Given that our nation’s short-timer president insists his successor is illegitimate, it was no surprise that Russia’s Vladimir Putin sent Joe Biden a congratulatory telegram while Trump has yet to admit defeat.
But Putin’s message did involve something unexpected: In our cyberspace age of instant communication, a telegram?
Yes, that’s the case. And if you thought, as did I, that telegrams are passé, you’d be mistaken. In fact, many are still sent worldwide every year, mostly involving congratulations, condolences, and legal or government notifications.
The handful of companies still sending them have come a long way since May 24, 1844, when Samuel F. B. Morse tapped out the first telegraphic message, “What hath God wrought?”
Nowadays, you order your message on line, and it gets delivered by hand – but not by the legendary Western Union, which sent its last telegram in 2006 and now deals in digital money-moving.
One modern-day telegram company touts its service by noting, “While text messages and emails might be fine for a quick ‘hello,’ when it comes to urgent hand-delivered messages the telegram is still the king of communication… And when someone receives a real telegram they feel like royalty.”
I don’t know if Biden replied to Putin’s telegram, but the company says its typical one-day service indeed delivers to Russia, although “remote villages and rural areas may take longer.” The Kremlin no doubt rates priority.
According to one company, you can send a telegram anywhere for a flat fee of $28.95 plus 88 cents a word. By-the-word payment was always standard for telegrams, and this had an editorial effect on language: Customers were always looking for ways to tighten their writing by cutting superfluous words.
And, since in Morse Code punctuation was more complicated to tap out than words, and cost more, most people used the word STOP instead of periods to end sentences – a practice that gave telegrams their unique character.
According to some literary sources, an exchange of the two briefest telegrams in history occurred between the Irish writer Oscar Wilde and his publisher.
Wanting to know how sales of his latest book were going, Wilde wired, “?”
And his apparently satisfied publisher wired back, “!”
Rhode Island has its own telegram anecdote, involving the old short-line Narragansett Pier Railroad, which could traverse its entire length from Kingston to the Pier in 13 minutes.
It’s said that the owner of the giant Pennsylvania Railroad wired John Hazard, president of the local line, inquiring how much money was needed to buy it.
Hazard reportedly replied, “Mine not for sale. How much for yours?”
Back in the day, telegrams were popular because they were often cheaper than phone calls. A century ago, a typical call from New York City to Chicago cost $4.65, but a telegram was only 60 cents.
Today, one telegram company offers customers pre-written messages to fit many situations, i.e., “I wish I could be there with you to share this happy occasion,” or, “Hope you’ll be back on your feet in no time.”
Then there are suggestions for sympathy, some of which might be appropriate for our outgoing president as he wrestles with what has befallen him, such as, “This must be a very difficult time for you.”
In considering our own potential telegram to Mr. Trump, let’s stick with the money-saving method of being as succinct as possible.
In true telegram style, we might “wire” him: “Mr. President, when it comes to spreading baseless fantasies about election fraud, please, STOP.
Gerry Goldstein (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a retired Providence Journal editor and columnist.