Bill To Deregulate Telegraph Companies Moving In Florida Legislature

Feb 14, 2020

After 155 years of receiving and sending telegrams, Western Union, the nation's most prominent telegraph company, stopped sending telegrams in 2006.
Credit Western Union

Florida lawmakers want to repeal a 113-year old regulation on telegraph companies. Lawmakers say it's long overdue, considering the nation's last official telegraph service closed in 2006.

 

Telegrams have long been replaced by modern technology—texting, emails, and even social media. Floridians are more likely to see telegrams in movies than in real life. 

Telegram sent by Governor Fred P. Cone to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, congratulating him on having concluded the destroyers for bases deal with Great Britain. Cone says anything that can be done to help the British fend off Nazi aggression will help protect the United States and democracy in general.
Credit Frederick Preston / Florida Memory Project

Back in the day, people would take their messages to telegraph operators who would translate the words into Morse code. That code would be passed along wires, where it would later be received by another operator who would translate the message back into English and deliver it. Now, companies mostly send telegram-looking messages. It's something Ruth Rodrigues did to surprise her husband. 

"So it's almost like you know, just going to Amazon or some other online retailer to make a transaction. It was very easy," Rodrigues says.

 

After filling out a form, typing her message and husband's address, Rodrigues paid 44 dollars to send the telegram.

 

"It's definitely a much more expensive way to send a message than just about any other way to do it," Rodrigues says. She doubts the company actually sent her message along telegraph wires, but says, "It actually looked like an old-fashioned telegram." 

Western Union had motorcycle messengers that would deliver telegrams. Picture dated back to the 1920s.
Credit Western Union

Whether by fate or coincidence, her husband, Rep. Ray Wesley Rodrigues (R-Fort Myers), sat on a committee to hear a bill on telegrams. It would repeal the state's outdated regulations on the industry. 

"My wife and I were watching an old movie a couple of months ago on Turner Classic Movies, and the guy delivers a telegram... I said, 'Ruth, no one ever sends telegrams anymore. Wonder if you can even do that.' She goes, 'who knows, who needs it with smartphones,'" Rodrigues says.

 

Companies claiming to send 'telegrams' do so through a mailing service—which could take about 3 to 5 business days. But when telegrams were used more frequently, lawmakers had high expectations. Getting telegrams was once considered so important that the Florida Legislature passed regulations in 1907 making telegraph companies liable for any message that wasn't promptly delivered. 

 

"It must have been quite a time for telegraph companies in the state of Florida because the regulations were completely unfriendly," says Rep. Tommy Gregory (R-Bradenton). "It wasn't a friendly business environment. There was automatic liability if you were a telegraph company operating in the state of Florida. If you refused to send a telegraph, in today's dollars, you were responsible for a $280 penalty." 

 

 

Western Union provided this illustration that depicts telegraph communications within the military.
Credit Western Union

Gregory is now pushing a bill to repeal those regulations. He says the law is outdated. "We're pretty sure, given the great staff analysis provided to us, that no telegraphs have been sent in the state of Florida for more than a decade." 

However, after the committee heard Rodrigues' story, the record was changed. Florida laws on telegraph companies haven't been updated since 1945.