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No More Telegrams Stop


Myself By T.V. Antony Raj


A Telegraph Office

On 14th of July, the era of electric telegraphy will come to an end in India.

Before the advent of electric telegraphy, the word “telegraph” had been used for semaphore signaling. People used smoke, beacons, reflected light, and flag semaphore signals for transmitting line-of-sight signal messages.

Semaphore telegraph Bihar1823
A semaphore “telegraph” signalling tower in Silwar (Bihar), 13 February 1823, thirty years before electric telegraphy was rapidly introduced into India by the East India Company.

During the period 1820–30, the East India Company’s Government in India seriously considered constructing a semaphore network – a series of hundred feet high signaling towers (“telegraph” towers), along the entire distance from Calcutta to Bombay, each tower separated from the next by eight miles. Although such towers were built in Bengal and Bihar, the India-wide semaphore network never took off. By mid-19th century, electric telegraphy had become viable making manual signaling obsolete.

Dr. W. B. O'Shaughnessy
Dr. W. B. O’Shaughnessy

In 1851, Dr. W. B. O’Shaughnessy, an Irish Professor of Chemistry in the Calcutta Medical College, famous for his work in pharmacology and inventions related to telegraphy, conducted a trial run for a telegraph service from Calcutta to Diamond Harbour along the river Hooghly. He used a galvanoscope of his own design manufactured in India as the telegraph receiver. Signals were transmitted using electrical telegraph which unlike pigeon post did not carry a physical object bearing the message. The pre-requisite to use of telegraphy required that both the sender and the receiver should be aware of the method of encoding the message.

 Lord Dalhousie
Lord Dalhousie

A year later, after the experimental telegraph service was deemed to be a success, Lord Dalhousie, the Governor-General of India, sought and obtained permission from the Court of Directors of the Company for the construction of telegraph lines from “Calcutta to Agra, Agra to Bombay, Agra to Peshawar, and Bombay to Madras, extending in all over 3,050 miles and including forty-one offices.”

By February 1855 after all the proposed telegraph lines had been constructed paid messages were sent using these lines.

By 1857, the telegraph network had expanded to 4,555 miles of lines and sixty two offices, and had reached as far as the hill station of Ootacamund in the Nilgiri Hills and the port of Calicut on the southwest coast of India.

Replica of Morse's first telegraph instrument.
Replica of Morse’s first telegraph instrument.

In early 1857, the Morse instrument supplanted Dr. O’Shaughnessy’s instrument.

During the Indian rebellion of 1857, more than seven hundred miles of telegraph lines were destroyed mainly in the North-Western Provinces by the rebel forces. Nevertheless, The East India Company used the remaining intact telegraph lines that to warn many outposts of impending civil disturbances. The political value of the new technology was, thus, driven home to the Company. In the following year, the Company not only relaid the destroyed lines, but also expanded the network further by 2,000 miles.

The first Telegraph Act for India was the British Parliament’s Act XXXIV of 1854. When the public telegram service started operating in 1855, the telegraphic charges was fixed at one rupee for every sixteen words (including the address) for every 400 miles of transmission. The charges were doubled for telegrams sent between 6 PM and 6 AM. These rates remained fixed until 1882.

In the year 1860–61, two years after the end of Company rule, India had 11,093 miles of telegraph lines and 145 telegraph offices. That year telegrams totaling Rs. 5 lakhs in value were sent by the public, the working expense of the Indian Telegraph Department was Rs. 14 lakhs, and the capital expenditure until the end of the year totaled Rs. 65 lakhs.

The advent of radio in the early 1900s brought about radiotelegraphy and other forms of wireless telegraphy.


Since telegrams can no longer compete with internet and mobile SMS and smartphones, it is not surprising to learn that India going to shut down its 163 year old ‘Telegram’ service and the last telegram will be sent on July 14, 2013. The reasons cited: It is not commercially viable, there are huge losses, and in the current scenario it is outdated.

Shamim Akhtar, general manager of Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), India’s state-owned telecom company said: “We were incurring losses of over $23 million a year because SMS and smartphones have rendered this service redundant.”

In 1985, at its peak, 60 million telegrams were exchanged across 45,000 offices. Today, only 5,000 telegrams are sent every day in India by 75 telegram offices that exist, employing 998 people, down from 12,500 telegram employees in better years.

Telegraph services ended in the United States seven years ago. On July 14, 2013, 158 years after the public telegram service was first set up in 1855, the world’s final telegram will be sent in India.


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