The Spread of a False Fact

If you subscribe to Now I Know, my email newsletter of interesting facts, you know that I have a decent eye for topics. Over the weekend, I was writing up one I had come across a few weeks earlier. Apparently, India is about to discontinue its use of the telegraph, and the last telegram in the world (!!!) will be sent on July 14th.

Apparently. It’s not true. Here’s what I wrote (feel free to skip it) before I realized the error 1:

Dot Dash Dot, Dot Dot, Dot Dash Dash Dot

Born: March 24: 1844

Died: July 14, 2013 — absent a midnight-hour intervention.

Such is the fate of the telegraph.

On the first date above, Samuel Morse, in Washington, D.C., with members of the U.S. Congress gathered, sent a 18-letter message (encoded in dots and dashes) to his assistant, Albert Vail, waiting patiently in Baltimore. Vail returned the message — “what hath god wrought” with an implied question mark — changing history forever. For the first time, as the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal points out, this “mark[ed] the beginning of a new era of communication, in which information can travel faster than any human by means of conveyance.” And the end of that beginning is fast approaching.

As broadband internet and mobile communications technology has advanced, the value of the telegram has waned dramatically. In the U.S, Western Union discontinued the service in 2006, and at the time, a telegram cost $10 due to an increased reliance on third-party couriers. (Compare that to the cost of text messages, which even at a dime feel outrageously overpriced.) This ended the service in America, but many other areas still employed telegram offices for years subsequent. India is the last holdout. Until later this month, that is.

Telegram services in India are provided through a government-owned telecom company called Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited, or BSNL. BSNL provides most of India’s landline telephone service as well (per Wikipedia, it has 75% of market share). It also has broadband Internet and mobile/cellular telephone offerings, but its footprint in those markets is not nearly as big. As the country becomes more and more digital and mobile, BSNL is finding its finances hurting — revenue is down and it posted a $1.5 billion loss in 2011-2012. Telegram services

And it ends there. It has all the making of an excellent story, except that the punchline is just plain wrong. Not only is BSNL’s decision to end telegram services not the end of the line for the telegram around the world, but it isn’t even the end of the line in India. What a you-know-what-storm.

What happened?

I was using this NBC News article as my main source, and it doesn’t say anything about the telegram’s impending eradication. I saved the article in my Instapaper account and the grabbed text also omits the “fact.” But I know I didn’t make it up, so a trip to Google helped me figure it out. And if you look carefully at the NBC News article, some of the evidence is still there:

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.

Check out the URL of the link to the CS Monitor article. It’s <>. See? World’s last telegram. But if you click the link, you’ll see that the URL is now <> and there’s an “Editor’s Note” at the top of the piece:

The original story incorrectly heralded the worldwide demise of the telegram. In fact, some telegram services live on, including an international telegram service that will continue to operate in India even as the state-run service is shutting down.

Unfortunately, a lot of the harm was already done by then. Here are a selection of places which have now published a story about the world’s last telegram, without any update on that article itself:

I don’t exactly know why my skepticism radar went off when it did. I wanted to see why BSNL was shutting down the telegram service and was going to write “Telegram services cost BSNL $______ per year,” and expected that item to be in the NBC News article. When it wasn’t, I went searching, and I just couldn’t find it. In fact, the body of the Wikipedia entry for BSNL at the time of this writing only mentions the word “telegram” once:

BSNL announced the discontinuation of its telegram services from 15 July 2013, after 160 years in service. It was opened to public in February 1855, in 2010 it was upgraded to a web-based messaging system in 2010, through 182 telegraph offices across India.

That’s likely when the “oh no” moment hit me, now that I think about it. There’s no way that the Wikipedia entry would mention the end of the telegram service and fail to mention that it was the last telegram service anywhere… right?

So I poked around Wikipedia some more. Eventually, I found a this summary of the status of telegram services worldwide. It’s not short. There are a lot of countries still using the telegram in one capacity or another.

We’ll see if anyone spreads the fact further over the next few weeks.




  1. The title was awesome, too. :(
Originally published on June 30, 2013