Bryan Caplan  

Creative Destruction of the Telegram

The Trade Deficit... Gresham's Law of Comments...

My grandpa sent me a telegram to congratulate me on my college graduation. Even then, I thought it was weird. Thirteen years later, the market has finally pulled the plug on telegrams:

Well, now nothing is worth a telegram. Western Union, as you may have read, ceased its telegram business on January 27 after 155 years of informing the world of everything from a baby's birth (the now forgotten "Storkgrams") to a ship's death (Bruce Ismay's dispatch to White Star Lines New York office: "DEEPLY REGRET ADVISE YOUR TITANIC SUNK THIS MORNING FIFTEENTH AFTER COLLISION ICEBERG…)

It was altogether fitting and proper that Western Union announced the telegram's demise with a short paragraph on its web site, The message thanked the public for its "loyal patronage." That patronage had shrunk decidedly from the telegram's heyday. Only 20,000 telegrams were sent last year. There were 200 million sent in 1929.

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COMMENTS (6 to date)
T.R. Elliott writes:

It is interesting to see a technology go by the way side that had been a major communication form. Though I love the way you find it necessary to bring your god "the market" into the discussion. There are lots of candies I liked as a kid. Can't get 'em anymore. Market has spoken. 8 tracks. Where did they go. Market has spoken. Records. Market.

Lots of stuff.

Will TCS be writing about the demise of those obsolete things as well. I look forward to the posts.

And what happen to the telegraph?

Ted Craig writes:

Actually, Western Union blew it in a sense. They should have made a loud public announcement about their plan a few months before they ceased sending telegrams. I'm sure they could have made a nice chunk of change from people like myself who would have sent one just to say they did.

Josh writes:


What's your complaint? Are you longing for the pre-ipod days when 10,000 songs was a stack of vinyl a mile high? I'm pretty sure we made positive progress there. And didn't you hear? It was the FDA that pulled that candy you ate as a kid from the shelves because it rotted kids' brains.

And how old are you T.R? You sound like my grandfather-in-law, who complains about absolutely everything because he's got nothing else to do with his retirement. Maybe a hobby would help your anger? I've recently discovered "Mexican Dominoes" passes the time quite nicely.

T.R. Elliott writes:


I'm 45. And I've plenty to keep me occupied in my retirement. Just got back from my kids play at school and maybe go for a run on the beach in San Diego. It's nice here today. Got a library of maybe 3,000 books, plenty on economics, so that keeps me busy too. Don't worry about me. I'm glad you've taken an intest though.

I'm a fan of free markets. And I'm not angry. (Well, except for Bush--that guy is an idiot, and I was once a registered republican, now independent). I just find libertarians and their kin to be amusing. As amusing as marxists. Christians have god. Communists have marx and the working class. And libertarians have the market. They're very similar. No thinking involved. All solutions produced by might god/market/working-class (fill in with your favorite). Two ends of the spectrum. Just picked up a used book the other day: Wisdom as Moderation: a philosophy of the middle way. Seems interesting. I'll let you know. Seems like extremists of both kind might learn something from it.

I'm an extermist of the middle I suppose. I'm not anti-technology or innovation (I wouldn't be retired if I was against it). And I don't miss the telegram. But I pine for those candy cigarettes with the red tips that they sold when I was a kid.

So I had posed a couple questions that I'd love to get answers to:

1. Simulations on free market systems. Imperfect information (as in the real world). Agents that act both in self-interest and other-interest (also real world). Totally unregulated. What happens?

2. Who owns most IPR?

I'm curious about both. I've lots to learn.

I realize that it would make people happier if I just acted the mindless cheerleader like our friend Thomas, but hey that's never been me. Every organization needs a gadfly to stir things up. Didn't you know that?

N. writes:

T.R. -

Not sure what the answers to your questions are, but I would be interested in having you flesh out your position a little more, because I don't entirely see what you are getting at. I'm also interested in pinning down exactly what 'libertarianism' is and what it means to people.

What is it that you find beyond the scope of the "market" to explain? What is the flaw in libertarianism that is comparable to the flaw in Marx?

Jason Colorado writes:

Interesting that Western Union, which understood the value of person-to-person and business-to-business text messaging, was not a leader in introducing email (and later IM) services. In the early days of email (as early as 1981, and even as late as 1991) there would have been a real opportunity for WU to introduce email as a way to send and receive "telegrams" direct from a computer.

The telephone companies introduced "subscriber trunk dialing" to make long distance calls with no operator. WU could have made a go of the email business, had they understood the technology and its future.

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