June 18, 2013 at 4:23 PM ET
The Indian government will shut down the country's 160-year old telegraph service in mid-July. The decision risks leaving lawyers, soldiers and government officials without a trusty communication tool.
BSNL, a government-run company, will deliver its last telegram on July 14, according to a company letter sent by Shameem Akhtar, senior general manager of telegraph services.
The telegraph system played a key role in the mid-nineteenth century during the British Raj, but is still used by some communities in the country today.
Current and past telegraph operators told The Hindu that regular people still rely on telegrams to reach certain corners of the country. Lawyers use the system to swiftly send court orders that can't be faxed and will take too long to arrive by mail. Also, the Indian military does not accept certain emergency requests by phone, to extend a leave of absence for example, making telegraph the tool of choice for its soldiers, The Hindu reports.
Couples who've eloped to marry because their families disapprove of their union for caste or class or religious reasons, send telegrams as news to their parents, according to the Christian Science Monitor.
Cheap cellular phones have become fantastically popular even in the most remote corners of India, where 59 percent of the population owns a mobile device of some kind. So, in recent years, demand for the telegraph service has waned. BSNL is seeing losses of $23 million a year, the Monitor reports.
Telegram companies still exist as part-Web services, but India is the last country to use the service on a large scale. BSNL still sends about 5,000 telegrams a day, according to the Telegraph. In the U.S., the Western Union delivered its last telegram on Friday, February 2, 2006. The cost of a telegram back then was $10.
The telegraph was set up in India during the early days of the British Raj. Historians credit a young surgeon named William O'Shaughnessy with setting up the very first demonstration line near Calcutta in 1833 — eleven years before Samuel Morse wired "What hath god wrought?" from Washington D.C. to Baltimore in Morse code.
When it was completed in 1856, the Indian telegraph stretched over 4,000 miles and helped a handful of foreign officers and traders take control of motley group of independent and disparate kingdoms. Across the world, Tom Standage, author of "The Victorian Internet" writes, the early telegraph networks were responsible for "hype, skepticism, hackers, on-line romances and weddings, chat-rooms, flame wars, information overload, predictions of imminent world peace."
But before it shuts down, the Indian telegraph may see one last surge of popularity yet, thanks so curious, smartphone-carrying 20-somethings who are making trips to telegraph offices to sample a bit of history while they still can.