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The text of the first telegraphic message transmitted using an "electrical telegraph system" by Samuel Morse in 1844 was "What hath God wrought?"

The first use in England of the word "Telegram" was described in the Albany Evening Journal on 6th April 1852. Bartlett: "A friend asked leave to use the word Telegram in place of Telegraphic Dispatch or Communication." Originally, there was much opposition from scholars because, following Greek analogies, the word should have been "Telegrapheme".

With the completion of the famed Australian Overland Telegraph Line in 1872 between Adelaide and Darwin, the honour of sending the first telegram naturally fell to Charles Todd (later Sir Charles) who conceived the idea, planned it and supervised the mammoth construction task. He telegraphed: "We have this day, within two years, completed a line of communication two thousand miles long through the very centre of Australia, until two years ago, a terra incognita believed to be a desert."

In 1895, the 21 year old Guglielmo Marconi started conducting wireless experiments in his bedroom which ultimately changed the world of science. Of course, Morse code was most common in early radio transmissions. Towards the end of his life, Marconi philosophised about his achievement: "Have I done the world good, or have I added a menace?"

The British Royal Family have been sending 100th birthday and diamond wedding (60th) anniversary congratulatory greeting telegrams since about 1915.


The purpose of the looped test tape is to simply check that the circuit is operational, the distant end to acknowledge a good reception of test message before traffic can be transmitted. Typical test messages:

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party.
Voyez le brick geant que j'examine pres du grand wharf.
Kaufen sie jede woche vier gute bequeme peize xy 1234567890.


World War II British troops and their families (and later American troops) were offered an EFM (Expeditionary Forces Message) telegram service. A study was made of typical social messages and 240 of the most popular formed a list of EFM telegrams. Each message was allotted a number. Eg:

#01....Loving birthday greetings.
#02............All my love dearest.
#03................Love and kisses.
etc., etc.

Telegrams were translated to numbers so that transmission was very much quicker. They were translated back to messages at the receiving office. However, occasionally things went a little wrong.....

A father received a decoded EFM telegram from his son in the Middle East: "Delighted to hear your voice on the radio. Love and Kisses. Baby and I are both doing well." Following an investigation, the sender was found to have won a sweepstake in the officer's mess. The prize - a free EFM telegram, but he had to consent to be blindfolded and told to chose his code groups using a pin!

A Major in the Middle East sent a telegram to his bank manager asking for details of his account. The reply from the bank was "Pounds135.14s.10d". The message seemed to have slipped through the tight censorship and was handed to the telegraph company minus the Pounds sign. It was then considered an EFM message as it contained only numbers. The puzzled Major received his decoded telegram from his bank manager as follows: "Very happy to hear from you dearest. Am fit and well. Many thanks for your telegram. Parcels sent."


In 1845, a John Tawell was spotted getting on a train for London after killing his mistress. The railway telegraph was used to send a message to London to inform the authorities of his evil deed. He was stalked by plainclothes policemen until he reached his lodging-house then they pounced on him. One can easily imaging his astonishment.

A Miss Phoebe Hayes walked into a Post Office in a Victorian town. She was a big woman with a large stern face who could yoke up a team and slaughter a sheep with the best of them. Her arrival was noted with some unease by the Post Office staff. She took down a telegram form and went through the irritations of composition. She proceeded to the counter and proffered her telegram. The clerk started to read it through but Miss Hayes shouted "How dare you read that - its a private message". The clerk raised his head wearily. "I have to read it, madam, to make sure its plainly written". Doubting her writing was just too imprudent. The supervisor arrived and it transpired that Miss Hayes believed that telegrams were never read by Post Office staff - in strict privacy they were enveloped, placed on a telegraph line and conveyed to the destination by some kind of giant kickback carrier. Further, the supervisor queried the address. Miss Hayes retorted, "Of course J Brown Goulburn is enough address. Why, he's lived there for forty years". When towns of the same name are located in different states, the necessity of paying for another word to signify the state was a reluctant extra expense. Miss Hayes had the last word, "But surely its the job of the PMG to know which town I want!"

One quite surprised addressee received a telegram from her son - "Headed for Russia, hiking through Persia", when she knew that he was travelling in Scotland, hiking through Ross-shire and Perth-shire.

