Transcript for How a telegraph was sent – What happened in the post office room

Narrator:

Long before anyone had dreamt of telephones, mobile phones and text messaging, the telegram was the fastest and most efficient way to communicate over a long distance.

Telegrams were short written messages sent over the electric telegraph wire.

The first electric telegraph was demonstrated in London in 1837, and by the late 19th century telegraph wires connected thousands of towns and villages across the country – and the telegraph system linked the United Kingdom to the United States and the countries that made up the British Empire and beyond.

This was really revolutionary! Especially when you bear in mind that in the 1840s, it took ten weeks for a message to reach India, and for a reply to be sent back. Thirty years later using the telegraph service, the same message could be sent and the reply received in just 4 minutes. From 1870, when the Post Office took over the new telegraph network, until the service closed in this country over a century later, millions of telegrams were sent using this system.

If you needed to send someone a message, you would go to your local post office or telegraph office and fill in a telegram form. Amberley’s Fred Stanford explains how it was done:

Fred:

Once you’d … created your written telegram, the person behind the counter would have counted up how many words you’d used and charged you for those words. It would have then have been sent, either – if it was a larger office – through a pneumatic tube system to the telegraph office, or – if it was a smaller office – it would have either have been telegraphed or telephoned to the nearest telegraph office for transmission to the distant end.

Narrator:

In towns and cities, the larger post offices used a pneumatic tube system. The written telegram message was folded up, and fed into a little container. The container was then pushed into a brass tube. When the door to the tube closed, the force from compressed air whizzed the container to the telegraph room in another part of the building, or to a nearby telegraph office.

By the 1920s, the telephone was getting more popular. Few people could afford to have one in their homes, but public payphones were widely available - and, as a result, the popularity of telegrams started to decline. In 1935 the Greetings telegram was successfully introduced to boost the dwindling appeal of the service. During two world wars people came to dread the arrival of a telegram, because it often announced that a loved one was dead or injured.

After the war the Greetings Telegram service was expanded to counter the telegram’s ‘bad news’ reputation and boost business at the same time. You can see examples of Greetings Telegram forms displayed on the wall here. Telegram greetings for weddings, births and birthdays were popular right up until the service was discontinued in 1982, by which time the growth of the telephone market and the introduction of the fax machine meant that the telegraph network was no longer viable.