The Humble Telegram and the Lofty Rocket mail

Human communication over long distances have evolved in very interesting ways. While American Indians and perhaps others elsewhere used smoke signals to start with, it was largely written instruments like messages and letters carried by messengers, horsemen, horse carts or stage coaches, pigeons, telegraph, airmail, sea mail, balloon mail, zeppelin mail, light and morse code, semaphore signaling, surface mail and now it is at lightning speed as email, SMS or other visual forms, which got news from point A to point B. Nothing beats that feeling or thrill of opening an envelope with a bunch of handwritten sheets – not something today’s world appreciates of will enjoy. Things like fountain pens which were the norm in the older days have become objects of collectors fancy, I had written about that before - if you recall my visit to an Office Depot store here in USA and my asking for ink, only to be asked what that was! Recently there was news that the Telegram facility in India was coming to a stop after all of 163 years, I guess it was meant to be, for it could never be a rival to the convenience of an email, but that is the cost of development.

Just go back some 20 years and you will remember how you tried to rake your brain for that greeting code number to wish somebody a happy married life, or frantically racking your brains to choose and limit the number of words to meet your budget but convey the full message, or you might even remember one of those telegram jokes like the mixed metaphor one where the babu (Indian clerk), who prided himself on his mastery of the English tongue and skill in its idioms, sent the following telegram in announcement of his mother's death: "Regret to announce that hand which rocked the cradle has kicked the bucket." Sadly those days are going away and as I profess, we will be a race with muscles on just our fingers and nowhere else, clickety claking the keyboard for hours and days without end.
Previously I had written about the dak harkara, in fact, in Kerala we even had Brahmin mail. But in

between all this, there was something else, the rocketmail or rocketgram, which was figuratively speaking, launched in British India. Who would have been the person behind it, a forerunner to our Rocket man Abdul Kalam? Well, it was an Anglo Indian DENTIST named Stephen Hector Taylor Smith living in Shillong, Assam during the 1930’s. He was not the global pioneer, because some years earlier Schmiedel and Zucker had tried it in Europe with little success. The fact however remains that the most successful early rocket mail pioneer was Stephen Smith in India who launched some 80 rocket mail flights, between 1934 and 1944.

As Barth Healey states in NYT 10/23/2008 - Rocket mail had its more or less official start in France, during the Siege of Paris by the Prussians. On Dec. 31, 1870, J. D. Schneiter applied for a patent for a rocket to carry mail out of Paris and thus ''enlighten soldiers'' on both sides to end the siege. He was not granted the patent until Feb. 9, 1871, or 12 days after the siege was lifted. There is no evidence any rockets were ever used.

Lighting the fuse of a rocket and sending it zooming up is one thing, but directing it to a specific point a distance away and making sure the payload reached the destination without blowing up, is another matter altogether. Smith in India was one of those people who found time to work on his hobby of using rockets for useful purposes. In this he found an ally in the owner or owners of the Oriental fireworks company in Calcutta, who supplied him large and crude versions of fireworks, approximately 6 feet long. The propellant occupied 4 feet and the remaining 2 feet carried the mail. The methodology employed was to fill the rocket up, keep it on a sloping stand generally aimed at the locale where the object was destined and finally lighting a paper wick of a fuse.
What an interesting guy he was, finding time for his many interests, for his career included working as a Customs Official, a policeman and as a dentist. He eventually became the secretary of the Indian Airmail Society. Born in 1891, he was in his middle ages when his experiments with rockets started, and one wonders if looking down people’s mouths were less interesting for this bloke compared to looking high up into the clouds. It is said that some of the firsts by Smith included firing rocket mail over a river, firing parcel rocket mail, rocket livestock transportation and the first vertical firing of a rocket East of Europe.