A telegram messenger was dispatched from the Central Telegraph Office in Sydney one evening with a telegram for an addressee in a suburn 11 miles distant. The street to which the telegram was addressed extended into the scrub and was unlighted. After a number of unsuccessful attempts to effect delivery with enquires at houses in the street, the messenger returned to the township with a view to making inquires of the local policeman. The policeman arranged with the manager of the theatre to exhibit on the screen a request for information as to the addressee's exact address. A postman amongst the audience immediately supplied the details and the telegram was delivered.

The counting of words in telegrams was cause for much discontent. The phone rang - "telegraphs" was the reply. A gentleman's voice started, "Ah yes. Now, as it happens, I am going to send a telegram and would appreciate some guidance. Perhaps you might inform me if the word 'lawn mower' is one or two words?" The reply was, "two words". The gentleman continued, "Is that so? Well, perhaps you could tell me. If I went to purchase a lawn mower, would I get it in one or two parts?" The sheer logic of the gentleman's reasoning was unanswerable.

One telegram messenger was given a "Please explain" note by his superior as to why he took so long to deliver a telegram. His reply was that he was only told "to hurry back" and not to hurry there!

A famous PMG poster was titled "The telegram gets there first." One of the messenger boys in Hobart, Tasmania improved on that. He had a telegram to deliver addressed to a Court Magistrate. Court was in session but that did not deter the lad. Evading the outstretched arm of the policeman on court duty, he made his way through to the court and placed the telegram, with aplomb, on the magistrate's table in the middle of a hearing.

In 1942, 26,000 telegrams were lodged at Perth (WA) GPO off the liner Queen Mary in a bag, much like a cattle-feed bag. These had first to be censored, as it was war time, then transmitted to the various states using the Murray Multiplex system which gave a total of 12 transmitting arms, that is, 12 men, one on each arm. They started at 1800 hours and worked through the night and by 0900 the next day, 20,000 messages had been sent. The telegrams were from departing troops.

Telegram transmitted by Hong Kong Governor, Chris Patten at the stroke of midnight on 1st July 1997, at the moment sovereignty passed to China after 156 years of British colonial rule "I have relinquished the administration of this government. God save the Queen".

All communications from British embassies to the Foreign Office used to be written in the first person, as if from the ambassador himself, no matter who sent the message. Diplomats working for one of the last envoys to insist on this tradition, took revenge by sending a telegram (entirely accurate) to London reading: "I have fallen down a well in the garden. Am unconcious and seek medical advice."

In 1935, a newspaper editor heard a rumour that an English nurse had been killed in an air raid during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. Evelyn Waugh, the novelist, was covering events for the newspaper so the editor hurriedly dispatched a telegram reading: "Send two hundred words upblown nurse". Mr Waugh exhausted all possible leads to find the story but was unsuccessful. He telegraphed back: "Nurse unupblown".

A telegram sent by Dorothy Parker (1893 - 1967), US writer, to a friend on the successful outcome of her much publicised pregnancy: "Dear Mary. We all knew you had it in you".

During World War II, telegrams still had to be delivered. The messenger boys in London were replaced by 200 venerable elderly gentlemen re-titled couriers. Their major worry was not the bombs dropping all around them but rather the state of their feet. A special chiropody department was formed in 1942 and almost 1,600 examinations and treatments were logged until the end of the war. Boys well below call-up age were also engaged for telegram delivery. One 14 year old lad, Douglas Radley, was badly injured by a bomb whilst delivering a telegram but, just like a ship's captain, he refused medical aid until he had persuaded a passing policeman to deliver the telegram and he waited until delivery had actually taken place before he agreed to be taken to hospital.

One telegraphist recalled, with embarrassment, that a farmer received his telegram reading: "Twenty black-faced youths dispatched by rail 9:30am." The farmer may well have expected a contingent of African trainees rather than the ewes which he had ordered.

St Valentines Day was always a busy time in a telegram office, even during the First World War. A typical St Valentine message of the time:

"Rationed though may be the fare A valentine lunch with you I will share".

And weddings always generated telegrams. A typical, somewhat risque greeting:

"Weather forcast for the honeymoon night is a ridge of high pressure over central area and two warm fronts meeting turbulence tonight. A little sun later".

and finally......a POEM


With a tap, tap, tap and a click, click, click,
All day long they sing and laugh,
With a click, click, click and a tap, tap, tap,
As they work at the telegraph.

From ATCS Newsletter, March 1998.

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