Telegraph service in India

G V Joshi | Updated On : Jul 27 2013 12:27AM IST

Known as “taar” in India, telegrams have been both anticipated and feared for nearly 160 years, bringing some times good but more often times bad - but always urgent - news to Indians since the 1850s.
 
Now the technology that spurred the Indian telecommunications boom some time in the 19th century, has become a victim of that boom’s success and further development, as India has announced that it will be shutting down all telegraph services as of July 15, 2013.
 
In 1850 an experimental electric telegraph started for first time in India between Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Diamond Harbor (southern suburbs of Kolkata, on the banks of the Hooghly River). In 1851, it was opened for the use of the British East India Company. Subsequently construction of telegraph lines started through the length and breadth of the country. In 1854 telegraph facilities were opened to the people of India.
 
By 1857, the telegraph network had expanded to 4,555 miles of lines, sixty two offices, and had reached as far as the hill station of Ootacamund in the Nilgiri Hills and the port of Calicut on the southwest coast of India. The service was/is operated by postal department and its successors like Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL).
 
A telegraph is a machine that is used for transmitting messages in the form of electrical impulses, which can be converted into text and data. A message sent this way is called a telegram or cablegram, while someone who operates a machine is known as a telegrapher.
 
Telegraphy was a major mode of commu-nication from the middle of the 1800s until well into the 1900s, before ultimately being supplanted by inventions like the telephone, radio, and then Internet e-mail etc etc. The earliest version of the telegraph was developed in the late 1700s, primarily as an idea on paper, but it laid the foundation for various forms of the devices that appeared in the early 1800s.
 
With the development of the electromagnet, Samuel Morse and Alfred Vail were able to develop and patent a reliable electric system in 1837. Morse is often credited with being the inventor of the telegraph, but this is not the case. Many other inventors had patented various versions of the machine before Morse. It is general thought that Alfred Vail was the scientific brain behind the invention. Morse popularized the device, however, and developed a workable, easily learned alphabet that could be transmitted using the machinery. By 1843 the first telegraph line of 64km was laid from Washington to Baltimore in the US.
 
On May 24, 1844, the first telegraph message ‘What Hath God Wrought’ was sent electrically from the Supreme Court chamber, in the US Capitol, Washington to the railway depot, Baltimore. Gradually, the system became popular in the whole of America and spread rapidly across Europe and was introduced in India by the East India Company or John Company, as it is also called. The telegraph system dominated the entire communication system till 1877.
 
Telegraphic communication with India was first established in 1864 by overland telegraph lines from Europe to the top of the Persian Gulf and then by an undersea cable to Karachi, but the overland section was never satisfactory, prompting efforts to lay more reliable cables below the sea.
 
Newly discovered documents have revealed that England was linked for the first time with India through telegraph on 23 June, 1870, via thousands of km of cables laid painstakingly below the seas. This reduced the time for sending and receiving messages from months to minutes.
 
In the late 1890s and early 20th century, wireless telegraphy began to emerge, and messages were transmitted over the radio waves. This permitted people to rapidly transmit messages in areas without cables. It also enabled ship-to-ship communication. First wireless telegraph station was established between Sagar Island and Sandhead in West Bengal. “Radiotelegraphy” as it is also called, laid the base for later methods of communication.
 
Radio-telegraphy between the UK and India was introduced in 1927. It was inaugurated by Lord Irwin on 23 July by exchanging greetings with King George V.
Because transmitting the signal is a laborious and time-taking job, the operators had developed a shorthand to make transmission of routine messages more rapid.
 
There are 44 code numbers used for faster communication through telegram. Eight, 16, 17 and 25 stands for greetings on the occasion of a marriage, depending upon your relationship with the bride and groom – from a young relative or friend to elderly relatives like grandparents. The number 100 stood for expressing grief following the death of people you know.
 
The invention of the telegraph and the emergence of telegram in the mid-nineteenth century allowed the routine transmission of weather data like maximum/minimum temperatures, barometric (atmospheric) pressure, wind velocity and direction, and relative humidity (water content in air) from observatories scattered throughout the length and breadth of India to meteorologists based at the central forecasting office of the India Meteorological Department (IMD) for forecasting weather.
 
There is a Telegraph Memorial at Delhi, located near the Kashmiri Gate. It was from this memorial that two English officers Pilkington and Brendish sent the last message to Ambala and informed the local commanders of the revolt in May 1857, so that they could plan the counter attack. The last message which they sent was “We are off ”. During the mutiny of 1857 (now called as the first war of Indian independence) more than seven hundred miles of telegraph lines were destroyed by the mutineers (now called as patriots).
 
Sir Robert Montgomery, a British administrator in the days of British Raj, had remarked after the mutiny of 1857, “The electric telegraph has saved India.” The comment is inscribed on the memorial. Though the telegram may seem like an obsolete technology in the age of smart phones, SMS (texting) , email, IPAD and the like, some critics of the shut-down in India point out that in many rural areas and for weaker section of the population, it is still a vital form of communication and should be continued.
 
BSNL employees have also objected to the decision to discontinue the service. According to them, even in this modern era of communication, a telegram is the only medium, which is considered as a legal document in a court of law. Other modern-day other mediums, such as e-mail and SMS, are not accepted as valid proof in court.
 
The telegram is also used by the army, navy and air force personnel. Phasing out the telegram services will affect soldiers’ families who live in remote villages and don’t have access to mobile phones. It is felt an alternative should be found as early as possible, otherwise the service should be continued in small towns and villages in a small way.
 
The word “telegraph” still appears in the names of a number of newspapers and magazines.”Daily Telegraph” in the UK and “The Telegraph” from Kolkata are well-known. - PTI Feature