But what is also to be borne in mind is that use of rockets came to British attention a century earlier when they got involved with Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan. These experiences of being at the receiving end and the capture of a few of those rockets, eventually led the Royal Woolwich Arsenal to start a military rocket research and development program in 1801, based on the Mysorean technology. Several rocket cases were collected from Mysore and sent to Britain for analysis. Their first demonstration of solid-fuel rockets came in 1805. By 1814, it had crossed the ocean to America, being used at the battle of Baltimore! But if you believe that Mysore was where rockets originated, you are still wrong, for it originated in China around the 11th century and then came to Malabar, where it is still known as China Vedi and China Padakkam. In China the tube of a rocket was made of bamboo and we also know that the Cheng Ho treasure ships had many rockets and launchers. One can presume that Haider and Tipu heard about these while plundering Malabar and the way Chinese had used it for war, but went on to perfect it together with the French artillerymen, as a hand launched firearm. The use of iron tube for rocket is also probably an Indian innovation.
Let us get back to Smith, as we read in the philatel2 site and Putnam’s article; Stephen Smith had a life-long interest in rocketry and was encouraged by British Indian officials to pursue experiments in this area. Between September 30, 1934 and December 4, 1944 he conducted some 270 rocket launches. Some 80 plus of these flights included rocket mail, 16 of which involved Silver Jubilee related postal items. Smith’s navigation system, which consisted of pointing the rocket in the general direction of its target, lighting a fuse, and running for cover, was perhaps not up to the demands of a sophisticated postal delivery network. Still, his launches found some measure of success, and soon he had moved up to tests with parcels, food, and live poultry (some of the earliest rocketeers) flown across short distances.

While some of the earlier flights were commemorative, carrying only envelopes, later launches carried cigarettes, medicines and so on classifying such launches as parcel launches. The first Indian Rocket Mail Experiment had taken place at sea, from Ship (Pancy) to shore off Saugor Island on 30th September, 1934. It carried 143 letters. Unfortunately the rocket burst mid-air and the mail was scattered. Smith then began with a service from Calcutta to Saugor Island, 84 miles away, in 1934. In the best of times this was a four-day trip; Smith's rocket covered the distance in minutes.The 1935 launches were in aid of the Quetta earthquake victims, and the June launch carried two startled fowls (two chickens named Adam and Eve) from Burnpoor across the Damodar River. Perhaps the most successful use of these rockets took place in India and Sikkim. Stevee was also a member of the British interplanetary society. But one of his later firings included a snake called Miss Creepy which was also provided an apple for sustenance during the traumatic flight or perhaps as an enticement in the first place. The snake survived, but readers may be amused to note that the apple was not bitten or eaten by the reptile during the death defying ride in the skies (facts from Stephen Smith’s diary).
Americans known for grandiose, toyed with rocket mail later in 1959 using a cruise missile, calling it missile mail but dropped the idea due to high costs. In the 90’s was the first free webmail service, and now belongs to Yahoo.

So much for rocket mail, how about the popular telegraph service, one that exists at present only in India? Regretfully that is also going to be consigned to history in a month. The world’s last ‘taar’ or telegram will be sent out on July 14th
Messages over wires

It was in May, 1839, 24 year old Dr. William Brooke O'Shaughnessy, a surgeon with the East India Company unaware or Samuel Morse’s work, erected an experimental line of wire, twenty-one miles in length, in the vicinity of Calcutta. There he began experimenting with electricity with his versions of the electric motor and a silver chloride battery. Then, in 1839, he set up a 13½-mile-long demonstration telegraph system near Calcutta. The wire was suspended upon bamboo poles and on the completion of the experiments, which were eminently successful, it was taken down and the results published.
More experiments on environmental effects and ravages of white ants were checked in following years. By 1854, plans to interconnect madras with Bombay and Calcutta were drawn up and by 1855; over3544 miles of connections were opened to the public. Nagpur, Allahabad, Peshawar and Agra were added to the network. Some route changes followed after the sepoy mutiny of 1857. Siemens & Halske were the main Morse equipment suppliers. By 1860 the knighted Sir O'Shaughnessy returned to Britain. Connection of India to Britain was the next issue. A cable was laid between Aden and Karachi, but by 1861 it was abandoned due to technical problems. A land route via Turkey was also employed in 1865, but that was also not satisfactory. Finally Pender was employed to get the submarine cable project underway.

