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SMS Killed the Telegram Star

India’s state-owned telecom company will discontinue telegram service this week. SMS and smartphones have rendered telegram service all but obsolete.

India’s state-owned telecom company has announced that it will send its last telegram on July 14th.

So, the first ‘text message’ service is ending, as it has been largely replaced by its ‘grandson’ SMS, arguably the most popular text message service ever. This last telegram will be sent 144 years after Samuel Morse sent the first telegram in the U.S.—144 years is not a bad run for a technology. How long will SMS last?

What may sound like a long overdue death to those of us on our umpteenth smartphone (Telegrams? Were those still around?), will likely have a ripple effect in India. The country has relied on telegrams as a legal means of communication for decades. Like a fax, it stands up in court.

SMS is starting to do that—Spanish operator Yoigo has a Registered SMS service that has the same legal standing as registered mail in Spain.

I'm sure whatever message goes out last this Sunday won’t be the nail in the telegram coffin. There are bound to be telegram hobbyists out there who’ll still tap out messages to each other beyond this summer. And perhaps this isn't even the very last telegram service, although a lot of the remaining ones look to be telegrams in name only, where the actual transmission happens via email. Anyone know of any 'real' telegram services left?

There is a red-thread running from the early days of the Telegraph all the way to SMS...

  • Telegrams used to be sent in Baudot code, a five-bit character set creator by Émile Baudot.
  • Baudot code is not only the precursor to ASCII (an eight-bit code), but also gave rise to the unit of measurement ‘baud rate’, used to quantify the speed of modems.
  • Telegrams originally used different code systems (including the Cooke and Wheatstone telegraph, which played a role in catching a murderer), but they were slow. Baudot’s approach was much faster and more efficient, and so became the standard.
  • SMS took its cue from Baudot, even though it has seven bits instead of five. It was designed for efficiency, and has quickly become adopted not just by mobile operators but by consumers on a scale that was never predicted.