The Telegram Is Dying - Stop

In modern-day Israel, telegrams are mainly used for condolences, a fitting finale for a medium that is fast becoming a thing of the past.

Naomi Darom
Naomi Darom
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Naomi Darom
Naomi Darom

When Ma'ayan's supervisor at work died a year ago, she wondered how she should express her condolences to his widow. "She's elderly, so I didn't want to send her an e-mail," says Ma'ayan, a 30-something resident of Tel Aviv. "A telephone call on the day he died felt too personal, and a text message was out of the question." In the end, she decided to send a condolence telegram. She paid NIS 30 for two lines.

"I was surprised by how expensive it was, but it's like buying flowers for a new mother or picking up memorial candles at the cemetery," she says. "It's a formal gesture that you make at an emotional moment, and you don't care about the cost. The problem is that I couldn't find out whether it had really arrived, and when I saw her at the funeral the day after, I didn't know whether to mention the telegram or not."

Several months later, Ma'ayan's grandmother died, and she found herself on the receiving end of the condolence telegrams. "Sometimes, the mailman would knock on the door with a whole pile of telegrams. It's nice that there's something physical that allows people to express their sorrow when they can't be there," she says.

When Dana, a communications worker, lost her father three years ago, she, too, received several telegrams - mostly from colleagues or family members who lived some distance away. "It's a bit more respectful and tasteful than an e-mail - something that you send to people who are far away," Dana said. "The truth is that I didn't even know .these things still existed. It's like Twitter, only in print. You write a line and pay by the word. It's really weird."

Weird or not, telegrams have played a crucial role in transmitting messages throughout modern history. They announced the first powered flight, by Orville Wright in 1903. They disseminated news of the outbreak of World War II, and of the appointment of Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty.

Taking action

In the early years after statehood, Israelis often turned to telegrams, hungry for news regarding the repercussions of the 1948 War of Independence, or to share information about the births, weddings and deaths of family members.

Even today, in the age of the status update, the RSS feed and the tweet, telegrams are still with us. But we have reached the end of an era. The use of telegrams has been steadily declining for a decade, and last week the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee granted the Communications Ministry's request to strike telegrams from the list of services the Israel Post must provide.

Israel's decision was actually slow in coming. In the United States, Western Union scrapped their telegram service in 2006 after only 20,000 telegrams went out the previous year. In both Canada and Germany, the service is also dead. The Israel Post, however, is looking to adapt the medium rather than kill it off completely. In addition to illustrated telegrams, which comprise most telegram sales, the postal service is also planning to provide bank transfers so people who can't attend a wedding or the celebration of a birth can nevertheless send a secure gift - a written and illustrated congratulatory message accompanying a money transfer via the postal bank.

And there's gold in them there bills. Telegrams currently cost NIS 19.1 for the first eight words, plus 46 agorot for every additional word. And with the new bank transfer program, the post office would hike the price to as much as NIS 40 per telegram.

According to Deputy CEO Herzl Bar-Mag, the Israel Post is currently losing NIS 2.5 million per year on its telegrams, which forced them to take action.

"We have operators working with us whose sole job is to take telegram messages," he says. "And then to get those messages out, we have to dispatch a special courier. Would it ever occur to you to send a courier across Israel just to deliver an eight-word message?"

The numbers don't lie. People just don't want telegrams the way they used to. Over the past five years, Bar-Mag says, the number of telegrams being sent in Israel dipped by 40 percent, and by 50 percent in the preceding five-year period.

In 2011, about 127,000 telegrams were sent - 49,000 regular telegrams and 78,000 illustrated ones - compared with about 600,000 10 years ago. For comparison's sake, about 700 million letters, on average, are sent every year. Most of the ordinary telegrams come from banks, government offices, lawyers' offices and government institutions, and their purpose is usually to send an emergency message. "'Your car is here,' or 'You haven't repaid the loan and we're closing your account' - messages like that. Individuals almost never use the service," Bar-Mag says.

"It's not just telegrams," he continues. "We're going to start to see a decline in letters, too. People just aren't using the mail to transmit information anymore. It's just for physical objects - packages and money. The U.S. Post Office is really struggling right now because they never expanded their service beyond sending letters."

Most Israeli telegrams are sent via the Israel Post's website. The process is almost identical to sending an e-mail, except that on the receiving end the addressee is hand-delivered the message on a piece of paper. Customers who don't want to use the Internet can pick up the good old telephone and dictate the message to be transcribed.

Not everyone is willing to let go of the telegram, however. M., an office manager at a large Tel Aviv law firm, says her office will continue to send telegrams even if the cost becomes prohibitive, because they strike just the right tone for sensitive situations.

"When someone has a baby, we send flowers, but to express condolences we send a telegram," she says. "They usually are just three lines: 'We were sorry to hear...' 'We send our condolences...' 'May you know no more sorrow.'" Deaths that affect the law firm are rare, however, and M. adds that months can pass between each telegram. But when someone in the office loses a loved one, they are invaluable. E-mail, she says, is far too impersonal for such occasions.

Born of heartbreak

In the era of smartphones, we are all hyper-available, so much so it would send Samuel Morse for a loop. Morse, an American portrait painter, invented the telegraph after receiving a message far too late.

It was 1826 and Morse was away from home, painting a portrait of the Revolutionary War general Marquis de Lafayette. A messenger arrived on horseback, bearing one line from his father: "Your dear wife is convalescent." Morse abandoned the painting and hurried to his home in Connecticut, but when he arrived, it was already too late. His wife had died and already been buried.

Heartbroken, Morse was determined to hatch a faster means of communication. In 1832, while on a voyage home from Europe, he met Charles Thomas Jackson, a Boston physician who was also a student of electromagnetism. With Jackson's guidance, Morse dreamed up the single-wire telegraph, and when he returned to the U.S. he abandoned painting altogether.

He teamed up with Alfred Vail, a machinist and inventor, who provided him with funds and helped with development. In 1838, Morse demonstrated the single-wire telegraph for the first time, but it was only in 1843 that he succeeded in convincing the American government to install a telegraph wire between Baltimore and Washington.

Morse eventually earned both wealth and fame for his invention. Vail, despite his contribution, remained in his shadow.

In the 1920s and 1930s, when they were cheaper than a telephone call, telegrams peaked in popularity. In Israel, however - which had little infrastructure when it was established in 1948 - telegrams were at their hottest in the 1970s and 1980s.

Life was different just a few decades ago. Most Israelis endured waits of seven to 10 years for a telephone line. And people took things slow. "The culture changed. The world was once entirely different," Bar-Mag says. "People didn't rush when they had a message to share. They had more privacy and they didn't feel the need to be at the beck and call of relatives, friends and bosses 24/7. You didn't see a smartphone in the hands of every single little kid. When somebody wanted to give a message, he thought about it several times."

The template for an Israel Post telegram.
The Riegner telegram, sent in August 1942 by Gerhart M. Riegner, then-representative of the World Jewish Congress in Geneva, informing the Allies of the German plan to exterminate the Jews.
A greeting from Jerusalem teachers in 1949.