The beginning of our era ended almost two weeks ago. The last Western Union telegram was sent on Friday January 27th.
Western Union has a long and storied history. Though the company continues to thrive as a money-transfer service, it was among the first public-access electronic communications providers. Within a decade of its founding it was certainly the largest. As the company grew, it developed and introduced a number of communications technologies, each revolutionary for its time.
The company was founded in 1851 in Rochester New York , as the New York and Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company. It changed its unwieldy name to Western Union in 1856, sparking a series of acquisitions and mergers that gave it control of a trans-continental telegraph network by 1861.
The telegraph would be considered a highly disruptive technology for its day, and over the years, Western Union a highly disruptive company. They changed the way people did things and perceived the greater world. For its first century, Western Union was the Google of its day, (minus the search-engine of course).
The advent of Western Union’s trans-continental telegraph put the famed Pony Express out of business by delivering a full message from New York to San Francisco within an hour, a full ten days faster than round-the-clock riders could. Western Union also introduced the first stock ticker in 1866 and the first electronic money transfer service in 1871. It was one of the first companies traded on the Dow Jones when the market was formed for the NYSE in 1874.
In 1914, Western Union introduced the first consumer credit card. Twenty-one years later, Western Union transmitted the first inner-city fax. By 1974, Western Union was launching satellites, establishing the first private commercial satellite communications network.
The mystique and significance of the Western Union telegram is likely to be lost on generations who grew up after the advent of email.
Western Union ended its independent life in 1994 when it was purchased by First Financial Management Corporation, which became First Data Corporation a year later. On Thursday January 26, First Data announced it would spin Western Union off as an independent publicly traded company focused on money transfers and financial services. The next day, Western Union announced it was immediately discontinuing its telegraph service.