2017 12:42:49 am

Most people have read, or heard of, the Lynne Truss book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves (2003), about the importance of correct punctuation. The title is a reference to the clichéd panda story. A panda walks into a bar, eats a sandwich, draws out a gun, kills a few people and leaves. That’s because a panda eats shoots and leaves, but a manual stated a panda eats, shoots and leaves. I was reminded of this because an old myth about telegrams has started to circulate again. But, before that, a true story, not a myth: A gentleman I know was supposed to travel abroad from Kolkata. He didn’t live in Kolkata and took a train to the city. Meanwhile, a telegram arrived at his home in a mofussil town: “ARRANGEMENTS MADE STOP TRAVEL.” The panic-stricken wife took the next train to Kolkata, to dissuade her husband from travelling. This myth about telegrams has been floating around for a long time and courtesy the internet, keeps getting circulated.

A lady visited Europe and found an expensive bracelet. She sent a telegram to her husband, wanting to know if she might buy it. The husband responded by return telegram, “No, price too high.” The operator transmitted, “No price too high.” The husband successfully sued the telegraph company. Since that suit, telegraph companies have spelt out punctuation. So runs the myth — and it is nonsense. There has never been any such suit. But there is a booklet authored in 1928 by Nelson E. Ross, titled How to write telegrams properly. Let me quote from the section on punctuation marks: “If it seems impossible to convey your meaning clearly without the use of punctuation, use may be made of the celebrated word ‘stop’, which is known the world over as the official telegraphic or cable word for ‘period’. This word ‘stop’ may have perplexed you the first time you encountered it in a message. Use of this word in telegraphic communications was greatly increased during the World War, when the government employed it widely as a precaution against having messages garbled or misunderstood, as a result of the misplacement or emission of the tiny dot or period. Officials felt that the vital orders of the government must be definite and clear cut, and they therefore used not only the word ‘stop’, to indicate a period, but also adopted the practice of spelling out ‘comma,’ ‘colon,’ and ‘semi-colon.’

The word ‘query’ often was used to indicate a question mark. Of all these, however, ‘stop’ has come into most widespread use. It is interesting to note, too, that although the word is obviously English it has come into general use in all languages that are used in telegraphing or cabling. ‘Stop’ is of course never necessary at the end of a message.” That quote sums up the use of STOP quite succinctly, started by governments during World War I. However, Nelson Ross probably got it wrong on “misplacement or emission of the tiny dot or period”. At that time, transmission was through Morse Code which had dots and dashes for letters and numbers, but not punctuation marks. If you needed to use punctuation marks, there was no option other than spelling them out. After World War I and government use popularising STOP, others also started to use it.

There is another myth floating around, about telegraph companies deliberately spelling out punctuation marks, because this increased their profits. This is impossible to prove or disprove. However, it is true that in 1937, four major US telegraph companies (Western Union, RCA Communications, Postal Telegraph, Mackay Radio and Telegraph) agreed not to charge for punctuation marks in domestic telegrams. Charges were levied earlier. Since 2013, we no longer have telegrams, though we still have the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885, amended several times. There should be a completely new Telegraph Act, instead of piecemeal amendments. The Communications Convergence Bill has some elements of this, though it has other sections too. In passing, Delhi has a Telegraph Lane, as do several cities in Britain. India Post has an ePOST service, which, at a stretch, incorporates some elements of the old telegram. Strictly speaking, the old telegram was a BSNL portfolio, not an India Post one. Finding telegrams unviable, BSNL terminated telegram services in 2013. But when terminated, it had several elements that were web-based, not quite the kind of telegraph service opened between Kolkata and Diamond Harbour (1851) and Kolkata and Agra, Bombay, Madras (1854).

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Most people have forgotten there was an Electric Telegraph Act of 1854 that preceded the 1885 one. At that time, “Within the territories in the possession and under the Government of the East India Company, the said East India Company shall have the exclusive privilege of establishing lines of Electric Telegraph. Provided that the Governor General of India in Council may grant a license to any person or Company to establish a line of Electric Telegraph within any part of such territories, which license shall be revocable on the breach of any of the conditions therein contained.”

A number has been attributed to BSNL sources, of a peak of 60 million telegrams sent, in 1985. Thereafter, the figure dipped to around 6,000. However, around 20,000 were sent on the last day, being a special occasion. Technology killed the telegram, as it did in other countries too.

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The writer is member, Niti Aayog. Views are personal

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