April 4, 2011

Brown's, the telegraph, and Kenya

Still prattling about Brown’s hotel and its promotion of new communications technologies, the establishment also provided “news tape” for its distinguished guests.  Presumably, important guests wanted to keep abreast of developments in commerce and government and such news would have been provided via telegraph, to ensure its currency.  The hotel had its own telegraphic address (BROWNOTEL, LONDON); for this personalised address, they would have had to pay a fee to a telegraph company.  They may indeed have had their own telegraph equipment on the premises.  Another aside, telegraphs are, of course, obsolete today in western societies.  The fax machine and now e-mail have hammered the final nail in the telegraph’s coffin.  But you still find telegraphs in full use in other continents.  Many of Kenya’s government ministries still quote their telegraphic addresses on official documents.  I wouldn’t call this a digital divide as such; it’s more of another communications string to their bow.  The telegraph can work with one wire and batteries at each end – handy to know in Africa when you can’t rely on a source of electricity for your computer 24/7.

If you wanted to send a message and not pay a fortune then you needed Low’s Pocket Cable Code.   Published in 1894, it was a cryptic text intended for travellers who wanted to send telegrams.  It listed thousands of individual words and their associated meaning, thus enabling long messages to be sent economically.  For example, “formerly” meant “Diphtheria of a severe form.”  Low’s gives another example using Brown’s Hotel: “Glorify Wednesday Brownotel” translates to “Engage two single-bedded rooms for Wednesday, Brown’s Hotel, London.”  How did the word ‘glorify’ come to signify ‘book two single rooms’?  Beats me.  But it’s fun looking through this code book and seeing just what kind of messages people wanted to send.

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Digital Telephone Book by Elizabeth Chairopoulou is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.