History of the telegraph in India, began in 1833.An unlikely pioneer In 1833, a young Irishman of meagre means was sent to India as an assistant surgeon in the East India Company. At the time, it was unusual for someone like 24-year-old William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, a doctor from a poor family in Limerick, to be picked for the plum assignment. His greatest contribution to the annals of Indian history was to come in 1850, when he was appointed by the Company to string up the country’s—and indeed Asia’s—first telegraph line between Kolkata (then Calcutta) and Diamond Harbour in the city’s suburbs.At a length of just 27 miles (43.5km), the line might seem like a humble beginning. But remarkably, the “official” Kolkata-Diamond Harbour line had been preceded, a decade earlier, by O’Shaughnessy’s own private and experimental line of 21 miles. Sitting in a corner of the country, thousands of miles away from Samuel Morse in the US and English telegraph pioneers William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone, the doctor had developed a telegraphy system of his own.
Success was instant. By 1856, the network had expanded to 46 receiving stations. “The First War of Independence in 1857 failed because of this telegraph technology. Lord Dalhousie once said that the telegraph saved India,” says C.V. Gopinath, who retired as senior deputy director general of telegraph services.
Gopinath, one of the first qualified engineers to join the department, is proud of the service rendered by the telegraph network. “After the war in 1857, and even after the telephone system was launched in India in 1882, the telegraph remained the most popular system of communication.”
Gopinath reckons that this was because the telegram was cheap—to this day, a telegram can be sent for as little as Rs3.50—and more reliable than the telephone system. There was a time, he says, when the acronym STD, which stands for subscriber trunk dialling, used to be referred to as “subscriber, trying and dying”.
According to David Arnold’s book Science, Technology and Medicine in Colonial India, by 1939, India had 100,000 miles of telegraph lines carrying 17 million telegraphic messages a year. Arnold says in the book, which was published in 2000, that while the system was adopted early on by the colonial military, “by the early twentieth century neither government officials nor nationalist politicians seemed able to function without a daily diet of telegrams”.
Therefore, in the early years after Independence, India had already developed into a powerhouse in terms of telegraph traffic. In 1953, on the occasion of the centenary of the Indian telegraph system, the posts and telegraph department published a book called Story of the Indian Telegraphs: A Century of Progress.
Authored by Krishnalal Shridharani, the book paints an optimistic view of the future of the telegraph in India. At the time, Shridharani says in a section called The Superlatives, the Indian telegraph department had the sixth largest inland traffic in the world and third longest mileage for telegraph transmission. And the book is confident about the system’s ability to grow, improve and take its services to the citizen “to his door in the remote village”.
However, the telegraph, after a flurry of activity in the 1980s, would eventually fail to live up to the promises of the first hundred years of its existence .During the golden years of the 1980s, when the telegraph service was at its peak, “more than 100,000 telegrams per day were sent and received only in the Delhi main office. Now, it’s barely 100,000 a day, nationally,” says Deepak Sinha, general manager, telegraph services .And even today, when the telegram is largely overlooked as a means of communication, the department continues to innovate.In November 2006, the Web-based telegraphy message system (WTMS) was developed. In an odd case of modern-meeting-ancient. “The decline mainly started in the early 1990s, when the Internet was introduced in India, fast followed by mobile phones.