How to write an old-style telegram. 

I'm about 30,000 words into On Jacaranda Street now and still have not left New Guinea! If you need a quick recap, go here. At least I'm no longer on the Sepik River, but Harold has decided to go to Sydney with Jack and Bea, hooray! Harold is such an endearing character, and I didn't want to leave him after the New Guinea section of the novel was done and dusted. I've become very fond of him.

In the chapter I wrote last week, Jack received a telegram, and it's been a lot of fun researching the history of telegrams. What I've always wondered is why telegrams used the word STOP to end a sentence. Why not use a full stop or period?

Well, the answer may come down to cost. Telegrams (also known as wires or cables) were cheaper to send than making a long-distance phone call, but the Morse Code for punctuation was charged for because it required a change in pace for the telegraph operator while STOP was free. The cost factor is why telegrams were brief and to the point. Mark Twain, who wanted to know about book sales, supposedly sent his publisher a telegram with a single “?” His publisher responded with “!” One hundred or so years later, we're still abbreviating our communications on Twitter and Instagram.

However, from my research, I think the more acceptable answer is that STOP was used by the military during WWI. To avoid any possible ambiguity with military messages, STOP was introduced to end a sentence. Also, at the time, there was no way to distinguish between upper and lower case with Morse. If you look at old telegrams, the words are often in all caps.

A Western Union telegram from 1930, announcing the Millsaps College beats MSU (then Mississippi A&M) in football (Photo: NatalieMaynor/WikiCommons CC BY 2.0)

I came across a 1928 booklet authored by Nelson E. Ross, titled How to Write Telegrams Properly, that advised to type out the message in all caps, read it out and make sure it made sense. If there was any possibility for misinterpretation, Ross advised using STOP. So, the military adopted this strategy, deploying STOP to ensure there was no chance of misinterpretation. After WWI, the practice was simply continued.

Did you know that the first telegraphic message was sent from Washington to Baltimore by the inventor of Morse Code, Samuel Morse, on May 26, 1844? It read: “WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT?”

My main character Jack Collingwood doesn't get this message, but he does get a telegram that starts, "REGRET TO INFORM YOU..." 




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