Atalatic cable Aden end
The Atlantic cable site explains the successful culmination - Following the success of the 1866 Atlantic cable expedition, plans were drawn up to lay a similar cable from India to Egypt. Though it took a while for the Indian support, the British-Indian Telegraph Company was formed with £1,000,000 capital. A contract for the cable was signed and it was ready in October 1869. Special cables were manufactured and four cable laying ships left Portland for the job.
July 1870 - In addition to the usual preparations for a festive reception of honoured visitors, Mr. Pender had fitted up one corner of the saloon as a telegraph office, and had placed it, by wires, in electric communication with distant parts of the world. Sir James Anderson officiated at the instruments, by which, during the evening, instead of the ordinary amusement of ladies at the piano, friendly messages were sent to and fro between different personages several thousand miles apart. The Viceroy of India, being then at Simla, where the time of day was seven hours’ earlier than in London, communicated to the President of the United States at Washington, a distance of 8443 miles, or more than one third the greatest circumference of the globe, in forty minutes. To this message, which expressed a hope of “lasting union between the Eastern and Western hemispheres”—not only physical, but moral union—General Grant replied, with a characteristic American idiom, congratulating India upon its successful connection with “the balance of the world,” or, as we should say, the remainder of mankind.

Lord Mayo, in his bed-room at Simla, was likewise aroused at the good early hour of five o’clock in the morning (which is quite agreeable, indeed, to Anglo-Indian habits) with an affectionate greeting from his wife, the Countess of Mayo, who was one of Mr. Pender’s guests that night. The Governor-General of India also received a message from the Prince of Wales congratulating him on the achievement of the submarine telegraph, which is sure to prove of immense advantage to the welfare of the whole empire.
The first telegrams were sent using Morse code and were decoded from the clicks and clacks (di, dit’s and dah’s) of the sounds produced by this machine. People worked around the clock to receive and decipher the messages. Indians took to the new technology with gusto, using it for all kinds of interesting messages announcing jobs, sickness, need for funds, death, birth, congratulations and what not. While the use of words varied, the phrasing was circumspect on many an early occasion. The P&T department soon issued a code sheet where one could just print 17, pay for those two characters and ensure that the message received at the other end actually read - Wish you both a happy and prosperous wedded life. You can see the codes here if interested.

It was also the time when books like ‘how to write atelegram’ were needed not just by dummies, but for everybody!
Elwin writing about the time he spent in India, provides an interesting aside – he states that Indians used the Telegraph for the most trivial occasions. He explains how sickness and death were impressively announced using the erstwhile telegram and due to the urgent summons communicated with few words, many a person spent their life’s fortunes in a mad rush back to see the sick mother or grandfather only to find the person walking about, and providing the actual reason behind the summons which was perhaps dividing property or a ‘bride seeing’ ceremony. He explains another event where a telegram reaches a mother that her son was going to be hanged the following weekend. Rushing to the police station, only to find no such issue, she then goes to the place where her son lived, to find that it was an absurd attempt by the lad to get his mother across to his lodging.

Back then, sending a telegram over the shortest distance - up to 400 miles - cost an 'anna' for every word or one rupee for 16 words. Later, rates were revised and the sender would be charged for a group of words. Robert Clive, the first governor-general of India, merged the two to establish the Post and Telegraph Department by 1766. Over the next 150 years, the cost would go up to Rs 50 for fifty words. The Morse code machines were the 'katta-kat' machines and the receiver the ghirr-gitt. Soon Teleprinters replaced it and then came computers. Morse was taken over by IA-2 and then by the web based WTMS. As soon as SMS and email arrived, the lowly telegram met its timely death. Kerala had the first Telegraph offices at Thiruvananthapuram, Quilon and Alleppey in 1864.While the US post shuttered the service 150 years after it had started, in 2008, it took the Indian posts all of 163 years. I still recall how we used to use words sparingly to amusing effects at times.

