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Monday, July 22, 2013

Chasing the telegraph

AHMEDABADHG Wells famously said in the19th century that the cardinal fact in the history of the past fifty centuries has been the scope, pace and precision of inter-communication; everything else is subordinate. Nothing can be truer for the history of the telegraph in India. Started in 1851, the service breathed its last in the country one week ago.

While the SMS generation may be oblivious to how telegraphs shaped the world, right from India's sepoy mutiny in 1857 to World War IIwhich ended in 1945, two philatelists from the city - DhananjayDesai and Ilyas Patel - were intrigued by the service's history. They compiled an encyclopaedic work 'Indian Telegraphs', meticulously tracing individual anecdotes and putting them together in a masterful book.

Desai is a retired businessman and Patel a retired government engineer. Their common passion for stamps and postal paraphernalia led them to telegraph. The book traces the journey of the service from 1851 to 1914 documenting its development into an individual service. The service later merged with the postal department.

"Diving into any hobby opens up many related subjects. The telegraph is hardwired in the history of the country. The British saw the opportunity this 'new' technology offered as an instrument to control a vast country with fewer officers. During the revolt of 1857, the telegraph helped the British mobilize and concentrate troops at crucial times at cantonments in Delhi, Agra, Kanpur and Lucknow, ultimately suppressing the revolt. On later realizing that the first wired network had done them in, the rebels destroyed 913 miles of telegraph lines, but the damage was done," says Desai.

India's first experiment with an electric telegram took place in 1839 (see box) after which the service developed in leaps and bounds. Lord Dalhousie paved the way for the Imperial Telegraph Department in 1850. A year later, British India's first telegraph line and office was opened in October 1851, between Calcutta and Diamond Harbour along the busy shipping route on the Hooghly. By March 1854, there were 800 miles of telegraph lines between Calcutta and Agra and this was further connected to Bombay and Madras. Overseas telegraph communication was made possible in 1865 by running cables along the seabed.

Patel says it is difficult to imagine how instrumental these short messages were in shaping the commercial and military history of India. "We searched through 'The Bombay Times and Journal of Commerce' and its successor 'The Times of India' for references and found plenty. The service romanced India for more than 160 years and set a number of landmarks in terms of the network, volume and services. It was heartening to see that the service did not die silently thanks to overwhelming public interest," he says.

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