- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 2, 2006

No more little yellow envelopes with good news and bad news STOP No more singing telegrams STOP No more night letters STOP No more telegrams of any kind STOP

Western Union has shut off its telegraph machines, wounded by fax machines and finally done in by e-mail. The bright yellow telegram, with little strips of words pasted on the form, is only an artifact of history.

In its day, the arrival of a telegram was a very big deal, stopping the heart in mid-beat. Nervous fingers tore open the little yellow envelope and breathing stopped. Nobody sent trivial news by telegram. Telegrams announced business deals, faraway births and sudden deaths. In wars past, parents got the bad news by Western Union: “The president of the United States regrets to inform you … .”

With no hint of irony, Western Union sent the message of its own death in the medium that helped the telegram’s demise: the Internet. The message posted on Western Union’s Web site without fanfare was couched in the language of lawyers and accountants: “Effective January 27, 2006, Western Union will discontinue all Telegram and Commercial Messaging services. We regret any inconvenience this may cause you and we thank you for your loyal patronage.”

Western Union was one of the oldest American companies. Its parent was founded in New York in 1851 as the Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Co., and in 1856 after a series of mergers, it became Western Union, so named to mark the union of east and west, and the company strung the first telegraph line across the continent in 1861. Four years later, the company opened lines to Europe and Russia.

Western Union introduced the first stock ticker in 1866, the first money transfers in 1871, the first charge card in 1914, and in 1884 was one of the first 11 companies used by Dow Jones & Co. to average the movement of stocks on the New York Stock Exchange.

The cost of a telegraph was computed by the word, and frequent users learned to speak in a cryptic idiom. There was typically no punctuation, because it cost more; the end of a sentence was marked, only if necessary, by STOP.

Bruce Ismay of the White Star Line dispatched a telegram to the New York office from the SS Carpathia, which had picked up some survivors of the most famous sea disaster in April 1912, and it was delivered by Western Union: “Deeply regret advise your Titanic sunk this morning fifteenth after collision iceberg resulting serious loss life further particulars later. Bruce Ismay”

When director Cecil B. DeMille traveled to California in 1913, he sent a Western Union telegram back to New York with the cryptic message: “Want authority to rent barn in place called Hollywood $75 a month.”

Telegrams were once promptly delivered by messengers, usually boys on bicycles. Singing telegrams cost extra: The boy would sing “Happy Birthday” for 50 cents. But after World War II, Western Union began delivering telegrams by telephone, offering to mail a copy if necessary, and as the cost of a telephone call fell, the demand for telegrams fell, too.

In the 1980s, profits from telegrams fell, and Western Union refocused its attention on sending money, calling itself “The fastest way to send money.”

The announcement came the day after parent company First Data Corp. said it would incorporate Western Union into its own company by the end of the year.

“It’s a little sad for the tradition of it, but it’s part of the evolution of the company,” said John Kraft, an analyst with D.A. Davidson & Co. in Great Falls, Mont. “From a financial perspective, it’s not an issue.”

Telegrams have not been a concern for investors, he said.

“It’s off the radar screen of investors,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve heard it mentioned on conference calls [with the company] ever.”

A new management group recently took over First Data and has been making changes to strengthen the company’s finances.

“There’s a lot of pressure on the company and the new management team to really streamline this company and make strategic changes,” he said. “If there were costs associated with having the technology available, and no one was using it, there is no reason to keep it.”

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