telegram and culture

telegram k over“Culture sits in places.”- Arturo Escobar <2001>



This is about changes in culture … and … no changes to culture as well as behavioral similarities and differences. And by ‘culture’ I mean social behavior & attitudes.


What happened that made me think about this?

In India the telegraph transmitted its final message at midnight Sunday.

While to many in today’s ‘if it wasn’t built yesterday it belonged to dinosaurs’ world … this inconspicuous piece of technology passing into history seems irrelevant and maybe brings out a yawn <if even noticed>.

But it is an interesting moment to reflect on changes in culture driven by technology.


Let me share a couple of thoughts off the top of my head.


–          The value of brevity & speed in communications

Brevity and speed in communications has always been valuable. The faster received news the faster they used that information to make financial decision, military decisions and family/social decisions.

It was such the case in the BC years <I would remind everyone of the original Marathon runner who ran the 26 miles to share the news>, the tea & spice & coffee traders of the East India Company sailing ships, the telegram in the 1850’s and i-phones on the scene today.

That said.

In the ‘good old days’ the telegram globalized communication, made news & information instantaneous <albeit with real journalists to insure some accuracy> and in meeting with the short attention spans of the day … the telegram communication was often briefer than the 140 character limit on twitter.


I imagine my point here is that we talk about a ‘faster world’ today. And a globalized world. And … well … all these things as if they just occurred last week. The world invariably gets faster all the time. That is what we people do … create things to make things more efficient. Certainly … technological innovations can allow cultures to make a large jump in time speed … but it is rarely a ‘warp speed ‘difference. I say that because while we people may not like change very much we adapt really really well … especially if change is sneaky. Every generation has ‘sped up’ … and while in current time & place the past looks ‘slow’ … it really wasn’t … you just sped up a little more.


And ‘short attention span.’ Geez. 140 characters would be a verbose telegram.  Nuff said.telegram blank


–          The gathering place for culture to thrive

I will begin with the telegram.

The telegraph offices were a gathering place where news was attained and discussed and debated. It was part of the hub & spoke cultural structure that created a vital backbone to local cultures … connecting them globally.

Gathering places provide opportunities to create an environment for expression and learning which can represent the cultures … locally and globally. The discussions <and places> serve as cultural intersections useful in guiding the formation and creation of a sense of place and belonging <once again … locally & globally>.




Newer technology innovations have deprived us culturally of this wonderful <telegram> hub & spoke structure. And replaced it with a new vital different hub & spoke.


First …

We have replaced it partially with ‘the coffee shop.’

Like Starbucks or hate Starbucks … it has become an integral part of the communication hub & spoke structure in culture. No longer is it just a ‘place to buy coffee’ but rather a social gathering place where ideas can be discussed, debated and disseminated.


These new gathering places are a changing transitionary of information, learning and expression. These places offer stimulation and contemplation as well as opportunities for togetherness.

Unlike the telegraph office where people gathered to discuss … the new gathering place actually acts not only as gathering points for lively minds … but also sites of seclusion and pensive solitude.


My point?

Behaviorally we people remain the same. We need some social gathering places to … well … gather. Collect news & information … and hone it in discussion. I could suggest it is the world’s behavioral trick to localize global news & information but I imagine that is a different post.

We adapt. We do the same things behaviorally just in different ways.


In the end? Culture sits in places. We find places to share ideas and disseminate information.


Second …

Hand held, or personal traveling, technology has begun to create a current culture featuring a sense of placelessness. This does affect the dynamics of culture <as well as economy>. And it seamlessly blends local and global <and the relationship between the two> and it has ultimately created a new dimension to the process of shared experience.

telegram conversationsInterestingly … while personal handheld devices would seem to end up having an increased  focus on the everyday, immediate practical activity of a practical life and social life it has actually simply personalized global web of information flow.

Local culture <and behavior discussions & decisions> are so intertwined with the global news of the day <even if the global news is whether Bieber needs to apologize to Ann Frank> that it is difficult to discern local from global at the everyday level.


Just as the telegram pierced through culture, politics and geography … current technology is doing the same.

The telegram changed local behavior <because it made global accessible faster>. Current technology does the same … and maybe even more so.

The rapid dissemination of information has always contextualized life by  showcasing the range of cultural conditions which shape perceptions and attitudes.

Once again.

Telegrams did that in the late 1800’s. Your i-phone or blackberry does today.


I imagine my biggest thought here is ‘placelessness.’ Even with coffee shops or any physical location in which people gather and discuss … the majority of the ‘gathering’ is now virtual. We still gather … and in even bigger more diverse groups than in the age of the telegram … but it is a different social interaction. Culturally we are adapting and changing <and a lot of old folk do not like it>.


Those are my thoughts.

Top of mind as I thought about telegrams.

Let’s just call it rambling with hopefully something smart within.


In closing … here is some information about telegrams and India.


–          India & the telegram

India’s telegram chapter began in 1850 when the East India Company strung up the country’s first 27 mile-long telegraph line between Calcutta and Diamond Harbour, located on the periphery of that city. It was set up by William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, who worked as a surgeon with the Company and taught chemistry at Calcutta Medical College. According to the book Science, Technology and Medicine in Colonial India by David Arnold, O’Shaughnessy conducted his own prior trials with electric telegraphs in 1839. He then built a 21-mile-long experimental line near Calcutta. To protect the line from heat and humidity, he used cables that were thicker than in Europe and North America, and covered them with an impervious layer of cloth and pitch. Writes Arnold: ‘From a few miles of line in 1851, telegraphs had extended over 4,250 miles of India and linked forty-six receiving stations by the end of 1856… By 1865 there were 17,500 miles of telegraph lines, rising by 52,900 miles by the end of the century. By 1939, India’s 100,000 miles of lines carried 17 million telegraphic messages a year.’


–          About the telegraph:

In 1809, a crude telegraph was invented in Bavaria by Samuel Soemmering. He used 35 wires with gold electrodes in water and at the receiving end 2000 feet the message was read by the amount of gas caused by electrolysis. In 1828, the first telegraph in the USA. was invented by Harrison Dyar who sent electrical sparks through chemically treated paper tape to burn dots and dashes. In 1837, British physicists, William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone patented the Cooke and Wheatstone telegraph using the same principle of electromagnetism. Morse gave a public demonstration in 1838, but it was not until five years later that Congress (reflecting public apathy) funded $30,000 to construct an experimental telegraph line from Washington to Baltimore, a distance of 40 miles. The message, “What hath God wrought?” sent later by “Morse Code” from the old Supreme Court chamber in the United States Capitol to his partner in Baltimore, officially opened the completed line of May 24, 1844.

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Written by Bruce