This is a throwback Monday piece. When TV broke the news that the world’s last telegram will be sent from India on July 14, a tweenie daughter of a co-worker sidled up to me and asked what a telegram was.
She said she was addicted to Instagram and had heard of Moneygram, but she had no inkling of what that other “gram” was. So I gave her a description of what that relic was which she simultaneously fact-checked by Googling the word on her iPad.
To cut a long story short, she was aghast to hear that a generation ago, sending a two- sentence message required days of relay race involving many stages.
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During the Petromax era, if a father living in the shadows of Mount Apo would like to inform his son who was studying in Cebu that the family pet—the carabao – had been sold for tuition money , he will hie off to the telegraph company in the poblacion. Those in business then were RCPI, PT&T, Clavecilla and the government- owned Bureau of Telecoms.
On the booth he picks a paper and writes his message, editing it many times so he can save on the cost, as telegraphic messages were measured by letters.
Telegram-speak then included substituting STOP for period, as telegram was not punctuation-friendly. Like ‘NO MORE FOOD STOP SEND MONEY STOP’.
By the way, telegrams were not lower case -friendly. They screamed in all-caps . Emoticons? None. Even if it was in the 1970s when smiley icon debuted.
But there were already jejemon versions of telegram-speak like REURTEL, which meant “regarding your telegram” . For college students waiting for monthly allowances, the best came in two letters - TT, which stood for “telegraphic transfer”, or money being sent through the bank.
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The clerk then counts the number of words, and bills him based on the number. Then later in the day in a prearranged time the telegraph operator will hunch over a telegraph machine (Yes, like the one the sinking Titanic used in sending out the SOS and just like the bell the lead character pounds on the hotel reception desk ) and furiously taps it.
While this is being done, the neighbors, in fact the whole town, are hoping that the di-di-dat-dat sound of the Morse code being transmitted will not create static that will mar the radio broadcast of Zimatar that the tigidig-tigidig of the stallion’s hoof will not end up sounding as tigidig-dat-di-di-dat-tigidig. Or if it is a tearjerker, listeners hope that static will not ruin the Vicks-aided acoustic crying.
Meanwhile hundreds of kilometers away, a telegraph operator with an earphone on his head, records by pen the di-di-dat-dat he hears and then translates them into words. He will then take out a 4- inch by 6 -inch stationery on which he will type, using a typewriter , what he had transcribed.
He then puts the paper inside an envelope, takes out his bisikleta, and delivers it to the addressee. That is if it is a “rush” telegram for which the sender pays additional.
If it is an ordinary telegram, however, expect it to be delivered in 48 hours from date of transmission. And that was already the fastest mode of communication in phone-less places 30 years ago.
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By the way, there was also another type of the telegram, the social telegram, in which clones of Hallmark cards were used .
If you planned to send one, telegram companies had a ready menu of messages —from the sublime to the syrupy—that be can ticked off depending on the occasion.
My male friends used it as a tool to win over the objects their affection. And many girls displayed the social telegrams they got as trophies of their growing fan base .
Later, there were newer and modern versions of the telegraph machine, some bypassing the need for transcription and typing by hand. For all its prowess, technology wasn’t able to invent a substitute for the telegram delivery boy.
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The reports on the demise of the telegrams said that the last telegram sent on July 14 came 144 years after Samuel Morse sent the first telegram in Washington.
I do not know when the last telegram was fired off in the Philippines but in the United States , Western Union sent the last one back in 2006, 150 years after the company was founded.
In the Philippines, the first telegraphic link was established in 1867 . It was from Manila to Corregidor. On the eve of World War II, Federico Oquindo wrote that the Bureau of Posts was already operating 106 radio stations, 459 telegraph offices interconnected by 14,607 kilometers of overland telegraph lines and 326 nautical miles of submarine cables.
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Though slow it was, the telegram brought news good, like the birth of an apo, the daughter’s passing of a board exam, or sad, like one is being summoned back home to attend the funeral of a loved one.
Today, one can simply send a text message in seconds to someone who is in place 12 time zones away
But if you will scan an old photo album, chances are telegrams are interspersed with black-and-white photos as if they annotate and supply the narrative to the images captured a long time ago when life then, to use a Facebook terminology, was not complicated.
Even the story of our country’s past can be pieced together through the telegrams sent and received by those who made history.