We’re all doing it these days as though it had always been a part of our lives, but how long is it since you sent your first email?
One company I worked for had an internal email network, very similar to the Internet, as early as 1993, but I can beat that by forty years. I sent my first email in 1953. I was working at Gladesville Post Office, in Sydney’s inner west, and sent it using Morse code.
That was my first job and, like most telegraphists, I enjoyed the work. Using landlines rather than radio we didn’t have an oscillator sending long dashes and short dots as you hear on old movies; rather we had a sounder (pictured) which clicked and clattered. We read the space between the clicks.
Morse had allowed the world to communicate for just over a century—the first message was transmitted in 1844—but it could not survive in the modern world. It was too labour-intensive and too slow. Although many of us boasted of our prowess it was a fact that we had to work at the speed of the distant operator and if he was out of practice then we snail-paced along, often at less than twenty words a minute.
As a result we stopped using Morse in Australia about 1959, although the last telegram was sent, ceremonially, in 1962. Morse code was replaced by teletypes, TELEX (the public teleprinter exchange), and finally by computerised networks which eventually became the Internet.
Telegrams were sent for all manner of reasons. Some were business, some were personal—including hatches, matches and dispatches—some advised of pending family visits while others confirmed their arrival. There were seasonal greetings of all kinds, from birthdays, to Christmas.
Christmas Eve was so busy that we worked long hours to try to clear the work before Santa came a-calling, and delivery staff worked late to get the telegrams out on time. We often abbreviated such messages to speed the transmission and a telegram reading, “Merry Christmas and a happy new year” would be sent as “M X and H N Y”. The person receiving it would be left to scramble along behind the distant operator, replacing the missing words, but typing was much faster.
Morse signals were as individual as hand-writing and, while expert operators were easy to read, others made very poor signals. I remember one Christmas Eve working with a man who started drinking about lunch time. As the afternoon wore on his signals became worse and worse until I was almost in the position of receiving no dots and dashes, but typing it down anyway.
I don’t dwell on the “good old days”. Those are an illusion. But if I had a chance to experience just one part of my life again it would be the years I worked with Morse.