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“Inside Western Union,” by M.J. (Mike) Rivise, Sterling Publishing, NY, 1950. This 248 page hardback is not the history of the Western Union Company. Instead it is a collection of anecdotes told by an experienced sales manager.

This book is nostalgia. It takes us back before the days of Twitter, e-mail and even fax machines when rapid written communication came not electronically, but electromechanically (or in the language of the day, magnetically). This is the time of the teletype machine. It's an age when young women on rollerskates delivered messages within office buildings; when hundreds of bicycled messenger boys in uniforms delivered telegrams in major cities. Rivise tells us the messenger boys tended to be either slow types who could do nothing else, or were the very ambitious who used the position as a stepping stone to move up. One of the best known was David Sarnoff, head of RCA. Turnover was high. The company was always short of messenger boys; interviewing candidates was a steady assignment.

The book tells many tales of demanding customers who expected the most from their messenger boys. It relates that WU had a catalog of standard messages for special occasions. They were specified by number and delivered at standard rates. There are also tales of coded messages used to minimize word counts. Of crooks who tried to wire the loot across town for later pick up.

Rivise tells us some of the history of Western Union. Robber baron, Jay Gould, duked it out with the early Western Union creating his own telegraph companies and then forcing WU to buy them. Eventually Gould won control of WU. After his death, American Telephone and Telegraph under Theodore Vail acquired Western Union from his estate in 1909. For a time the united companies did very well. Phone customers wishing to send a telegram were diverted to Western Union. Those who requested the time, were billed for Western Union time. The companies separated under threat of antitrust suits in 1914.

We learn there was a competing service Postal Telegraph. In 1949, Western Union had 2MM miles of wire in service, maintained by 2400 linemen, and operated 30,000 offices. It collected 11,000 weather observations daily, quotes on 28 stock and commodity exchanges, and offered 209 foreign and domestic market reports. Telegrams could be sent or received from train stations in thousands of towns throughout the country. Clocks synchronized daily to WU time were available to lease.

The story of the invention of the telegraph by Samuel FB Morse is well known. Private investors soon financed telegraph lines throughout the country. Telegraph and railroads are made for each other. Better communications makes for more efficient railroad operations. Plus rail rights of way were ideal for telegraph lines. But this connection took a while. We have telegraph roads in many areas suggesting that telegraph systems traveled west faster than railroad were built. The telegraph proved its value in the Civil War. It allowed officials to communicate rapidly with their generals. Consolidation apparently occurred in the days after the Civil War, when Western Union became dominant. Meanwhile, news services such as Associated Press grew up to use idle overnight capacity of the telegraph system. In this era Jay Gould as railroad baron is said to have threatened to saw down telegraph lines along his rights of way if Western Union failed to pay suitable fees. Details of the early telegraph wars are lacking.

Finally the telegraph was the first practical electrical device to arrive in most communities. It brought batteries, circuitry, electromagnets, and wiring technology to those communities. It inspired youths like Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell to experiment. It became the model for technologies that followed.

Rivise's book is nicely done. It's an easy read, which provides a view of the business world of yesteryear. It is not the comprehensive story of Western Union.
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