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Column: Dashing off into history

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On July 14, a long-outdated form of communication will gasp its last rattling breath and at last fall silent, years and perhaps decades after most people in this country even realized it was still in use. Maybe even longer since it was a legitimately important means of transmitting information.

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No, not newspapers. Even obsoleter.

Yes, really.

In the middle of next month, somewhere in India, a lonely operator who I imagine will have a bushy white beard and bifocals will send the world's last telegraph message. Presumably it will read, "Will you PLEASE check your email?"

Apparently, as the rest of the world moved on to telephones, text messages, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and pretty much every other form of modern communication that doesn't require you to learn a special code, India is still crazy enough about dots and dashes that somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 telegrams are sent every day.

Think about that for a second. The country that answers most of our tech support calls still leans heavily on a technology that once upon a time was considered a respectable step up from the Pony Express.

Not heavily enough, obviously. According to the Christian Science Monitor, even at a 5,000-message-per-day clip the telegraph service of India's state-owned telecom company was losing $23 million a year. That's according to manager Shamin Akhtar, who said text messages and smartphones have made telegrams obsolete. Akhtar is also probably getting a little concerned he might soon have to replace all of his VHS movies with DVDs.

It wasn't all about convenience, apparently. Many Indians preferred telegrams for their "authenticity," telecom service representatives told the Christian Science Monitor. I assume that means most telegrams were sent by the kind of skinny-jeaned hipsters who prefer the pops and crackles of vinyl records over digital music and use $500 cell phones to take pictures of their food, then warp them to look like they were taken with a cracked disposable camera.

If that's the case, telegrams won't be gone for long. Someone will create an app called Gramr that forces users to tap out all of their emails in Morse code.

Maybe even more surprising than the fact that telegrams are still around, though, is the fact they haven't been gone from the United States all that long. According to Fox News, telegraph service in this country ended just seven years ago. Right around the time the first iPhone was introduced.

Apparently, people like to hold on to outdated technology. According to Fox, there were nearly 20,000 new dot matrix printers sold last year, and Americans spent $7 million on new pagers. Because, I don't know, they're good for skipping on a calm lake?

There were 13 million blank VHS and audio cassette tapes sold in 2012. And even today 10 million people access the Internet on dial-up connections. I shed a tear when I think about how long those people had to wait for their Gangam Style videos to load. I don't even want to tell them about the Harlem Shake. They'll be stuck in front of their computers until November.

There is a cycle to technology. New things come along. Old technologies get left behind all the time. It just might take a while to put them entirely in the past.

It makes me wonder what will be next.

No, not the newspaper.

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Nathan Hansen
Nathan Hansen has been a reporter and editor with the Farmington Independent and the Rosemount Town Pages since 1997. He is very tall.
(651) 460-6606
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