The Telegraph Beats Out the Telephone in the End

by Colin Berkshire

Colin here…

Before the telephone was invented there was the telegraph. The telegraph was a lot like a text message or an email. You would write your message down and it would be delivered and printed at the far end.

Then, somebody in Canada invented the telephone in 1875, although Lars Magnus Ericsson had apparently invented it a couple of years earlier. Elisha Gray invented the phone in 1875 but it was Bell who first filed the patent ion 1876 and got all of the credit, despite being no earlier than the third to have invented it. It was never settled whether Bell really did file the patent before Elisha Gray. Both were filed on the same day, although strong evidence hinted that Bell’s documents were back dated.

The telephone was far superior because it was instantaneous and conveyed emotion. Within a decade the Telegraph was forgotten and within a few decades the powerful Western Union telegraph company was out of business.

So, it is surprising today that email and text messages are beating out the telephone. More messages and more circuits and more packets of data are dedicated to relaying telegrams than are dedicated to telephone calls. Seriously, text messages and emails are nothing more than telegrams.

I have to wonder if Western Union missed the mark when they simply gave up to the Bell System’s talking telephone. What if they had developed electric typewriters that could dial and type to any other electric typewriter in the world. Would the benefits of the written word have kept Western Union and its telegraph alive?

Today’s text messages and emails are just telegraph messages. They are growing rapidly in volume. Meanwhile, phone calls and voice mails are on a substantial decline. Voyage estimates that the average subscriber sends and receives 8% fewer voice mail messages per year, and this is compounding. Local wireline companies are seeing an 8% drop in subscribers every year. And now, Cell Phone companies are reporting declining voice minutes despite most plans offering unlimited minutes.

Coca-Cola has just removed Voice Mail from 95% of the phones at their headquarters building ( Wow, if that isn’t something unbelievable.

It’s fascinating to think that the telegram might have persevered and eventually win over the speaking telephone. I suppose it is a lesson about never giving up, ever.

Our own company experience bears out these trends. I often call and rarely leave voice mail messages. I am more inclined to call and then send a text or email. I am also known to tall the person calling me to just send me the message in an eMail where I can read and reply after thinking. (I tend to feel ambushed on the phone.) My wife probably hasn’t made a live phone call in the past year…she is sending “WeChat” voice chats a thousand times a day. She is holding 25 concurrent phone calls with her friends.

Just when we all thought we knew what unified messaging was, I will put forth that we need to re-think it. Unified messaging needs to include push-to-talk voice chatting. Half of the communications that take place in Asia are in this format. Unified Messaging doesn’t handle this well, or at all.

But truly the amazing realization is that the telegraph beats the telephone.