Usually when a person got a telegram, the feeling of dread overtakes everything else. Is it a message of death or joy? It was also used to demand money – when the needy person sends a telegram ‘send Rs 20 at once’. In villages telegram reading soon became a public event with the postman being given the responsibility to announce the contents. Interestingly the telegram deliveryman even has access to the Presidents offices in Delhi, they had that security clearance (or so it seems)! It was also used with shattering effect - ‘father ill come home’ in capitals or later using the Indian code for greetings. Yes, there was a time when the foreign journalist wired his story as we saw in Gandhi or when an employee wired his employer GRANDMOTHER SERIOUS. 15 DAYS LEAVE EXTENSION. The telegram was ever present in Indian films, used to provide that eventful twists in the story with an untimely death.
This joke that does it usual rounds on the internet provides another example - A girl, who was appearing in B. Ed, got married. The result of B. Ed, was declared when she was in her in-laws house. She had secured the first position and in her excitement she sent a telegram to her father. SUCCESSFUL IN B. ED. When the father got the telegram it actually read: SUCCESSFUL IN BED. I do not know if he was happy, contended or confused.

That was how the telegraph system established itself in India and became a backbone for the bourgeoning bureaucracy. By 1985, 60 million telegrams were exchanged across its 45,000 offices. This figure further declined to 5,412 in the first half of 2012-13. But life changed, times changed, technology took over and today, only 75 offices exist, employing some 998 people, down from 12,500 telegram employees in the old times. The department has incurred a loss of Rs 1,473 crore since 2006-07. The average loss per telegram came to Rs 460 in 2010-11. To minimize the loss, the rate per telegram was revised from Rs 3 per 30 words to Rs 25 per 30 words - a first in 60 years. BSNL also ended its international service in 2011

Soon all those telegraph jokes will be forgotten, they will instead be taken over by the world of zeroes and ones, morphing, photo-shopping, plagiarizing and what not.
King George V Silver Jubilee - Rocket Mail 
Atalantic Cable  
The story of the telegraph in India - Charles C. Adley
History of Telegraphy - Ken Beauchamp
India and the Indians - Edward F. Elwin


B Pradeep Nair said…
Interestingly, Twitter has every resemblance to telegram -- abbreviated sentences of limited length. Nothing dies, they evolve into a different form. Typewriter is another example.
Old order changes yielding place to new.Telegram always created a negative anxiety during the normal days compared to weddings and festivals-as it usually carried greetings.Rocket Mails was news to me.
A delightful piece. It took me back to my childhood when I used to watch my father argue with the telegraphist at the CTO, Calicut Beach that 'post-haste' was one word and should be chraged only 1 anna! Poor fellow did not have a dictionary and agreed meekly!
The authors of the History of Rocketry in ISRO were pleasantly surprised at the wealth of details that you had furnished. Bravo!
Maddy said…
Thanks Pradeep,
long time no hear. Twitter hmm?? I cannot see the public sector embracing it for legal communication..but who knows??
Maddy said…
thnaks Premnath..
yes, the telegram in the south was for conveying bad news mostly, and you will notice that we in Kerala especially rejoice less and worry more!!
Maddy said…
Thanks CHF..
that was interesting..yes, you are right, most of us refuse to delve deeper to get to the bottom of things and are happy with some explanation..the story of rockets is an interesting one indeed..
Gurbir said…

Thanks for another fascinating post. In addition to rockets it appears that he tried balloon mail too!

I am researching Stephen's work and trying to locate his great grand daughter called Lucy. I believe she is somewhere in England. I have been trying since 2012 to track down any of his living descendants. Can anyone make any suggestions for leads? I am based in the uk and blog about space and astronomy or +447970267353.

How do I know about Lucy? Through this post (scroll down to Policeman & Rocketeer)

in summary it states that

Stephen Smiths wife was called Fay Harcourt,

Stephen died in 1951. His widow died sometime later in India.They had a son who was married and had a daughter (Stephen's grand daughter) called Gloria. Gloria moved to England and had a daughter(Stephen's great grand daughter) called Lucy.

Stephens' son and daughter in-law did go to England and stayed with Gloria and Lucy.

Maddy said…
Thanks Gurbir..
Let me check, perhaps the Anglo Indian groups might know.

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