Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Tweets as Telegrams

Tweets as Telegrams

It occurred to me as I edited my historical novel that Twitter is the 21st century equivalent of a 19th century telegram.

Think about it. A telegram, for those of you who don’t know, was a succinct and fast way of communicating with others. People sending a telegram would be very brief because there was a cost associated with sending a telegram based on the number of words. So, as one of my characters said in a telegram,

In America Stop On way to new home Stop Will write when there Stop Love Stop Isabelle

In 17 words, Isabelle has conveyed that (1) she’s in America, (2) she’s head for a new home, and (3) she’ll write with the details once she’d settled. What it doesn’t say is (1) why she’s in America (Isabelle is British and is thought to be in China), (2) why she has a new home, (3) when she has an old one in England, and (4) when the letter with the details can be expected.

That’s not too far off the mark from Twitter. Although, with Twitter, my character could have added another 85 characters and been a little more forthcoming with details. So if she’d had Twitter, she might have said this,

I've safely arrived in America and am on my way to New Mexico Territory. I'll write with the details after arriving there. Love, Isabelle

Her Tweet probably wouldn’t satisfy her family any more than her telegram did, but at least they know where she’s going.

While her telegram would have been read by at least three other people, her tweet would have been read by thousands if not millions of people.

History of the Telegram

The telegram first came into use in the 1830s. In 1851, the New York & Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company was formed. In 1855, it merged with the New York & Western Union Telegraph Company to become Western Union. In 1861, it created the first transcontinental telegraph

The Demise of the Telegram

On Monday, 12 July 1999, the final commercial U.S. ship-to-shore telegraph message transmitted from North America by Globe Wireless, a company founded in 1911.The sign-off message repeated Samuel Morse's message from 155 years earlier, "What hath God wrought?"

It wasn’t until January 27, 2006 that Western Union announced, on its website, that it would no longer be transmitting telegrams. Western Union’s 155-year history came to a halt.

An Era’s Demise

An era of communications was dead and almost no one noticed. We were all too busy IMing and emailing to mark its demise.

Beginning of a New Era

Six months later, Twitter was launched in July 2006.

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