Jewish World Review Feb. 3, 2006/ 5 Shevat, 5766

Greg Crosby

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Consumer Reports

Era endings | Nothing lives forever. Everything comes to an end. Whether we're speaking of television sets, careers, dishes, or human beings, everything in this world has a shelf life. There have been several important endings of late, many of them deserving of that phrase, "end of an era." One such ending is that of Justice Sandra Day O'Conner who retired from the Supreme Court after almost a quarter century. Another era ender is that of Federal Reserve Board chairman, Alan Greenspan who stepped down after 18 years in that post - longer than anyone else short of William McChesney Martin who served from 1951 until 1970.

Chicago's world famous restaurant, The Berghoff, will close its doors on February 28th, after more than 100 years in business. The Berghoff was not only Chicago's oldest restaurant; it was owned and operated by the same family for all those years. Now it will be gone and Chicago will lose a bit more of its history, tradition and charm. Federated's takeover of Marshall Field's magnificent department store is yet another loss for old Chicago. When that classy, grand department store turns into just another Macy's (as it is scheduled to do this year) it will be the end of an era for sure.

A few months ago New York's Plaza Hotel shut down for a complete makeover - the objective being to turn what has once a grand big city hotel into a more contemporary, tony boutique hotel with extensive condominiums. Indeed, this will signal the end of the era of elegant New York hoteldom. The Oak Bar, if it survives the renovation, will never be the same. Eloise has left the building.

After 145 years, a technological communications era has ended somewhat unceremoniously and very quietly. As of January 27th, Western Union has stopped sending telegrams. The official company web site states the following: "Effective January 27, 2006, Western Union will discontinue all Telegram and Commercial Messaging services. We regret any inconvenience this may cause you, and we thank you for your loyal patronage. If you have any questions or concerns, please contact a customer service representative."

The telegram as a regular way of sending and receiving messages has been on the wane for about thirty years. What helped to kill it was inexpensive long-distance telephone service which quickly became an easy alternative to the telegram. Then along came faxes; then Email. Western Union telegrams just couldn't compete with all the new technology.

The company itself hasn't gone under, however. Western Union is now called Western Union Financial Services, Inc., a subsidiary of First Data Corp. Its main business is in making money transfers and its revenues are around $3 billion annually.

The world's first telegram was sent by inventor Samuel Morse on May 24, 1844. The message, "What hath G-d wrought," was transmitted from Washington to Baltimore. Morse code became the technique of sending wires for almost a century and a half. The telegraph enabled people to send messages quickly across great distances for the first time ever, and getting a telegram usually was an indication of something pretty important.

Western Union was started in 1851 as the Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company. In 1856 it became the Western Union Telegraph Company after acquisition of competing telegraph systems. By 1861, during the Civil War, it had created a coast-to-coast network of lines. Western Union was state of the art in communications for its time.

In 1866 Western Union introduced the first stock ticker. In 1871 it introduced money transfers. In 1914 it introduced the first consumer charge card, and in 1974 it established the first U.S. dedicated communications satellite, Westar l.

The last day you could have sent a telegram was on January 26, and on that day, First Data made the announcement that it would spin Western Union off as an independent, publicly traded company. That marked the end of the era of telegram communication. STOP

If you've never sent or received a telegram, well, it's too late now. STOP Another era ending. STOP

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JWR contributor Greg Crosby, former creative head for Walt Disney publications, has written thousands of comics, hundreds of children's books, dozens of essays, and a letter to his congressman. A freelance writer in Southern California, you may contact him by clicking here.

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