It's not every day that we witness the death of a great communications technology. But that happened last Friday and nobody seemed to notice. Western Union posted this annoucement on its website a week ago:
"Effective January 27, 2006, Western Union will discontinue all Telegram and Commercial Messaging services. We regret any inconvenience this may cause you, and we thank you for your loyal patronage."
Some of us were under the impression that the telegram was already dead, but now we know for sure that it is. There was a time, of course, when the telegram was as hot as the Internet and e-mail are today. (Read Tom Standage's great book "The Victorian Internet" for the complete history).
But the rise of the telephone effectively crushed the hegemony of the telegraph as a communications medium. (Ironically, as I pointed out in my old history of the telecommunications industry, Western Union actually passed up the opportunity to buy the Bell telephone patents for just $100,000 believing that the device was nothing more than a passing novelty! Talk about your missed opportunities.) As Mike Musgrove points out in his obituary for the telegram in today's Washington Post, "Telegrams peaked in 1929 with 20 million messages sent. Last year, there were 20,000. The final one was sent last Friday."
Overall, the life of the telegram as communications technology lasted from 1844-2006. That's 162 years. Not bad. If e-mail lasts that long as a communications technology--and assuming a rough start date of around 1995 (when it really starting going mainstream)--then e-mail will die in the year 2157.
Of course, there are good reasons to believe that e-mail will be replaced by some other form of communications long before that. In light of the staggering pace of technological innovation we are witnessing today, I wouldn't be shocked to see e-mail's demise within my own lifetime. Once my grandkids are running around with microchip implants in their heads that allow instant telepathic communications, who needs to type out messages!