After more than 155 years during which it delivered millions of telegrams around the world, bringing news of births, deaths, weddings, wars and more, Western Union delivered its last telegram messages last Friday, ending a means of communication that began before the U.S. Civil War.
Colin Wheeler, a spokesman for Denver-based First Data Corp., which owns Western Union Financial Services Inc., confirmed yesterday that the company ended its telegram services quietly on Jan. 27 by laying off 30 workers who still operated the telegram business.
From a peak of 200 million telegrams in 1929, Western Union's telegram business had plunged in recent years, and only 20,000 messages were sent in 2005, Wheeler said. "The telegram was the beginning of Western Union, and obviously, over time, with the introduction of the telephone, the Internet and e-mail ... Western Union changed its business and became a financial services company," he said. "Dropping the telegram services was the last step in becoming a full-time financial services business."
In its heyday, Western Union telegrams were an important part of person-to-person communications across America. A message could be dictated at one end of the country, sent over telegraph lines strung nationwide, and printed out and delivered to its destination before telephones and other means of communication were available.
Western Union had a long and colorful history. In 1851, the company began as The New York and Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Co., which five years later became The Western Union Telegraph Co. In 1861, Western Union completed the construction of its first transcontinental telegraph line, providing coast-to-coast communications during the Civil War. In 1871, the Western Union Money Transfer service was introduced, allowing customers to send money to distant locations through Western Union offices, and it eventually becoming the company's primary business. In 1914, Western Union introduced the first consumer credit card.
The company introduced singing telegrams in 1933, and in 1964 it unveiled a transcontinental microwave radio beam system, replacing its system of poles and telegraph wires. By 2000, Western Union had debuted its Web site, Westernunion.com, allowing customers to transfer money online.
Today, Western Union offers financial services, including money orders, money transfers, prepaid credit cards and more.
Also last week, First Data announced that Western Union's financial services business would be spun off as a separate, independent, publicly traded company.